In 2002, Petr Zuska set out on a journey connected with the National Theatre, assuming the post of Artistic Director of the Czech National Ballet. In the current season, which has just started, he will round off his tenure at the company’s helm. Evaluating in verbal terms the work he has done is to no avail, as his deeds are more telling than words.
Over the past 14 years, Petr Zuska has led the Czech National Ballet, pursuing all the attendant activities required by the post. Yet he has also continued to create his own choreographies, and worked as a teacher and mentor. He has stubbornly followed his path, sometimes quietly, sometimes loudly, garnering praise and facing criticism, yet always with a firm conviction, engagement and clear vision.
During his time as head of the company, he has produced for the National Theatre five feature-length ballets and another 23 pieces, as well as choreographies for foreign companies.
Fourteen years have passed, the fifteenth has just begun. The Czech National Ballet’s 2016/17 season, the final one under Petr Zuska, will be truly varied. It will encompass intriguing premieres, appealing projects, exhibitions, guest performances, tours, and plenty of surprises to boot.
The first premiere, on 10 November 2016, at the Estates Theatre, will be of The Little Mermaid, a production inspired by Hans Christian Andersen’s famed fairy tale. It will be adapted to a dance-theatre performance by the staging team who in 2013 created the acclaimed production of Krabat / The Sorcerer’s Apprentice: the choreographer Jan Kodet, and the directors Martin Kukučka and Lukáš Trpišovský (SKUTR). The next premiere, scheduled for 2 March 2016, in the National Theatre historical building, will present a feature-length masterpiece by the choreographer Nacho Duato, one of the world’s most celebrated modern dance-theatre creators. Its somewhat unwieldy title, Multiplicity. Forms of Silence and Emptiness, encapsulates Nacho’s unique tribute to Johann Sebastian Bach. The final premiere of the season, which will take place on 15 July 2017 at the New Stage, will be the show Solo for the Two of Us – a solo for Petr Zuska, the outgoing, and Filip Barankiewicz, the incoming, Artistic Director of the Czech National Ballet. And a solo for Jaromír Nohavica and Beata Bocek, two superlative contemporary musicians and singer-songwriters, whose individual creations have naturally positioned them on the borderline between the Polish and Czech identity and psyche.
Moreover, Petr Zuska’s new choreography, Chvění (Vibration), will receive its world premiere at the National Theatre in Brno. To music by Jiří Pavlica – to be performed by the Hradišťan ensemble, the Brno Philharmonic Orchestra, Altai Kai and Jumping Drums – and Henryk Górecki, he has unfurled a theme inspired by Vladimír Holan’s poem Poslední list (The Last Leaf), as well as the global situation at the beginning of the 21st century. The premiere will take place on 10 November 2016 at the Janáček Theatre.
And then there are Petr Zuska’s trips abroad. On 16 July, Stuttgart hosted a gala performance, titled Next Generation, in honour of Reid Anderson, marking his two decades at the helm of the Stuttgarter Ballett. The extraordinary event met with an enthusiastic response on the part of the audience and critical acclaim. We asked Petr Zuska:
You were among those invited to the gala. Why?
Well, on the one hand, the evening was a celebration of the anniversary of Reid’s assuming the post of artistic director, while, on the other, its aim was to present the work of the companies which have recently been taken over by former leading soloists of the Stuttgarter Ballett - Christian Spuck and the Ballett Zürich, Sue Jin Kang and the Korean National Ballet, Robert Conn and the Ballett Augsburg … Approximately seven artists who are now, or will soon be, heads of companies in various corners of the world. One such is Filip Barankiewicz, who in the 2017/18 season will succeed me in the post of Artistic Director of the Czech National Ballet in Prague. So our company presented itself in Stuttgart, with me as its current chief. At the end, I even had to go on stage and take a bow, like one of them, which I found somewhat strange. But they did insist.
You chose your choreography Déjà vu for the gala performance. Which of our dancers performed it and what were the responses?
I should clear something up. Déjà vu, from my workshop, and Just Solo, by Viktor Konvalinka, were selected by Filip, not me, for the occasion. Mathias Deneux, who danced the solo in Viktor’s piece, met with great success. I must add that, with one or two exceptions, the entire gala show was of a very high standard indeed in terms of choreography and performance alike. Yet the true stars of the evening were our principal dancers Alina Nanu and Giovanni Rotolo in Déjà vu.
How do you perceive the generation of dancers hailing from the Stuttgarter Ballett and now pursuing a career around the world?
All of them are actually, more or less, of my generation, and I have known the vast majority of them personally for years. Some of them are really good friends of mine. I would say that, in general, they are fine people, extremely gifted and experienced artists, possessing a good general knowledge and contacts. Now it is up to them how they will make use of these qualities in their managerial posts. I would not be bold enough, though, to assess them as artistic directors, as it is far too early.
Reid Andersen has been at the helm of the Stuttgarter Ballett for some 20 years, and, at the end of the current season, you will be celebrating 15 years in your position. The benefit performances, stock-taking, hindsight, taking leave … Do you consider all of them to be of significance?
A weird thing happened as we were taking a bow after the gala performance in Stuttgart. At the back, a semicircle of all the dancers; in front of them, a row of us, the chiefs. And Reid went from one to the other, embracing all of us in turn. Then he stepped to the rear of the stage and applauded the dancers. At that moment, I rushed out and pulled him by his collar to the forestage. The entire auditorium began roaring, including us from behind him. Reid turned like a pigeon on a dome. He was taken aback, moved like a little child. Those minutes were his alone. In the post-Cranko era, he in particular has done a great deal of splendid work at the Stuttgarter Ballett. Reid has not yet left altogether, but after two full decades he definitely has a good reason to look back or to take stock.
I too will undoubtedly have a reason to do the same next year, and I will link the 15th anniversary with the leave-taking, as you have mentioned. I have no idea what it will be like, but it’ll definitely be emotional. For a decade and a half, I’ve been living with a woman called the Czech National Ballet. Even though over that time I have felt like strangling her, I have loved her deeply.