Magazine: About Šmok
A packed theatre greeted Pavel Šmok Oct 20 when his “creation,” the Prague Chamber Ballet, presented excerpts from six of his choreographies. The occasion marked his 85th birthday on Oct 22.
Stars from all over the dance universe, television, and other media were there to applaud his lifelong work as an internationally known choreographer and dancer, actor and pedagogue, revered at home as well as abroad. But I know Prof Šmok first as a friend.
When I was a new English teacher in Prague, an American friend got us tickets to some kind of performance with one — to us unknown — jazz flutist, Jiří Stivín. Our seats were in front of the organ, overlooking the stage. So we couldn’t see very well when, in the middle of the flute concert, some stocky, gray-haired grandpa in glasses – dressed as a peasant woman right down to the head scarf – crashed the performance and began dancing around the stage.
We couldn’t see all his antics from our vantage point; we could only hear the audience nearly shout with laughter and applause. Whoever this guy was, he had an overt and at the same time subtle sense of humor that the audience truly loved.
Sly humor characterizes many of Pavel Šmok’s choreographies (from Špásování, 1st movement, premiered June 5, 1978)
Caught in the rush out of the theatre afterwards, I spotted one of the few Praguers I knew at that time – Marie, the elegant, silver-haired doyenne of one of the English classes I taught. “Marie!” I exclaimed. “What are you doing here?” She blinked and smiled and turned away.
Only later I found out that her last name was Šmoková, and that puzzling, funny interloper on the stage was her famous choreographer-husband, Pavel Šmok.
Among many other accomplishments, Mr Šmok was the chief of the Basel, Switzerland ballet (1970-73), and I imagine the Šmoks have a special understanding of what it’s like to be a stranger in a strange land during holidays. Marie (“Hata”) kindly invited me to their cottage around my first Christmas in Prague.
During one of those quiet moments when everybody else was involved in household activities, I was standing alone, I thought, in front of the Christmas tree in their living room. I raised my arms up in a wide circle, my feet in a kind of third position. Suddenly behind me I heard Pavel exclaim, “Up! Up! Your arms must be higher!” as he raised my hands overhead into a tighter vertical.
Suddenly Marie rushed into the room. “No, no!” she exclaimed. “She’s not dancing — she’s doing tai-chi!” (Marie and I were both devoted to the art.) “Oh, pardon, pardon,” Pavel said, backing out of the room. Thus the American English teacher received her first and last ballet lesson from this master choreographer, the creator of more than 100 ballets and founder of the Prague Chamber Ballet.
I asked Pavel what it was like for a small village boy to grow up to be a ballet dancer. He just looked at me and laughed. Heartily. He never did answer my question.
Musica Slovaca, premiered Nov 16, 1983
The next day was Christmas. And I suddenly realized that in the rush to travel to the Šmok cottage, I hadn’t packed anything for the holiday – no Christmas food, no presents, no wrapping paper. And of course the tiny village had no shopping center or even a grocery store, only a tiny potravinny with operating hours set to only the owner’s convenience.
I dashed out to the little food store and desperately tried to find something Christmassy, not even sure of the Šmoks’ dietary preferences or restrictions. When I returned, I was faced with the dilemma of how to wrap the few inexpensive tidbits I’d bought.
I caught up with Pavel in his wood shop; he was expertly running his table saw like a master carpenter. (His early training was in mechanical engineering, and later he created the clever wood kitchen drawers and cabinets, the sauna, and other accessories for the Šmoks’ charming cottage.) When he shut off the power saw I begged three short slats of wood about the size of a business envelope. He was puzzled, but he reluctantly let me borrow them.
With the crayons and newsprint I’d brought along for drawing the snowy Czech countryside, I hastily made some handmade wrapping paper to enclose the three slats, formed into a prism for Pavel’s gift. He began to open his present, as excited as a little boy. I could see he was imagining what was inside: a Swiss watch? Or maybe some rich Toblerone?
He opened the prism and out popped the blue package of Orbit peppermint gum – fortunately, Marie had told me it was his favorite. He graciously laughed in delight at the simple gift and, I think, at how he had enjoyed being fooled by its wrapping.
Or maybe he was just relieved to get his wood slats back.
Although Pavel Šmok has headed dance productions in Germany, the Netherlands, Russia, the USA, and elsewhere, there was no question that this would be a true Czech Christmas; that was clear once I found out the Šmoks had a carp in their bathtub.
When it was time for Marie to begin cooking the Christmas carp, it was time for Pavel to do battle with the fish which had been lazily chilling out in the cool waters of their bathtub all day. Pavel selected a club, a butcher knife, an apron, and other knightly armaments to fulfill his fatal duty.
Quite a while later he returned to the kitchen with his weapons and an ominous bundle of wet newspaper. “How did it go?” I asked him.
Without batting an eye Pavel said of the lazy fish, “Oh, he was disappointed to find out this was how it was all going to end. He had a different idea of his future. But we had a long conversation about it, and in the end he accepted his fate.”
Prof Šmok is swept away by his adoring dancers – but still manages to wave bye-bye.
It once was said that no one could create a choreography to Dvořák’s Stabat Mater; it would be impossible.
A few years later I was sitting in the darkened theatre, waiting to see what the controversy was about. Within the first few seconds of Pavel’s Stabat my jaw dropped. I wanted to cry out, “Wait! Wait! Show me that again!” It was the most moving, gorgeous, memorable ballet I had ever seen.
And in that instant Pavel Šmok changed my view of what dance can be, forever. — oo
– Mary Matz
Photo Credits: Photos and videos: Miroslav Setnička