THE pub smells of beer and years of drinking and revelry. I'm waiting for one of our country's most magnificent ballet dancers in the noisy Vasco da Gama Taverna.
On weekends it's mostly a macho sports bar. Men with butch testosterone-filled voices encourage their rugby teams so loudly that the floors rattle.
The long hair of a man at the next table is stained yellow from all the smoking. It is unkempt and looks like a dead creeper; a sparrow is going to burst forth at any moment.
Eduard arrives at 12.30 exactly. He stopped drinking for the Don in Don Quixote, a recent role he performed with great success at the age of 75. He orders a Sprite.
This is a man who was already on stage in standard 5, playing a prince in a pantomime. He has been practising his dream job sporadically for more than 60 years.
We sit at a yellow Formica table. He looks like a noble, with the stately grey hair and beard, the strong face.
An eye for the visual
The conversation jumps to the late 1980s when I first met him through the late Dicky Longhurst, one of the country's best set and costume designers. While we are talking, the writer, opera singer and photographer Philip de Vos arrives to take pictures of Eduard later.
Eduard has sophisticated visual taste and bows to the likes of Longhurst and Peter Cazalet, who over the years have created world-class visual works for ballets. His own hands are now itching to paint, he says.
It makes sense: first the dance floor was his canvas and his feet the brush; now he wants to create art with his hands. He is already doing quilting and wants to learn how to make paper-mâché dolls. His eye for colours was already developed as a child.
When his family moved from his native town, Germiston, to the Cape, they lived on the slopes of Table Mountain in Vredehoek. For a short time, he and his brother Ferdinand attended Jan van Riebeeck Primary School.
They had to take those old buses powered by overhead electric cables right from the top to the Grand Parade at the bottom. Then again from the city up to the school in Kloof Street. He remembers the colours of these vehicles: green and cream.
When they moved to Bellville North, he had two choices: Bellville South High School or DF Malan. The former's blazers had orange and maroon stripes and the latter's blue stripes. DF Malan won.
The dance begins
He started playing the piano as a child and performed in eisteddfods with people such as Tessa Uys. The pantomime in which he performed in standard 5 introduced him to a woman who brought about a tipping point in his life.
The ballet teacher Jennifer Louw stole him away and taught him Russian dances. After that, his life's journey began and he started taking advanced training classes at the University of Cape Town ballet school.
While he was writing his matric exams, he performed in Die Vuurvoël in the City Hall and had to study between rehearsals. After matric, he completed his nine months of national service at Youngsfield, then he visited his grandmother on a farm in the Eastern Cape for three months.
The plan was to study theology at Stellenbosch; he had a particular interest in the history of church music. Then a letter arrived. It was from Dulcie Howes, then head of the Cape Town Ballet Company. She wanted to see him.
When they eventually met, she had a cigarette in her mouth and dragged deeply. She had a habit of blowing the smoke up her nose, but in an elegant and dramatic way.
Her words were: “My child, you may be waiting for ballet, but ballet will not wait for you." By the time she took another drag and inhaled the smoke, his decision was made.
Phyllis Spira and standing ovations
To list all his successes and ballet performances here would read like a CV (and it's is all over the internet), but a big moment was when he started dancing with the petite Phyllis Spira. Their bodies and heads understood and complemented each other rhythmically and creatively.
Together they received standing ovations with one ballet after another and developed into one of the country's most remarkable dance duos. They have acquired almost mythical status. Members of the audience often threw flowers at them after shows.
“She taught me to drink whisky," Eduard recalls. “Oh, and she was crazy about rugby. She silenced you if you dared to speak."
After she broke her little toe, Phyllis needed a series of operations. Complications set in and she again underwent vascular surgery, which she did not survive. She died aged 64 in Cape Town.
Eduard tells how he visited a weakened Phyllis in Kingsbury Hospital in Claremont. She was asleep. His face was over hers and she suddenly awoke, her eyes wide, her face rigid.
Suddenly, a scene from the ballet Romeo and Juliet played out in front of him. Juliet wakes up to find Romeo dead.
“It was the same shocked facial expression she often had on stage," Eduard recalls.
In the storyline, Juliet takes her beloved Romeo's dagger and stabs herself to death. Spira died shortly afterwards. They danced together for 17 years.
In the words of an expert
When I asked Louis Heyneman, CEO and artistic director of the Cape Philharmonic Orchestra, if he could tell me why Eduard is such a successful dancer, he replied: “This is a difficult one because we are family and I might not be objective. But I am very proud to be related to him.
“We are second cousins. Eduard is only a few years older than me and we almost grew up as cousins.
“He is a bit shy and will be slow to tell you about his doctorate (with a dissertation analysing the notation of African dance). He is dedicated and passionate about dance, very private, hardworking and goal-oriented," says Heyneman.
“In addition to his natural talent as a dancer, he has the temperament of an artist: focused and disciplined about his art. There was something regal about his aura on stage. People saw the prince or hero in him; he and Phyllis Spira were the perfect dance couple for years on end.
“I have never seen him indifferent or impatient. He is always friendly and demure. And I've never heard him say anything negative about anyone; that's pretty special, isn't it?”
*Listen to the documentary Eduard Greyling: In beweging by Johan van Lill here.
♦ VWB ♦
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