Phyllis Spira, 18 October 1943 – 11 March 2008
I first met Phyllis Spira when I was 11 or 12 years old. I will never forget that day, the excitement about meeting this legend, her beautiful big eyes and graceful presence. Phyllis Spira was a personal inspiration (even though I didn’t actually end up on stage) and fantastic role model. She was the only South African dancer to carry the title of Prima Ballerina Assoluta, and dominated the country’s dance stages for nearly 30 years. Prima Ballerina Assoluta is a title / rank given to notable female ballet dancers. To be recognized as a Prima Ballerina Assoluta is a very rare honor, reserved only for the most exceptional soloists. This lady is definitely on my top ten list of most amazing South Africans ever.
Her range was remarkable and would have been even better displayed had South African ballet, like most of the country’s arts, not been subject at the time to anti-apartheid sanctions, which meant an almost complete absence of international choreographers or their works. None the less she shone as a superb, innately musical classicist in all the major 19th-century ballets (she once remarked that she had danced every female part in “Swan Lake” over the course of her career), as well as showing that she was a remarkable actress in dramatic ballets like “Giselle,” and “Romeo and Juliet.” She was also a fine Spanish dancer and possessed a comic wit and timing that she exploited perfectly in “Don Quixote,” and “Orpheus and the Underworld.”
Phyllis Bernice Spira was born in 1943 in Johannesburg, where she trained until she was accepted at the Royal Ballet School, in London, in 1959. Phyllis Spira was accepted into London’s Royal School of Ballet when she was just sixteen. Within months she was a soloist with the Royal Ballet Touring Company. She returned to South Africa in 1964, having turned down an invitation to dance with the legendary Rudolph Nureyev and, a year later, joined CAPAB (later the Cape Town City Ballet), where she remained for 28 years. Phyllis received South Africa’s highest civilian award for excellence, the Order of Meritorius Service Gold (1991). She received the Nederburg Award for Ballet twice, while she also won the Lilian Solomon Award and the Bellarte Woman of the Year Award for the Cape (1979) and was named a member of the Order of Disa (2003) for her contribution to ballet and its development.
Apart from spending a year with the National Ballet of Canada in 1967 and 1968, she remained Capab’s leading ballerina until her retirement from the stage in 1988, only four years earlier she was given the rarely bestowed title of prima ballerina assoluta. At Pact Ballet, and then in Canada and Cape Town, Ms. Spira formed a notable dance partnership with the Zimbabwean-born Gary Burne. Later she enjoyed an equally celebrated partnership with Eduard Greyling, which endured until her final performance in “Giselle.”
In 1991 Philip Boyd (Phyllis Spira’s husband), a former principal dancer with Capab, started offering township ballet classes to a group of 34 students in a classroom in Gugulethu, under the name of Ballet for All. He was building on the legacy of Capab director David Poole, who started teaching ballet in the townships of Cape Town during the mid-1980s. As Ballet for All grew, Boyd recruited more dance teachers and expanded the program to include diverse dance styles, renaming the organization Dance for All in 1995.
After retiring from performance, Phyllis devoted her time and energy to Dance for All. Her understanding of young people, her sense of values and her wisdom made her contribution immeasurable. A pragmatist and a realist, she was often both a voice of reason and a pillar of strength. A remarkably humble and caring woman, Phyllis was a wonderful role model and inspiration to so many of the children whose lives she touched. Dance for All strives in its daily work to live up to her extraordinary legacy.
A powerful testimony is that at least 20 graduates of the DFA program are now working professionally in the performing arts industries in South Africa and abroad. Today, the Boyds’ program reaches more than 700 children a year in disadvantaged communities around Cape Town and in the rural inland areas of Barrydale and Montagu. Several participants have gone on to professional careers in South Africa and abroad. In 2002, the film “Guguletu Ballet,” by Kristin Pichaske, focused on one of those young dancers and showed the joy and possibilities that Ms. Spira and Mr. Boyd’s work in poverty-stricken areas has offered to thousands of children.