Tuesday, August 30, 2011:Oh, Mr Berger!
If you like to keep track of milestone birth and death years, you’ll be glad to know that this year (August 11) is the 150th anniversary of the birth of Augustin Berger.
Even if you’re not impressed by numbers, Mr Berger is someone to pay attention to. He’s regarded as one of the founding fathers of Czech ballet, the first prominent dancer, choreographer, and ballet master.
Like Smetana (whose father was a master brewer), Berger was expected to go into his family’s business (glove making). And like Smetana, his career path deviated from the expected. The two artists couldn’t know, though, that those paths would “meet” someday in the theatre.
Eventually Berger would be credited with helping to bring more movement and vitality to actors and singers, particularly in opera and theatre, setting Czech ballet on a new course. But first, he began to study and observe.In addition to learning traditional forms of the dance, he also began training in mime and acrobatics, and performed as an actor and dancer in pantomimes. He showed talent for skills necessary for the then-popular Italian style of classical dance requiring precision, agility, and speed. His handsome face was no barrier to opportunity, either. He managed to further his career with some of the leading prima ballerinas of the turn of the century.
Berger began dancing at the Theatre of the Estates in 1878, where he stayed for three years, and then moved on to international stages. Study in Paris exposed him to can-can dancing and the wild gaiety of the Moulin Rouge and Folies Bergere.
In 1883 he was named a soloist in Prague’s National Theatre, where he worked until 1900. Then he worked as a ballet master and choreographer in Dresden, Warsaw, and again for Prague’s National Theatre, until 1923. For the next nine years he was a ballet master at the Metropolitan Opera in New York.
His influence was apparent in a number of ways.
He argued that the job of the choreographer was not just a craft, but an art, whose work was just as important as the composer’s. He taught and influenced a generation of young dancers, and saw that choreography could be individualized to the role. His characteristic choreography called for movement on the stage of large numbers of singers, even a whole choir. He also embraced the fantasy of the fairy tale style of ballet, and was noted (and sometimes criticized) for his use of authentic folk dance in operas, particularly in Smetana’s The Bartered Bride.
Later, Berger also produced dance scenes for more operas and the theatre, and for film and cabaret, setting the stage for future development of Czech dance.
If you’d like to know more about Augustin Berger and his influence on dance and the National Theatre, you can find out in a seminar October 7 at the Theatre. It will be presented in Czech by Prof. Božena Brodská, dance historian and pedagogue of the Academy of Performing Arts. – oo
– Mary Matz
Photo Credits: The National Theatre Ballet