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The Czech National Ballet has played a dominant role in the development of Czech ballet art resulting not only from its statute but also from the fact that it is the largest ballet ensemble in the Czech Republic. Its founding in 1883 gave rise to the continuous evolutionary tradition of Czech professional dance.
At the present time, the Czech National Ballet company has 82 members and is headed by its artistic director Petr Zuska. The dancers are from the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Russia, Ukraine, Moldova, the USA, Great Britain, France, Hungary, New Zealand, Japan and Italy.
Owing to its conception and artistic management, the Czech National Ballet is a standard European company, yet one possessing a special artistic spirit arising from the enchanting Prague multicultural milieu.
At the beginning of the 2002–2003 season, the dancer and choreographer Petr Zuska became the new Artistic Director of the Czech National Ballet. Under his guidance, the ensemble has proceeded in several directions. It has performed works of the classical repertoire (Swan Lake, The Nutcracker, The Sleeping Beauty, Don Quixote, Giselle, La Sylphide / Napoli), neo-classical ballets (by John Cranko: The Taming of the Shrew and Onegin; Youri Vàmos: Romeo and Juliet, The Nutcracker
– A Christmas Carol and Othello; George Balanchine: Tchaikovsky, Pas de deux and Theme and Variations), as well as modern creations of both Czech and foreign provenience (choreographies by Jiří Kylián, Itzik Galili, Conny Jansen, Mats Ek, Petr Zuska, Nacho Duato, Jan Kodet, Stijn Celis, Christopher Bruce, Jean-Christophe Maillot, William Forsythe, Jerome Robbins, etc.)
We don’t dance for ourselves, we dance for you.
Another chapter in Zuska’s stellar artistic career is his highly esteemed and widely acknowledged choreographic work. Bearing witness to his being one of today’s leading choreographic personalities is not only his having received several prestigious awards (Prix Dom Perignon, for instance) but also, and primarily, the fact that his ballets have been presented on prime stages in Europe - from Copenhagen to Barcelona, Düsseldorf and Dresden to St. Petersburg - as well as in other continents, in Australia (Perth), Canada (Montreal)… Zuska’s choreographies are noted for their extremely well-thought-out and, accordingly, intelligible content, sense of humour and perfect alignment of the tonal and emotional tension in precisely rhythmicised “doses”.
Petr Zuska’s personality represents in the post of Artistic Director of Ballet an entirely new motional quality and vitality of dancer’s artistic statement. He consistently requires the development of these values on the basis of two principles: the traditional methods of technical growth in the training schedule in tandem with the introduction and inclusion of new movement trends, combining in an attractive manner musicality, emotion, grace, energy and the link with “progress” of physical evolvement. The experience gained in his own illustrious artistic career has become a convincing support that has naturally set out the priorities of managing the National Theatre Ballet Company. It has allowed for its permanent evaluation during the formation of an original profile of the ensemble and also become the essential impulse for creating a perfectly balanced repertoire with an international reach.
At the present time, the National Theatre Ballet is one of the most artistically interesting ensembles in the Czech Republic and has sixty-five dancers, mainly from the Czech Republic, but also from Russia, Slovakia, Australia, Great Britain, Germany, Japan and Italy. The ensemble is a uniquely balanced body whose members possess a technically and dramatically efficient register of capabilities. This capacity is evident both with the leading soloists and the young and promising rank-and-file members of the Ballet, where it manifests itself as a valuable potential.
The variegated repertoire of Prague’s National Theatre Ballet not only addresses traditional and elite audiences, it also brings to the theatre new spectators who find in ballet art not only an attractive spectacle of physical and motional proportions and qualities, but also appealing staging techniques. The repertoire’s conception and “structure” duly respect the traditional profile of a National Theatre ensemble and extend the range of titles with new artistic trends and their more dynamic concentration (and alternation). It thus presents, introduces and balances all types of titles – feature-length performances, mixed bills, epical, abstract, traditional, inventive titles and “remakes”. At the same time, the National Theatre Ballet under Zuska’s guidance is “paying off the debt” incurred in the restrictive recent socialist past and stages productions audiences did not have the chance to see before. Let us name at least a few of the most popular titles of the National Theatre repertoire: Swan Lake, The Nutcracker, The Sleeping Beauty, Giselle, Romeo and Juliet, Onegin, The Taming of the Shrew, La Sylphide / Napoli, as well as numerous Balanchine opuses. In the category of contemporary choreographies, the repertoire has by degrees presented works from the creators most famous today – above all, Cranko, Kylián, Ek, Duato, Vamos, Galili, Uvgi, etc. The original domestic creation is linked with renowned personalities and distinct titles, which have enjoyed extraordinary favour on the part of the audiences and the professional public alike. For example, Petr Zuska’s Les Bras de Mer, Maria’s Dream, Ways 03, Ibbur or A Prague Mystery, Requiem, BREL – VYSOTSKY – KRYL / Solo for Three, A Little Extreme or A Little Touch Of The Last Extréme, Libor Vaculík’s Lucrezia Borgia and Faust and Jan Kodet’s Goldilocks.
In the near future we are preparing to present, for instance, Cinderella (J.-Ch. Maillot), Othelo (Y. Vamos), Fancy Free (J. Robbins) and In the Middle Somewhat Elevated (W. Forsythe).
The Ballet of the National Theatre in Prague is also clearly becoming an important centre for meetings of outstanding guest artists. These encounters have been organised either within annual international gala performances or individual guest appearances of renowned interpreters in individual ballet titles. The ensemble also temporarily hosts distinguished pedagogues and ballet masters, who significantly contribute to its further qualitative growth.
Under Zuska’s guidance, the special platform of the choreographic workshop concentrates impulses supporting new creation of those Ballet members who themselves have choreographic ambitions. The today well-established and popular project Choreographic Miniatures is not only an evident stimulus and encouragement, perhaps for pursuing the path Zuska himself has taken, but also a variegated exacerbation of “independent” dance production in a wider context.
Remarkable too is the success the artists and art of Prague’s National Theatre Ballet have attained on numerous tours worldwide: in the Netherlands, Belgium, Italy, Switzerland, France, Finland, Slovakia, Slovenia, Hungaria, Austria, Poland, Russia, Malta, Lebanon, Egypt, Taiwan, Spain, Germany, Canada, the USA, Portugal, Israel and Greece.
The National Theatre Ballet is in terms of its conception and artistic management a standard European company, yet one possessing a special artistic spirit arising from Prague’s enchanting multicultural milieu.
Václav Janeček, Dramaturg of Ballet
In the history of Czech ballet, the Czech National Ballet in Prague has played the role of the largest and finest Czech company. Its establishment in 1883 marked the beginning of the tradition of continuous development of Czech professional dance.
The first ballet master was Václav Reisinger (1882–1884). At the National Theatre he closely co-operated with the Opera and also staged a new ballet production, Hashish (1884). At the very beginning, the company had more than 20 members (including three female soloists and the dancer Augustin Berger). Following Reisinger’s departure, the post was assumed by Augustin Berger, who headed the ballet company from 1884 to 1900, and again between 1912 and 1923. He extended the company, managed a ballet school within the theatre, a chorus of figurants (auxiliary dancers) and gave the ballet company solid professional foundations. Alternating in the repertoire at that time were spectacular productions such as Excelsior (music: R. Marenco, choreography after L. Manzotti, E. Borri, and, in 1885, A. Berger, new stagings in 1903 and 1913; a total of 210 reruns), Flik and Flok (music: L. P. Hertel, 1886); classical titles, for example, Giselle (1886), Act II from the ballet Swan Lake (1888), Sylvia (1888), Coppelia (1893); and new original domestic productions, mostly for children, for instance: Štědrovečerní sen (A Christmas Eve Dream, 1886), K. Kovařovic’s Pohádka o nalezeném štěstí (A Fairy Tale About Happiness Found, 1889), Rakos Rakoczy (1891) and Bajaja (1897).
Berger’s successor was Achille Viscusi, a representative of the Italian school, who worked at the National Theatre from 1900 to 1912. He is noted for the productions of Nedbal’s ballets Pohádka o Honzovi (A Fairy Tale About Honza, 1902), Z pohádky do pohádky (From Fairy Tale to Fairy Tale, 1908) and Princezna Hyacinta (Princess Hyacinta, 1911). Viscusi included in the repertoire Swan Lake (1901) and The Nutcracker (1908). Significant too was his staging of Dvořák’s Slavonic Dances (1901).
Following Berger’s second, and less eventful, tenure as ballet master (1912–1923), the dancer and choreographer of Polish origin Remislav Remislavsky was appointed to the post (1923–1927). Upon his accession, the Russian school prevailed over the previously dominant Italian. The repertoire was updated and alongside Diaghilev titles (Shéhérazade – 1924, Petrushka – 1925, Le Train Bleu – 1926), and also owing to the efforts of the chief of Opera, O. Ostrčil, and the stage director F. Pujman, it included new Czech productions: Istar (1924), Doctor Faust (1926) and Who Is the Most Powerful in the World? (1927).
The next artistic director of the Czech National Ballet was the reliable Jaroslav Hladík (1927–1933), who, among other titles, included in the repertoire Signorina Gioventù and Nikotina (1930). At the time, the progressive choreographer Joe Jenčík worked there as a guest (The Chap-book, 1933), and later, together with Elizaveta Nikolska, a ballet master and choreographer (1936–1940).
The Czech National Ballet experienced a great artistic blossom during the post-war era of Saša Machov (1946–1951). A conceptual dramaturge, sensitive choreographer and adroit stage director, he implemented his ideas in a highly specific manner. Within a short time, he managed to transform the Czech National Ballet into a powerful and ambitious company with a number of outstanding soloists (Z. Šemberová, M. Kůra, V. Jílek, A. Landa, O. Stodola, J. Blažek). Its convincing and attractive results earned it general recognition, high artistic prestige, and led to its unbinding from the Opera. Machov’s finest productions included: Weddings (1947), Cinderella (1948), Romeo and Juliet (1950) and, when it comes to new Czech works, Vostřák’s ballets Filosofská historie (The Philosophers’ History, 1949) and Viktorka (1950).
In 1957, Jiří Němeček from Plzeň was called up to assume the post of the company’s artistic director. Under his management (1957–1970 and 1979–1989) the Czech National Ballet became a large and independent ensemble, an equal partner to the Opera and Drama companies. Němeček was a directional type of choreographer and his productions were noted for a solid dramaturgic and directional structure, cogency and comprehensibility, cases in point being The Servant of Two Masters (1958), Othello (1959) and Romeo and Juliet (1962). The repertoire and the staging form were initially influenced by the Soviet model of so-called drama-ballets (Youth – 1959). From the 1960s, he also promoted more modern, shorter works – for example, The Prodigal Son (1963), Conscience (1964). Prominent foreign guests collaborated with the Czech National Ballet too: Y. Grigorovich staged The Legend of Love (1963), N. Dudinska and K. Sergeyev created Swan Lake, after M. Petipa and L. Ivanov’s traditional version (1971).
Emerich Gabzdyl was the head of the Czech National Ballet from 1970 to 1974. He presented, among other titles, The Rite of Spring (1972), Lowicz Dances and Ondráš (1974). M. Kůra, together with the director P. Weigl, brought to the stage an original version of Romeo and Juliet (1971), which had some 255 reruns and was also cinematised.
Between 1974 and 1978, the Czech National Ballet was led by Miroslav Kůra. His choreographies included The Sleeping Beauty (1974), The Creation of the World (1975) and the ballet version of the suite Radúz and Mahulena (1976).
In January 1990, Vlastimil Harapes assumed the post of the company’s chief. The choreographer L. Vaculík, together with the guest director J. Bednárik, introduced a modern type of full-length epic ballet, also inspired by film and underpinned by musical collage: Little Mr. Friedemann and Psycho (1993, revived in 2000), Tchaikovsky (1994), a singular version of Coppelia (1995), Isadora Duncan (1998), the comic ballet Some Like It … (1994, revived in 2001) and Mowgli, for children (1996).
The change of political system allowed for extending the repertoire to include titles from the West. For example, Choreographies from the Netherlands (1992, with dated copyrights – G. Bacewicz’s Three Pieces, choreographed by H. van Manen; B. Martinů’s Field Mass and L. Janáček’s Return to a Strange Land, choreographed by J. Kylián), the mixed bill Americana I and Carmen ou La tragédie de Don José. Following Onegin (1999), The Sleeping Beauty returned to the National Theatre stage (2000), and other great titles of the world repertoire were presented too, including Sinfonietta and The Child and Magic (2000 – choreography: J. Kylián), Sphinx (2002 – choreography: G. Tetley) and the final premiere of the season, The Taming of the Shrew (2003 – choreography: J. Cranko).
Petr Zuska became artistic director of the Czech National Ballet in 2002. Soon after his appointment, when asked about his idea of the future character of the ballet company, he said: “A technically and artistically strong company, permeated by European and global trends, capable of adapting and opening up to the widest possible spectrum of ballet and music theatre genres and styles.”
Now, some 15 years later, there can be no doubt that Petr Zuska has brought to bear this vision in full. Over a very short period of time, he succeeded in transforming the Czech National Ballet into a modern dynamic body. He broadened the dramaturgical scope to encompass a repertoire spanning from works of classical ballet to neoclassical and contemporary dance projects. The Czech National Ballet started to make more frequent appearances both at European festivals and galas, and also events held in other parts of the world. The Czech National Ballet thus acquired a choreographer to be at its helm, an outstanding artist within the context of Czech dance, and a person with contacts to renowned ballet companies worldwide. Petr Zuska is praised as a distinctive singular personality for his broad choreographic outreach and mature artistic approach.
At the present time, the Czech National Ballet is in artistic terms one of the most exciting companies in the Czech Republic, made up of some 81 dancers. Even though “National” and Czech, its members not only hail from the Czech Republic but also from another nine countries: Russia, Slovakia, Ukraine, Moldova, France, Italy, Spain, Romania and Japan.
Its openness to the world has also been demonstrated by the Czech National Ballet regularly collaborating with foreign coaches and choreographers. The experience with diverse movement phraseologies has served to add spice to the artistic work: owing to different approaches to themselves and the world around, the Czech National Ballet has found its Central European identity, offering the traditional classical repertoire as well as contemporary theatre, yet with a special artistic spirit arising from the enchanting Prague multicultural milieu.