#MyJoburg with Elroy Fillis-Bell, CEO of Joburg Ballet

19 Mar 2024
In our #MyJoburg series, we speak to people who add something unique to Joburg's creative mix and get the lowdown on what enthrals them about this city. We caught up with Elroy Fillis-Bell, CEO of Joburg Ballet, before the Joburg Ballet's 2024 season kicks off with an exhilarating four-part productionSCARCITY, from Fri, Mar 15. 

Elroy Fillis-Bell is a man who knows a thing or two about the arts. His professional background includes theatre and dance production, arts development, teaching, copyright licensing, and consulting. While he currently serves as CEO of Joburg Ballet, Fillis-Bell has worked for notable organisations, including the Suidoosterfees Arts Festival, Arena Stage in Washington DC, Siwela Sonke Dance Theatre, the Dramatic, Artistic, and Literary Rights Organisation (DALRO), and the Javett-UP Art Centre at the University of Pretoria. Having managed arts organisations across disciplines, Fillis-Bell has focused his career on building financially sustainable arts practices and developing capacity-building programmes for arts and culture businesses.
Johnathan (husband) with Elroy Fillis-Bell. Photo: Supplied.

What are you most excited about for your tenure as CEO of Joburg Ballet?
Repositioning Joburg Ballet and, in so doing, creating more access points into our work for new audiences to engage and enjoy. There is a process of self-reflection and interrogation that the organisation is undergoing as it recontextualises itself and its relevance within the South African and global arts environment. That journey is filled with discovery and requires humility, an openness to change, and a level of comfort with the unknown. That challenge, while a little daunting, is where the greatest growth and success will lie.

What inspired a love of ballet?
Both my parents, particularly my father, encouraged a deep love for the arts from a young age. I sang in choirs, played violin and double bass as a child, and acted through university. I think because I never trained or danced formally, ballet and dance became the most intriguing performance form for me. I would sit and marvel at the extraordinary and emotional movements that talented dancers could achieve and be awestruck by my emotional responses to the work. While I can now see and appreciate the work and technique that allows for the creation of the movement, to this day I can allow myself a moment to more fully immerse myself in the journey of ballet in a way that is more freeing for me than most performance art forms.
Revel Yon and Principal Dancer at Joburg Ballet, Monike Cristina, dance in The Void, one of four productions that are part of Joburg Ballet's SCARCITY. Photo: Lauge Sorensen.

Why do you think collaboration is essential in the arts?
Most artists I know in Johannesburg, and South Africa, are not satisfied with creating art in a silo or just for art's sake. The exciting thing about working here is that artists are interested in our audiences having meaningful engagement with our work. We're invested in the impact of our work, whether that's through building moments of community through a shared experience, stimulating debate, or catalysing a reaction. These artistic creations are borne of research, discussion, self-reflection, debate, and an exchange of ideas and skills. In my opinion, art with the most depth and texture – the art that stays with you and causes revolutions – necessitates collaboration.

With a background in human rights law, and a seat on the Board of Lawyers for the Arts South Africa (LASA), what is the most pressing issue the law can tackle for art workers?
It's interesting to consider this in the week when the National Assembly just passed the new Copyright Amendment Bill. I've built my career on supporting arts workers to create sustainable arts practices, ensuring we can use the laws available to us to leverage as many streams of revenue as possible. While the new Copyright Amendment Bill has some good points on encouraging access for those with disabilities, and while I agree that affordable access to copyright-protected material is needed for students, the Bill, as it stands, will likely decimate the publishing industry and wipe out a great deal of revenue for authors, playwrights, and visual artists. Unfortunately, not enough arts workers or members of the public took the time to understand how this legislation would impact them and when they realised, it may be too late to do anything about it.

"The energy, resilience, and determination of Joburgers to get things done makes them a Joburger."

Your favourite Joburg author or Joburg book?
[South African journalist and short-story writer] Can Themba was my literary introduction to Johannesburg as a child. I am also now reminded that, despite having no dance training, I audaciously created a silent dance adaptation of [Themba's short story] The Suit as a student. I think of the texture of his descriptions of our city, the plots he wove into the fabric of Johannesburg, and realise it was the first time I understood that a good writer could turn the location of a story into one of the characters on the journey.

One song on your Joburg soundtrack that either is about Joburg or makes you think about this city?
I'm going to be a bit nostalgic about this and say Eddy Grant's Gimme Hope Jo'anna. While I grew up in Cape Town, this song came out around the time I was born and has stayed with me throughout my life (as well as every wedding). As I came into my politically aware adolescence and finally appreciated the song's context and its association with Joburg, I've never been able to separate the two, and it remains a nostalgic favourite on my regular playlists.
Rosebank is one of the parts of Joburg that has captured Elroy Fillis-Bell's fancy. Photo: The Tyrwhitt. 

What is a surprising thing people might learn about Joburg by having a conversation with you?
I enjoy general knowledge. There is a well-known factoid that I think most Joburgers know by now – that the city is the largest man-made forest in the world. The other thing that we need to be mindful of is how living at this altitude affects things. As an avid baker and cook, I've become aware of how the altitude affects the baking time in the recipe I'm using and that if I'm boiling an egg, it will generally need one minute longer than the prescribed time for the desired outcome.

Home is…
As someone who has lived in various cities in South Africa and abroad, the idea of home has shifted as I've grown. Home has always been a feeling rather than a location. It's become the place I feel love, joy, and where I'm at peace to be completely myself. It's where I find the family I was born into as well as the family I've made my own. Today, home is when I'm with my husband in our little corner of Joburg.

"Lean into the pace of the city, the grittiness, the ambition, the sounds and the smells."

Your favourite Joburg suburb, and why you choose it?
I have fallen in love with Illovo, Melrose, Birdhaven, and Rosebank. Yes, I know, it's not exactly a hidden, secret part of Joburg. The areas are quite mainstream but it's where I feel at home. I love jogging through the quiet, leafy suburban streets on a weekday morning. Having a slow Sunday morning, grabbing a coffee and a bagel, lying in James and Ethel Gray Park, admiring the city skyline as I watch groups do yoga and people walking their dogs. Living in this part of Joburg is so central from a lifestyle experience, with some of the best restaurants and bars in the city, less than 10 minutes from us in all directions, and, to top it off, it's a mere 15 minutes from the Joburg Ballet studios in Braam.

What three things should a visitor not leave Joburg without seeing or experiencing?
One, doing the bungee jump at the Orlando Towers. I did this in my first month after moving to the city and loved it. The shisa nyama at Chaf Pozi is also pretty good once your stomach starts feeling human again. Two, a trip to Sanza Sandile's Yeoville Dinner Club is an incredibly memorable experience. It's a culinary journey through the various cultures of the continent all held in Yeoville. Depending on the group you enjoy the experience with, it can go from feeling like you're in your aunty's house for a Sunday lunch to not understanding how you're heading home at four in the morning. Three, Kwa Mai Mai Market is also high on my list of experiences for someone visiting Joburg, it is a literal sensory overload and happens to be near the Maboneng Precinct which is also a worthy tourist visit while you're in the area.
Cosy pan-African dinners at Yeoville Dinner Club. Photo: Yeoville Dinner Club via Instagram.

The most memorable meal you have eaten in Joburg?
I love food. I've experienced way too many culinary highs in this city to narrow this down to just one. While unfortunately closed now, one of those memorable experiences was at DW eleven-13 by Chef Marthinus Ferreira who has since relocated to the Winelands. I can't not mention Qunu at The Saxon, Chef Wandile Mabaso's Les Créatifs Restaurant is also high on the list, I dream about the Bistecca alla Fiorentina by Chef Freddie Dias at Séjour in Houghton, and I can still taste the ceviche from And then there was fire in Nirox Sculpture Park in the Cradle of Humankind. There are many more, not to mention my regulars: Che Argentine Grill in Rosebank and Pedro's Original Fishmonger in Illovo – without a doubt, the best fish restaurant in the city.
If you could buy one Joburg building which would it be?
I was gifted a beautiful coffee table book on the architecture of Johannesburg a few years ago and I've since learnt about the extraordinary buildings in Joburg. I think the Barbican building in Marshalltown would be quite an interesting purchase. It is beautiful from the outside. It was restored by Old Mutual and I believe it's now owned by FNB. I could be wrong, but I don't think anything beyond the first floor is occupied. With the right vision, it could become quite a remarkable hotel or, better yet, mixed-use art studios, apartments, and lifestyle centre.

If you were the Joburg mayor for one day (average tenure) what would you change?
I'd be interested to understand how the Johannesburg Roads Agency works. What systems and monitoring processes to maintain our roads and sidewalks are in place? What are the quality controls for those who win tenders? The number of times I have had my windscreen chipped from poorly done tar roads or blew a tyre on a pothole in this city has me raving as my insurance premiums continue to increase.
Che Argentine Grill is one of only two Argentine restaurants recommended by the Argentinian Embassy in South Africa. Photo: Che Argentine Grill via Instagram.

What makes someone a Joburger?
The energy, resilience, and determination of Joburgers to get things done. Whether you're born here or move here you are eventually imbued with that energy to make an impact and when you don't see it being done by someone else (or the city), we just do it ourselves. It's the openness to meet new people and welcome diversity into our spaces in a way that our other cities in South Africa never get right.

What do you love most about Joburg?
I love moving around Joburg and feeling like I belong in every part of this city. Perhaps that's my personality but it's also about the culture of the people who own and run spaces here. From Westcliff to Soweto, from Fourways to Braamfontein, this city and its people have never made me feel out of place. That is a rare and beautiful thing.

"From Westcliff to Soweto, from Fourways to Braamfontein, this city and its people have never made me feel out of place."

What do you least like about Joburg?
The disappointing manner in which our city's infrastructure has been managed over the years. As an example, as private money and corporate growth has necessitated the expansion and development of parts of the city, our water pipes and infrastructure hasn't been updated to manage the increased demand. It results in part of the city regularly being without water as the pipes keep bursting.

Your number-one tip for a first-time visitor to Joburg?
Accept that this is a city like no other. Lean into the pace of the city, the grittiness, the ambition, the sounds, and the smells. Don't try and compare it to what you know, it will leave you confused and your brain short-circuiting.

One Joburg personality whom you would honour with the freedom of the city if you could, and why? 
I don't know him but I don't think James Delaney's work in driving the restoration and rejuvenation of The Wilds has been sufficiently acknowledged. It's no mean feat to drive the restoration of a 40-acre park, rallying sponsors, supporters, and the city's parks department to reinvigorate an entire ecosystem for the benefit of the whole city to enjoy for free. As an acclaimed sculpture artist, his work sells for thousands of rands locally and internationally, sitting in private collections, and now we as Joburgers from all walks of life get to experience his work dotted throughout The Wilds. This project is a perfect example of the energy, resilience, and determination of Joburgers to get things done.
James Delaney and his dog, Pablo, in The Wilds. Photo: Supplied.

The perfect weekend in Joburg includes…
A Friday night out at one of the city's numerous restaurants as mentioned above and grabbing a drink at one of the award-winning bars in the city. A Saturday morning hike at one of the numerous trails in and around Joburg before a great braai with friends for lunch, followed by a Joburg Ballet performance. Close the weekend with a relaxing stroll through a nearby market while eating and drinking your way through the stalls.

Three words that describe this city.
Resilient. Unapologetic. Alive.

Be sure to grab tickets to SCARCITY from Fri, Mar 15 – Sun, Mar 24. 

Check out some of our previous #MyJoburg interviews for more insights into the city:

#MyJoburg with Nobantu Shabangu, couchsurfer and hiker
#MyJoburg with Tšepang Molisana, oenophile and property developer
#MyJoburg with Cathy Gatland, founder of Urban Sketchers Johannesburg

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For all the latest news of what to do around Joburg, keep up to date with our weekly events and exhibitions guides.

Related Events

Friday Jun 28 - Sunday Jul 7
Joburg Ballet's The Sleeping Beauty


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