Catherine Burnett: A life most cherished
CATHERINE Burnett was one of South Africa’s prima ballet dancers.
After she gave up dancing in 1991, she went to live and dance in San Francisco. In 2002 she went to live in Plettenberg Bay with her two daughters, Victoria and Emma, now 15 and 13, who she called “my girls” and to whom she gave the same dedication and love she had for her profession.
Burnett, 47, looked like a fragile water bird, long limbed, picking her way carefully through life, with perfect manners and grooming. She insisted on having her nails manicured when she had only a few days to live.
In Plettenberg Bay, she was simply known as Katerina Ballerina. Because of her modesty, few people had any idea that she had been one of South Africa’s prima ballerinas.
She worked in a shop and sometimes, passing by at twilight, one might catch her in the graceful arc of an arabesque.
Her modesty was not false; it was part of her personality to always enhance the other person, never herself.
She was our Margot Fonteyn and her Dying Swan will never be forgotten. Maxine Denys recently wrote in Ballet Magazine: “The Dying Swan should really now be shelved until another artiste can rise to equal the singular 1991 interpretation by Catherine Burnett.”
Well-known ballet critic Adrienne Sichel, now retired, wrote: “She was an astonishing artist the world outside of South Africa never saw because of the cultural boycott. From the moment I saw her on the State Theatre opera stage in the early 1980s, I knew that she had that X factor.”
Although she reached greatness as one of the greatest dancers this country has produced, she never lost her humility or that rare quality of refined artistry, which elevated mere interpretation into individual expression.
She was best known for her roles as Odette-Odile in the ballet Swan Lake, and Juliet in Romeo and Juliet.
Burnett avoided the wellknown bitchiness of the ballet world. Odette Millner Parfitt, who danced with her at PACT, said: “Apart from being a phenomenal dancer, I have yet to meet anyone with so much grace and kindness.”
Diane de Beer, arts editor of Pretoria News, added: “You know, when she danced the whole of Pretoria came out to see her. When she came onto the stage, she brought another element to it. I can still see those arms.
She was one of those girls who could just put her leg up beside her ear.”
Despite her great talent, Burnett will be remembered mainly in Plettenberg Bay for the spirit of generosity and luxury she brought to life. Although she never had much money, she made every day a celebration.
Her daughter, Victoria, wrote of her: “Our mom believed that if you owned a cape and a tiara, you could save the world. She did the splits for all my friends at school. She dressed up in leopard print for chemo sessions and then danced naked in the sitting room, belting out I Will Survive.
“Our early morning drives to school were always an adventure and had us screaming with laughter as we chorused ‘because we can, we can’. She even swam across the bay after nine months of horrible chemo. She made shopping at Mr Price feel like visits to Paris.”
Ballerinas never die — they live on in the cherished memories of the theatre goers who they have enchanted over the years.
As Jonathan Hurwitz, who was senior publicist for PACT ballet during her time, said: “She was the real thing but her greatest role was really as a human being. She had a great gift for friendship and compassion, and even in the depth of her illness she was always selfless.”
Burnett was buried yesterday. — Lin Sampson