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State of the Art

Czech Dance Platform

by Stuart Sweeney

April, 2008 -- Prague

A visit to the streets and museums of Prague soon shows the strength and vitality of artistic traditions in the Czech Republic and formerly, Czechoslovakia.  For instance, in the early part of the 20th century, Czech artists were some of the most significant in the Cubist movement and even extended this stylistic form to furniture and architecture.

Today, Prague is a key tourist destination, and the Czech economy is one of the most developed of the new entrant countries to the European Union.  Nevertheless, the arts in Prague are under siege, and while I was visiting the 2008 Dance Platform, a press release and petition were circulating on this theme, entitled “Prague – A Cultural City”.  An ongoing series of demonstrations and meetings are scheduled to protest severe cuts in grant aid to arts organisations.  Even the internationally acclaimed Archa Theatre, which was recently featured prominently on the BBC website for its production of a new play by former president of the Czech Republic, Vacláv Havel, has seen its grant cut by a third.

And, of course, contemporary dance continues to be a poor relative, as it is in many countries, especially in Eastern and Central Europe.  A separate initiative, “Vision for Development of Contemporary Dance in the Czech Republic”, held an introductory meeting to discuss the problems faced by the sector.  With one or two exceptions, the professionals present told the meeting about lack of money, poor pay and conditions for artists, shortage of rehearsal and theatre spaces and a lack of recognition of this post-Soviet era art form, both by Government and the public.  The organisers are drawing up a strategy document for discussion with the authorities to address these deficiencies, including a plan to introduce contemporary dance into the school curriculum.  I'm sure dance and arts lovers around the world will wish both of these campaigns every success.

So, it was against this background that the 2008 Czech Dance Platform took place.  For the festival, a selection of contemporary works submitted by their creators compete for a prize, as well as the attention of bookers from Europe and the US.  In all we saw fourteen works, some interesting and some weak, but with a full schedule and the inevitable indigestion that comes from so many artistic visions, in this article I will focus only on those that impressed me.

With local facilities and dance experience relatively weak by European standards, international collaborations seem a good avenue to explore, and two performances underlined this point.  NANOHACH's current work, “Resonance”, is choreographed by Michal Záhora, a Czech dancer who has performed with a number of important international companies.  This new project is a co-production with Scottish Dance Theatre, performed by both the Scottish and Czech groups.  The theme is a ritual for three women, turning and bending, often in unison, with sections of trance-like shuddering and at one stage Sufi-like turning on the spot.  In the later stages, the long swatches of material wound around their waists are unfurled, making a triangular shape with the dancers at each apex, leaving a powerful visual memory.  Indeed, throughout, “Resonance” has a distinctive look, holding my attention.

“Small Hour”, another presentation with a strong international flavour, was choreographed by Václav Kuneš and performed by the choreographer and Nataša Novotná.  Both artists have been members of Nederlands Dance Theatre, and Kuneš is now working as an assistant to Jiri Kylian, as well as other significant international choreographers.  These two dancers are part of the newly founded 420people, a Czech-based company formed with the express aim to give something back to their home country.  Indeed in these early stages, Kuneš told me they are partly financing the project themselves.

“Small Hour” opens with Novotná slowly moving backwards from a corner of the stage, with a piece of elastic between her teeth stretching out.  As it is released, she is lifted high from behind by Kuneš, and the grace and precision with which this was accomplished told me that we were in for something special.  These two formidable dancers executed a strange duet, in which she is always looking into the distance in rapture, and he is obsessed with her and constantly striving and failing to gain her attention.

While Novotná moves with elegance, Kuneš performs with a deliberate awkwardness, creating a fascinating contrast.  The programme notes talk about essential, life-changing moments, but for me “Small Hour” portrayed a relationship of failed communication.  These two approaches for tapping into international collaboration are part of a model that has worked well in Estonia and has provided a kick-start to a number of Estonian artists who are now regularly invited to tour Western Europe.  I commend both NANOTECH and 420company for their initiatives in this direction.

“Three and forty sunsets” takes “The Little Prince” for its inspiration, performed by a woman and a small boy, who I assumed would have a small, walk-on role.  In fact, choreographer and dancer Veronika Kotlíková has created a true duet, and to my eye has even given the primary focus to the young man, David Králik, who proved well up to the task.  Their relationship develops with floor work and a strong sense of space and a poignant ending when he finally leaves his mentor behind.

“Hechizada de Luxe” is a short solo created and performed by Lea Capková of NANOTECH, one of the most impressive performers on show during the platform, also with a pedigree from international companies.  Whether wriggling or moving in a more conventional manner, Capková is always eye-catching.  But our enjoyment of her skill was interrupted by snores from an audience member, which continued and grew ever louder.  Just as I was considering getting up and shaking him myself, he abruptly and noisily woke up and the lights suddenly went out – it was all part of the piece.  A great joke, but I might have been even happier just watching Capková.

The Festival programme states that “Czech dance is making another step towards the European level!” I enjoyed several pieces from the platform, despite the difficulties of making dance in the Czech Republic described above.  With greater support from the authorities and more of the international collaborations seen here, I hope that further steps can be made in the search for a “European level”, and that a new generation of Czech dance artists and companies become more widely known around Europe.

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