Ballet The National Theatre
Past and present
The Czech National Ballet in Prague occupies a firm position on the Czech Republic’s dance scene, as well as in the Central European context. Its founding in 1883 gave rise to the continuous evolutionary tradition of Czech professional dance.
At the present time, the Czech National Ballet is made up of 81 dancers. Even though the company is “national”, Czech, its members not only hail from the Czech Republic but also from another 14 countries.
Its openness to the world has also been demonstrated by the Czech National Ballet regularly collaborating with foreign coaches and choreographers. The company’s dialogue with global dance theatre has been pursued by its current Artistic Director, Filip Barankiewicz. The experience with diverse movement phraseologies serves to spice up 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 modern contemporary theatre, yet with a special artistic spirit arising from the enchanting Prague multicultural milieu.
For the launch of the 2017/18 season, his first at the helm of the Czech National Ballet, Filip Barankiewicz chose to stage the triple bill Timeless, which encompasses George Balanchine’s appealing Serenade, Glen Tetley’s famed adaptation of Le sacre du printemps, and a new opus, Separate Knots, created by the contemporary Israeli choreographer Emanuel Gat directly for the Czech National Ballet. The premiere of the production not only introduced works by major international choreographers, it also meant a challenge for the company’s dancers, and provided the audience with a view of the diversity and quality of the dance idiom.
The second production premiered in the 2017/18 season was Sir Frederick Ashton’s masterful adaptation of La Fille mal gardée, a feature-length narrative piece, by the selection of which Filip Barankiewicz paid tribute to classical ballet and its traditional values.
The season is scheduled to conclude with the premiere of a unique mixed bill, titled Slavic Temper, which comprises three works by the young and progressive choreographers Katarzyna Kozielska, Andrey Kajdanovskiy and Ondřej Vinklát.
The Czech National Ballet – History
The first ballet master of the Czech National Ballet was Václav Reisinger (1882–1884). He closely worked with the National Theatre Opera and staged the brand-new choreography Hashish (1884).
At the beginning, the company had more than 20 members (of whom 3 solo ballerinas and one dancer, Augustin Berger). Following his departure, Resinger was succeeded by Augustin Berger, who held the post of ballet master from 1884 to 1900, as well as from 1912 to 1923. He expanded the company, led a ballet school within the National Theatre, a group of supplemental dancers, and he lay the ensemble’s solid professional foundations. During Berger’s tenure, the repertoire encompassed such spectacular titles as Excelsior (music: R. Marenco, choreography after L. Manzotti by E. Borri, a guest, in 1885 by A. Berger, new productions in 1903 and 1913; a total of 210 performances) and Flik and Flok (music: L. P. Hertel, 1886), classical works, including Giselle (1886), Act II from Swan Lake (1888), Sylvia (1888), Coppélia (1893), and new domestic pieces, most of them intended for children, for instance, A Christmas Eve Dream (1886), The Tale of Happiness Found, to music by Karel Kovařovic (1889), Rákos Rákoczy (1891) and Bajaja (1897).
Berger was succeeded by Achille Viscusi, a representative of the Italian dance school, who served as the head of the Czech National Ballet from 1900 to 1912. During his tenure, the repertoire was extended to include, for example, Dvořák’s Slavonic Dances (1901), the complete Swan Lake (1907), as well as Oskar Nedbal’s ballets The Tale of Honza (1902), From Fairy-tale to Fairy-tale (1908) and Princess Hyacinta (1911).
Following Berger’s second, and less significant, 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 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 bold 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 National Theatre 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 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 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, Le sacre du printemps (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 Lukáš Vaculík, together with the guest director Jozef 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 in 1989 allowed for extending the repertoire to include titles from the West. Such productions included Choreographies from the Netherlands (1992, with granted copyrights – G. Bacewicz’s Three Pieces, choreographed by Hans van Manen; Bohuslav Martinů’s Field Mass and Leoš Janáček’s Return to a Strange Land, choreographed by Jiří 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 major titles of the world repertoire were presented too, including Sinfonietta and The Child and Magic (2000, choreographed by Jiří Kylián), Sphinx (2002, choreographed by Glen Tetley) and the final premiere of the season, The Taming of the Shrew (2003, choreographed by John Cranko).
At the beginning of the 2002/03 season, the post of Artistic Director of the Czech National Ballet was assumed by the dancer and choreographer Petr Zuska. Over his 15-year tenure, he succeeded in transforming the Czech National Ballet into a modern dynamic body. He broadened the dramaturgical scope to encompass a repertoire spanning 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. Petr Zuska is an outstanding artist within the context of Czech dance, a creator with contacts to renowned ballet companies worldwide. He is praised as a distinctive singular personality for his broad choreographic outreach and mature artistic approach. For the Czech National Ballet, he created the pieces Among the Mountains (2002), Ways 03 (2003), the feature-length Ibbur, or A Prague Mystery (2005), Requiem, to Mozart’s music (2006), Symphony No. 1 in D major (2010), Stabat Mater (2014), Romeo and Juliet (2013), The Nutcracker and the Cuddly Mouse (2015), and Tremble (2016).
A major artistic achievement of his was the feature-length title Brel – Vysotsky – Kryl / Solo for Three (2007), which would become one of the most popular National Theatre productions and gain international renown. Ten years later (in 2017), he linked up to the work with a new dance-theatre production, titled Solo for the Two of Us, thus rounding off his tenure as Artistic Director of the Czech National Ballet.