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Transcending Cultures

By Philip Szporer
  • Dancers from the Czech Ballet Symphony II in Stabat Mater by Petr Zuska
  • Dancers from the Czech Ballet Symphony II in Guru by Viktor Konvalinka
  • The Whistleblowers from The Farm in the Cave
  • Performers in Čtyři Tři Dva Jedna (One, Two, Three, Four) by Jiří Adámek

Travel to new territories is often accompanied by misconceptions and wrong assumptions. That’s the way I felt when I went to Prague this spring to see and experience the city, and to dive into its dance scene. Cultural differences are strongly felt in Central Europe and, for me, Prague was a kaleidoscope of passages, a destination with an evocative history and many spires. I had landed after a stay in Amsterdam, a city I’m familiar with. Openness and ease are part of that city’s character: the Dutch are equally approachable and warm. By contrast, being lost among the sights and sounds of Prague, I was struck by the people’s weightedness, and what I initially perceived to be hardness and an embedded sorrow. The emotional temperature felt colder than in the lowlands. Then there was the sound and meaning of the national language, Czech, that I did not speak or understand.

My thoughts about life in the Czech Republic were fuzzy at best (mainly informed by the writings of Václav Havel and Milan Kundera), and, honestly, I didn’t understand the spirit of Prague and I knew very little more about Prague’s dance community. Place is an important element in situating practice and the capital is steeped in history. Yes, I was disoriented, but I was equally spurred by curiosity. I hadn’t prepared to move fluidly through its landscape of neighbourhoods, but wandering became a metaphor for my visit, and my steps into the dance world moved from the margins to the mainstream. As I soon learned, the city boasts a plethora of personalities, inventive choreographers and performers, who have varied backgrounds in theatre, mime, voice and movement.

Prague is proud of its long dance tradition, and the city has ethnic dances, ballets, contemporary dances and dance shows on offer. Dance is no longer seen, as it once was, as mere entertainment. Long-standing ballet traditions date back to the late 1880s. Early last century, international connections with modern dance pioneers Isadora Duncan and Rudolf von Laban, eurythmics founder Émile Jaques-Dalcroze and the German Expressionists affected the discipline and influenced the rebellious avant-garde theatre movement and, more peripherally, cabarets and revue theatres. Today, a healthy number of contemporary companies and individuals present work on a regular basis. The country boasts Tanec Praha, an annual international dance festival held in Prague, as well as the annual Czech Dance Platform, which mostly presents national contemporary dance and movement theatre artists, as well as talent from abroad.  What’s labelled “dance” is a cross-disciplinary approach to performance, combining dance and theatre, and incorporating other concepts such as mime, circus and the use of new media. Artists are tooling inventive productions spanning the spectrum of possibilities, whether incorporating humour or a surrealistic edge and intention.

The Past is Present

The Austro-Hungarian Empire still looms large in Prague, in the gilded architecture and the remarkable elegance of its buildings. The city was spared the brutal physical destruction of most cities during the German occupation and war period, not simply because Adolf Hitler saw the potential of Prague, and is reported to have crowned the city the jewel of his growing empire, but also because then-Czech president Emil Hácha capitulated to the Führer’s non-negotiable demands and wholly surrendered the country. There are scars and degradations from that time, as well as from the postwar Soviet era that perhaps contribute to sense of gloominess and sadness. Citizens, for a very long time, existed in a fragile social ecology, in an uncertain sea of isolation.  For dissidents and artists living through these transitions, many avenues were closed and many were under surveillance by the Soviet-backed totalitarian regime in Prague. Native son Franz Kafka’s visionary literature from the early twentieth century, imbued with psychological and existential angst, anticipates the disorientation of these changing and transitional periods in the city’s history.

The political repression that arose during the twentieth century clamped down on the dance community’s growth and existence. Dance’s inherent expressivity, individualism and intellectual bent were considered subversive to the fascist and communist brass and the art form essentially vanished. The contemporary dance scene is, therefore, relatively nascent, coming up from the underground again when the Soviet era ended in 1989, when the communists were driven out and Havel’s democratic government came to power

Czech Dance Today

Today, transformation and change are in the air. The work being produced is neither depressive nor arcane. It’s an exciting time in Prague for the arts, and there’s a sense of evolution that I found inspiring. Dance writer and journalist Nina Vangeli, from the dance publication Tanečni zóna (Dance Zone) was my generous and insightful guide, not only providing me with a plan of cultural possibilities, but also introducing me to the poetics and evocations of the textured Czech language.  In an industrial section of town we watched an uneven cabaret-style presentation by Teatr Novogo Fronta at the Studio Alta. The latter is a former warehouse, with a good performance and rehearsal space, as well as a residency program for Czech artists and foreign exchange. It’s the kind of place where artistic research and experimentation, and works-in-progress thrive, raising an independent artist’s profile, and enabling young professionals to interact and stimulate the development of the art form.

We visited the Farm in the Cave (Farma V Jeskyni) theatre studio, described as a kind of long-term creative research laboratory, with artistic direction by the exciting independent choreographer Viliam Dočolomanský. I felt happy and invigorated sitting in on his rehearsal process for Whistleblowers, a piece probing the depths of power and activism. It seemed to me that with his work I was being engulfed in rich, layered physical theatre by someone with a sense of the dramatic, and the uncanny. The self-assurance and exuberance as well as the tactile vigour with which he approaches his methodology and language provided for an intimate connection with his audience. His studio practice is fascinating, and his instructions to the dancers were descriptive and evocative, spoken forcefully and in whispers. “Enter his nightmare,” he’d say, as they moved in the space. Or he’d stop the rehearsal to coax his dancers further, enhancing their performance: “The knife is itching in your hands, and it goes through your whole body.” Dočolomanský’s work is serious, deeply engaged and in dialogue with the changing world around it.

Canadian-born Ewan McLaren, (who once produced Calgary’s High Performance Rodeo Festival), is the ambitious artistic director of Motus, situated at the vibrant Divadlo mimů Alfred ve dvoře (Alfred in the Courtyard, the Theatre of Mimes) performance space. It is a theatre pavilion in the centre of the courtyard of a typical European apartment. (There’s an arrangement with the residents that shows end around 10pm, and there’s been outreach to include the apartment-dwellers in theatre activities.) Motus is a cutting-edge company devoted to breaking new ground and fostering connections between contemporary art forms, especially experimental physical theatre and visual performance. Motus has a recognized track record as a seedbed for developing new talent, having nurtured and supported many of the country’s most notable stage artists long before they became well-known successes. There, I saw Čtyři Tři Dva Jedna (One, Two, Three, Four), a playful and well-honed piece devised by director-writer Jiří Adámek and his group Boca Loca Lab, combining movement performance and a speaking score, involving words, sounds and rhythms.

An equally engaged venue is Divaldo Archa (Ark Theatre), a magnet for contemporary and experimental stage art and project-based work. Large and small spaces exist under the one roof, and the complex has a changeable, multipurpose feel. International artists and groups, from Meredith Monk to Édouard Lock, have presented there. Archa is committed to progressive content and ideas of social activism, and the theatre plays a significant role in the community, with specially devised projects for local people, including those who are disadvantaged or may feel excluded.

The performance by the Czech Ballet Symphony II at the Národní divadlo (National Theatre), a neo-Renaissance structure, built in the late nineteenth century, afforded an aristocratic experience. The country’s state theatres and concert halls boast lavishly elevated frescoes, elaborately painted foyers and massive chandeliers. And people dress up when going to the theatre – ladies in gowns and men in suits and jackets. The frieze above the proscenium arch is inscribed with the slogan “Narod sobe,” meaning “Nation unto itself” (referring to the desire of the Czechs at the time to have a state independent of the Austro-Hungarian Empire).  This genuine old-style grandeur added to watching ballet. This year has been designated the Year of Czech Music, and in that spirit, the company wedded music by Czech composers with works created by three Czech choreographers. The triple bill opened with a dated rendition of Soldiers’ Mass by Jiří Kylián, for twelve men. Much better was Guru, an original ballet by Viktor Konvalinka – a distinctive soloist of the National Theatre Ballet and a young, talented Czech choreographer – set to an excellent score by contemporary Czech composer Jan Jirásek, probing the bonds and relationships within a group. The dramatic Stabat Mater by Petr Zuska, using the first movement of Antonín Dvořák’s famous score of the same title, featured twelve ballerinas evoking, among other things, the Virgin Mary’s lamentation over the crucified Jesus Christ. Beyond any critique I might offer about the dance, hearing the live music of the National Theatre orchestra and being surrounded by the chorus and soloists, occupying the majority of the mezzanine loges, their voices augmented by the hall’s excellent acoustics, made for an extraordinary experience.

What I experienced was a mere snapshot of real life in Prague. I was there as an observer, eager to watch and to listen. There are great differences between North America and western Europe, and what exists in Central Europe, where difficult memories linger; yet there are also commonalities and shared concerns. Perspectives on diversity seem to have been reclaimed. The Czech Republic’s Velvet Revolution was a moment when an artistic resurgence was expected to happen, and there was a measureable increase in activity. A quarter century later, it’s indisputably an inspiring, tolerant and open-minded place, re-examining beliefs collectively and individually. It’s hard to predict the future, but at least there’s a great cultural blossoming happening. Whether it is in the state theatres or on the edges of the community, everyone I met seemed interested in building a sustainable future for dance. There’s a commitment to transforming and enriching lives through dance, and in shaping where dance is going next. Today, there are at least a couple of generations of Czech dance artists contributing substantially to raising awareness for contemporary dance in Prague, as well as forging partnerships for international cultural exchange and collaboration.

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