The Czech National Ballet is one of the oldest ballet companies in the world. It was founded in 1883 to provide dances for the opera and it also put on the classics of the time introducing creations for the Ballets Russes as it entered the 1920s. However, from the ‘30s on it slowly started leaning towards a more modern repertoire often created by Czech composers and choreographers. Bohuslav Martinů wrote several ballets for the company.
Saša Machov, who led the company after the Second World War, created many highly successful pieces for the company, a period considered to be the ‘great artistic bloom'. This was repeated in 2002 when dancer and choreographer Petr Zuska was named its new Artistic Director. In more than a decade of collaboration with the company he has both choreographed and danced in its productions. The classical repertoire has not been abandoned – there is a Swan Lake during the new season – but there are many premieres coming up too. British choreographer Michael Corder's The Snow Queen, which was commissioned by the English National Ballet in 2007, is new to the company this year; a triple bill will feature Radu Poklitaru's The Rain, Mauro Bigonzetti's Vertigo, and Alexander Ekman's Cacti; but the season has just opened with a new version of the Nutcracker story by Petr Zuska himself, The Nutcracker and the Cuddly Mouse based on E. T. A. Hoffmann's The Nutcracker and the Mouse King.
I talked to Zuska about his new ballet and his time with the Czech National Ballet, which soon will come to an end.
Today the repertoire is much richer and wider in terms of styles. From classical ballets through neoclassical titles to absolutely contemporary dance theatre. Also, the classical repertoire is fresher and more up to date than it used to be. We have the good ‘museum' pieces of Petipa, Bournonville, Balanchine, Cranko, Robbins… but I´ve also invited choreographers to make a new versions of Giselle, Swan Lake and La Bayadère, for example.
At the same time, I´ve focused on the works of some great modern names which, apart from Jiří Kylián, had never been performed here: Christopher Bruce, Mats Ek, Ohad Naharin, William Forsythe, Nacho Duato, Jean-Christophe Maillot… Also I've given space to the works of well-known Czech choreographers and stage directors, including myself. Because of the vast range of repertoire the company has also become much more international as well as better and versatile.
In fact, the 81 dancers in the company come from nine countries other than the Czech Republic: Russia, Slovakia, Ukraine, Moldova, France, Italy, Spain, Romania and Japan. I asked two of the company's foreign soloists how they wound up in Prague. Aya Watanabe, from Japan, says,
When I came to do the audition in February 2009, it was snowy and freezing. There were nearly 100 dancers there and the audition lasted more than 8 hours. Half way through the audition I started to feel a slight acceptance from the ballet masters and principal dancers that were there to judge the candidates. I remember there was just a hint of a smile in a few of their faces… some kind of positive wave was in the air to push me through it till the end. By the end of the day, I was beyond exhaustion. After I came back to the US I had two contracts from Germany. But I wanted to go back to that studio, that city with the golden theatre.
In the end, it seems that the Czech Republic and the National Theatre chose me. I'm here because I followed my heart.
Mathias Deneux from France, echoes her sentiments,
I didn't choose Prague, Prague chose me. What I mean is that I ended up here just because Destiny wanted me here! I had so many misgivings before coming here, but I've been here for five years and have loved every second of it!
Until two years ago, Zuska was still working as a dancer, working alongside Aya, Mathias and the others.
So I was director, choreographer and ‘part-time' dancer for 13 years after I took over the Czech National Ballet. Sometimes it was hard, sometimes too much, but I´ve managed somehow. Often it was a help for me to be one of the dancers for a while: it allowed me leave the stress of being a director and relax a little while still being at the centre of dance and close to my dancers.
In this period, I also danced in a couple of my own creations, but mostly in pieces of choreographers like Kylián, Ek, Bruce, Duato, when I was asked to participate as a dancer. Many offers I had to refuse because I had feeling it would be too much, both for me personally and for the feeling inside the company. As a ‘dancing director' I had to be careful to maintain a certain balance.
Zuska has now been choreographing for more than twenty years and has built up a large body of work, creating for his own company in Prague and also for the Hamburg Ballet, the Semperoper in Dresden, the Latvian National Opera in Riga, the Mariinsky Theatre in St Petersburg, the Royal Danish Ballet, the Ballett Deutsche Oper am Rhein, Les Ballets de Monte-Carlo and the Boston Ballet, among others. He began choreographing when he was 20.
I heard a song, about 5 minutes long, and I knew immediately that I wanted to ‘do it'. So my choreographic work actually started parallel with that as an interpreter. Now, at 47, there are about 50 works – one act or full length – that I have created for many different companies around the world.
He says that his choreographic style uses a pure classical or neoclassical vocabulary, but at times veers towards contemporary dance, “Most of them are somewhere in between”.
It means the base of my movement comes from a ballet technique, but often I go into a many different spaces. However, more and more I realise the movement itself is not the major focus, it is much more important to be new, specific and interesting in terms of theatrical side of the piece, like the poetry, the symbolism, timing, lighting, the metaphors… humour! It is in this area that I as a choreographer can be identified, though it's almost impossible to describe it with words. What I want to say with my choreography is always different with every single piece.
So what is particular about his Nutcracker, which opened on 3 December?
In terms of the choreographic vocabulary and the overriding structure, we can call my new Nutcracker a classical ballet. Almost one-hundred percent of Tchaikovsky's score is used in the way and order of how it was composed.
But, and for me it is quite a major ‘but', Petipa's original libretto is missing a very important part of E.T.A. Hoffmann's story: The Nutcracker and The King of Mice. He simply cut away about a third of the story and that's one of the most serious problems with most of the ballet productions of the last 125 years. There is no logic, no symbolism, no real mysterious magic. It mostly comes across as being flat, superficial and prettily decorated without a strong and deep link beneath.
To do the Nutcracker exactly according to Hoffmann is not possible. It's too complicated for ballet. So I decided to create my own vision which follows the structure of Petipa and Tchaikovsky but at the same time is a bit ‘twisted'. I've tried to put a logical line back in the story as well as some of Hoffmann's metaphysical archetypes with a touch of typical Czech and central European advent traditions.
The most important building blocks in my production? Love, Magic and Fun.
In 2017 Zuska will leave his position as Artistic Director and the Polish dancer Filip Barankiewicz, until recently a Principal with the Stuttgart company and who already works with the Czech National Ballet, will take over.
I hope that after 2017 the company will continue and go even further in terms of quality and versatility than that I've established. I think Filip Barankiewicz has enough know-how, strength, sensitivity and contacts to do so.
And Petr Zuska?
My own future is still shrouded in mist at the moment. For sure I´d like to concentrate much more on my own creative work rather than become immediately an artistic director somewhere else. But never say never… I'll see.
All photos by Dasa Wharton
Graham Spicer is a writer, director and photographer in Milan, blogging (under the name ‘Gramilano') about dance, opera, music and photography for people “who are a bit like me and like some of the things I like”. He was a regular columnist for Opera Now magazine and wrote for the BBC until transferring to Italy.
His scribblings have appeared in various publications from Woman's Weekly to Gay Times, and he wrote the ‘Danza in Italia' column for Dancing Times magazine.