Thursday, May 10, 2012:Dance in their Dreams?

Opus Osm

Petr Zuska, here in his 'Les Bras de Mer,' claims that ballet dancers don't dance in their dreams. But those exquisite images must come from somewhere ...

Do ballet dancers dance in their dreams?

No, says Petr Zuska.

A Thursday afternoon chat about dance, over a glass of white wine on the New Stage, reunited two friends: Marek Eben, the master conductor of interviews, and the man who rules the moves at the National Theatre Ballet, artistic director Petr Zuska.

The public conversation May 3 marked Mr. Zuska’s 10th year in the director’s position. The milestone will be highlighted by the upcoming performances called Gala X. Starting in mid-May and ending at the end of June, the Gala will present 20 different Zuska choreographies in six groups, spread over 17 evenings.

Mr. Zuska certainly doesn’t conform to the traditional idea of a classical dancer. He even refuses to be called that: “I consider myself rather a neoclassical or contemporary dancer. I have never danced [the lead role] The Prince in Swan Lake and I don’t regret it.” But despite this confession, he defends classical ballet technique: “It’s irreplaceable,” he believes. It simply shows, whether a modern dancer has or doesn’t have classical ballet training.

His own journey to the royal dance was quite unorthodox. As a child he didn’t spend hours practicing in tights at the horizontal pole (as Mr. Eben called the barre, chuckling), but rather at the stadium doing sports and athletics. Of course, he gravitated towards dance, but before he joined the Prague Chamber Ballet headed by Pavel Šmok, in 1989, he took a little detour by becoming a member of a pantomime group. Naturally, afterwards he had to work really hard to make up for the years he missed in the dance studio. Then he traveled, collaborating with foremost choreographers, appearing on the stages in the Netherlands, Montreal, and Prague.

Opus Osm

Petr Zuska

His ballet schooling and later choreographic work was significantly shaped by two great Czech choreographers, Pavel Šmok and Jiří Kylián. When Mr. Eben asks him to compare these two, Mr Zuska speaks fondly about both of them: “Pavel Šmok was my biggest teacher; he taught me a lot about musicality.” Yet in terms of choreography, the work of these two couldn’t have been more different. “Pavel Šmok’s choreography was more literal, down to earth. Creatively, I feel closer to Kylián’s technique, which is more abstract and artificial,” he explains.

Mr Zuska tends to build a piece from the ground up, and a significant part of his creative process takes place in his head. “Choreography is intellectual work. I sit at home, listen to music, and try to visualize the sequence of individual movements as a film,” he explains. Next he materializes his ideas right on the stage during rehearsals to see if they work. Over the years he has learnt one thing: whenever he pushed too hard for his vision and over-prepared too much, it didn’t help.

Throughout the public conversation it becomes apparent how music is essential to the creation of choreography. Several times Mr. Zuska cites music as the drive of his choreographic work, especially the Czech folk music on which he has based many of his choreographies.

His next big project is a piece from the classical ballet repertoire, Romeo and Juliet, also fueled by his enchantment with music. When someone asks why he wants to produce just another Romeo and Juliet, Mr. Zuska eagerly replies: “My own emotional motivation is the genius music by Prokofiev. It really resonates with me.”

Of course, “It won’t be possible to come up with something radically different from the classical choreography,” he admits. “But I can seek a new metaphor, put an accent on a new topic.” Classical ballet is not dead and can still progress somewhere, he firmly believes.

Throughout his tenure as artistic director, Mr Zuska has invited guest choreographers to work with the National Theatre company. “I’m proud of the mosaic of personalities” which have worked with his dancers, he tells Opus Osm, “whether they created new pieces or re-created their existing works.”

Significantly, he adds, “It promotes a very good relationship. Ninety-five percent really enjoyed working with our company, with the company’s abilities, and they enjoyed spending their time with us,” he says.

It’s another measure of success for the 44-year-old sportsman turned dancer, choreographer, and artistic director. — oo

– Zuzana Sklenková

Photo Credits: Top: Diane Zehetner; bottom, Pavel Hejný

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