The most prominent representative of Czech dance culture is international choreographic icon Jiří Kylián, who, however, was driven to pursue his creative work outside his native country by past political circumstances. Kylián is most closely associated with Nederlands Dans Theater (NDT), but his work features in the repertoires of other major dance companies around the world. Other well-known representatives of Czech dance include emeritus prima ballerina with the English National Ballet Daria Klimentová and by Otto and Jiří Bubeníček, brothers who are still dancing, and are active on prestigious stages around the world and especially in Germany.
The history of Czech professional ballet dates back to the opening of the National Theatre (Národní divadlo) in Prague in 1883. A uniquely Czech phenomenon to emerge in the early 20th century was ballet for children, and the pantomime ballets of composer Oskar Nedbal enjoyed ground-breaking success within this genre of work.
Ballet was originally incorporated into theatres that were home to multiple companies (e.g. drama, opera, ballet), but after the Second World War independent groups began to form. Among the most important of these groups was Ballet Prague (Balet Praha) (1964–1970) and later the Prague Chamber Ballet (Pražský komorní balet, founded in 1975), headed by choreographer Pavel Šmok. The Prague Chamber Ballet was renowned for its innovative aesthetics of movement built on classical technique and enhanced by the physical vocabulary of modern dance.
In the early 20th century the development of Czech dance was influenced by the powerful currents of dance reform that were emerging internationally. The Czech dance community, which then included German-Czech artists, established direct ties with important reform figures such as Isadora Duncan, Rudolf von Laban, and Émil-Jaques Dalcroz.
The rise of Nazism and then Communism had a stalling effect on the tradition of modern Czech dance. Both totalitarian regimes looked on individualistic and intellectually sophisticated modern dance as a dangerous form of subversion. A certain tradition, albeit a weak one, nonetheless managed to survive. Artists worked in amateur or semi-professional conditions, and after 1989, when the Czech Republic re-joined the ranks of democratic countries in Europe, this tradition was picked up by a new artistic entity – contemporary dance artists.
In recent years dance has moved to the foreground of public interest, not just as an art form, but also as a healthy physical and social activity. Dance is experiencing dynamic developments in various areas and in its many genres, and because there are no language barriers attached to dance it is directly in touch with developments internationally.
There are eleven ballet companies in the Czech Republic that operate as part of one of the multi-company theatres that make up the important cultural infrastructure that covers regions across the country. At the forefront is the Ballet of the National Theatre in Prague (Národní divadlo v Praze), which stages both international classics and modern dance works. The company’s current director, Petr Zuska, is one of the top choreographers in the country. Zuska specialises in short works that are intimately intertwined with the given choice of music and that work with stage objects (e.g. D. M. J. 1953–1977, Bolero). One of Zuska’s feature-length works that won special notices was his dramatically refined piece Solo for Three: Vysocky – Brel – Kryl (Sólo pro tři: Vysocky – Brel – Kryl, 2007) and more recently with his own version of the classical ballet Romeo and Juliet (2014).
Libor Vaculík is another distinctive Czech choreographer. He made his name creating feature-length, action-filled ballets, and tends towards fusing ballet with other theatrical genres and musicals in particular (The Bathory Legend/Čachtická paní, Lucrezia Borgia, Valmont, 2014).
Jan Kodet excels at employing the dance techniques of ballet and contemporary dance in fusion, and his Sorcerer’s Apprentice (Čarodějův učeň, 2013) is one of the best contemporary ballet titles performed on the Czech stage.
The infrastructure of contemporary dance emerged essentially from nothing after 1989 and a whole range of companies and figures began appearing. Currently one of the most acclaimed Czech independent dance ensembles is 420PEOPLE, which was founded by Nataša Novotná and Václav Kuneš, former dancers with Jiří Kylián’s NDT. Other important ensembles include Veronika Knytlová and Tereza Ondrová’s VerTe Dance, a three-time winner of the award for Best Production of the Year, and the dance company NANOHACH.
There are also a number of remarkable individual artists, such as dancer and choreographer Lenka Vagnerová and performing artist Miřenka Čechová, whose solo piece S/He is Nancy Joe has won attention from critics around the world.
Contemporary dance exists in inspiring symbiosis with physical theatre in a number of ensembles. Farm in a Cave, headed by Vilam Dočolomanský, is an internationally renowned company that works in this performance genre and is a winner of the European New Theatre Realities Award. In recent years Spitfire Company has been creating ambitious productions and its solo performance One Step Before the Fall won it the Total Award at the Fringe Festival in Edinburgh in 2013.
While the infrastructure for ballet has remained essentially unchanged since 1989, the infrastructure for the independent arts and genres had to be built from the ground up. The most important Czech dance organisations are Tanec Praha, an NGO that organises the Tanec Praha International Festival of Dance and Movement Theatre, and the prestigious Czech Dance Platform (Česká taneční platforma), a competitive showcase of contemporary dance and movement theatre run by Ponec Theatre and an active player in the field of dance, theatre, and other cultural projects.
Independent dance is thriving most in Prague, where several centres have emerged where such work can be created and performed, such as Alta Studio, Alfred ve dvoře Theatre, and Teatro NOD.
New circus is a new phenomenon in the Czech performing arts scene and Cirk La putyka has established itself as the most successful company working in this genre. Jatka78, a hall the functions as an independent centre for the arts at the popular location of Holešovice Market in Prague, has become a hub for work of this genre.
Letní Letná, the international new circus festival held in a beautiful park overlooking Prague, is one of the biggest events of the year. In recent years Trutnov in northern Bohemia has been working to showcase domestic and foreign new circus productions at Uffo, a cultural centre that in 2011 won the architectural award Building of the Year and that hosts the CirkUff new circus festival.
Another festival promoting international work in the field of the performing arts (specialising in site-specific projects) is 4+4 Days in Motion (4 + 4 dny v pohybu).
The biggest awards in the field of contemporary dance are the Czech Dance Platform Awards (Českátaneční platforma), for which the best peformances in ballet and the best productions are selected by the jury of the Dance Association of the Czech Republic (Tanečního sdružení České republiky) at its annual shows. Dance is also a category in a number of awards handed out by Czech periodicals devoted to the arts.
Author: Jana Návratová, Arts Institute
Editor: Lucie Ševčíková, Arts Institute