Body Language - Ballet migration from the East
The 1990s were a difficult time for Russian ballet dancers. “When my husband and I decided to leave St. Petersburg, we both had a contract in the theatre. But the salary came only occasionally, and it was mainly guest performances that helped us make ends meet,” says Natalia Vassinova who settled in the Czech Republic nine years ago. “When my husband and I arrived in Ústí nad Labem, we had an eight-month old baby and three bags. We had heard the local theatre was recruiting dancers for a new production of the Swan Lake, and decided we wanted to try our luck there,” says Natalia.
In the nineties, theatres in Russia and Ukraine were faced with enormous financial challenges: there was not enough money for salaries and running costs, rehearsals were held in unheated rooms, sometimes with no light. As a consequence, many of the dancers left to join ballet companies all over the world. But things have changed a lot and if anyone moves abroad these days, they do so in order to seek new experience rather than to escape from poverty.
“Those who stuck it out and stayed are fairly well off now,” says Natalia. But she feels no need to complain either. For five years, she has had a soloist contract in Ústí nad Labem, and although she found it difficult to get used to the town in the north of the Czech Republic, she now enjoys life there. “I used to be depressed and wanted to go back. We stayed in hostels and our friends' apartments. And compared to St. Petersburg, this was something totally different,” says Natalia about her first years in the Czech Republic.
Movement with an accent
The body language is universal and understandable to anyone in the world. This is one of the advantages enjoyed by any dancers ready to conquer the world. And this is what many seem to be determined to do. In addition to native Czech dancers, Czech theatres employ artists from Russia, Ukraine, Slovakia and other countries whereas young graduates of Czech schools often leave to seek new experience in Western Europe or the United States. “Working abroad appeals to Czech dancers. For one thing, it is something of an adventure; for another, you are likely to receive higher salaries and to try new dance styles and working styles, too,” says Helena Bartlová, PR manager of the Prague National Theatre Ballet. Many have made their name despite fierce international competition. Daria Klimentová is an example. Having had a successful career at the National Theatre, she moved to Cape Town andGlasgow, and now she is the principal dancer in the English National Ballet and one of the top world dancers.
The country of origin may seem not to matter at all in dancing but things are not so simple. When people speak, they have different accents; likewise, there are different schools of ballet, varying in technique and style. For graduates of conservatories in Moscow, St. Petersburg, or Kiev, form and flawless technique are top priorities. By contrast, the French style is primarily based on graceful movements. These days, however, differences tend to be less pronounced: as ballet is becoming more flexible and cosmopolitan and productions now employ dancers and choreographers from various schools, everyone needs to adapt to different styles.
What dancers from Russia and Ukraine find particularly challenging in Czech ballet theatres is modern dance as schools in those countries usually do not teach it. “I like modern dance, but it is a different style which was absent in our training in Russia. It costs me a lot more time and energy,” says Natalia, a graduate of the Vaganova Ballet Academy in St. Petersburg. “These days, Russian children do get modern dance every now and then, but we did not have a single lesson of it,” she says. And so do other dancers who were trained in traditional Russian schools. But this is precisely what makes work in Czech and other European theatres so interesting for these people as there is usually a natural mix of classical ballet repertoire and modern dance. Viktoria Vrublevskaya – who left Kiev for the Czech Republic in 1993 – appreciates this, too. Like Natalia, it was the unbearable living standards that made Viktoria leave Ukraine. “The repertoire here was almost unknown to me. In Kiev we only staged classical ballet or folk dances. There are constantly about fifteen productions of classical ballet each year whereas the Prague National Theatre has only five of them. So this is where I started to dance Czech avant-garde ballet, modern dance and to get more acquainted with Czech music. There was always something new to be learned,” says Viktoria who is now a soloist with Laterna Magika, a dance company which combines modern dance, pantomime and multimedia.
Czech ballet companies have a high proportion of dancers from Russia and Ukraine. The theatre in Ústí nad Labem employs twenty four dancers, and eleven of them come from Russia. Ten years ago, Russians and Ukrainians almost had a monopoly. “You can tell that life has become easier in Russia as the Czech Republic is now attracting far fewer dancers from Eastern Europe. Some will stay, but others only have a short experience and move further west,” says Vladimír Nečas, head of the ballet company of the North Bohemian Theatre of Opera and Ballet in Ústí nad Labem, and a ballet teacher at Prague's Dance Conservatory. “I am happy to give work to Czech students, too,” he says. Ballet career is far from easy and many of the graduates leave for other professions. Boys are more in demand, says Nečas. One in three boys will never pursue dancing career.
But ballet companies in other Czech Republic's regions have a lot of dancers from the former Soviet Union, too. And Prague's National Theatre is far from being limited to Czech dancers either. Alexandre Katsapov, a native of Russia and winner of numerous awards, is the principal dancer, and Ivanna Illyenko from Ukraine is just one example of the company’s female dancers. In Prague, artists from Eastern Europe work alongside dancers from Britain, Australia, Hungary, Slovakia or Italy. Unlike regional theatres, the National Theatre is controlled by the Ministry of Culture and therefore offers higher salaries, and does not have to fight for its life. Still, dancers from abroad are not easy to recruit. Prague boasts attractive productions, a splendid city and a good ballet company. “But we do have cases where the winner of the audition refuses to sign the contract due to low salary,” says National Theatre's Helena Bartlová.
It is no longer profitable for Russians to join Czech ballet companies, and Western Europe offers much more in this respect. Yet some of the dancers stay and have no intention of moving. “I can hardly imagine I would pack up all my things and move abroad to start from scratch again. It took me some time to get used to this place. And I might be too old to do that anyway,” says Natalia with a smile. “If you are twenty six, it is not easy to start a new ballet career,” she adds.
In the meantime, ballet companies in Russia and Ukraine have overcome their financial challenges. Despite the exodus of dancers, there are always masses to choose from. Ballet enjoys great prestige and popularity there. Therefore, schools are flooded with applicants. “Almost every village has a dance group and children start with good training early on. Conservatories only accept the most talented children,” says Vladimír Nečas when asked why Russian and Ukrainian dancers enjoy so much renown. Fierce competition and more strictness in schools as well as theatres are responsible. “St. Petersburg had a much harsher discipline. For example, if a dancer failed to lose weight as she was told to, she would be given a penalty,” says Natalia. Artists from the former Soviet Union, trained in fierce discipline and competition, bring added value to theatres in the Czech Republic and all over the world.
The article has been prepared under the Multicultural Centre Prague's project called Czech Made? which is supported by the European Commission. A comics was created on the basis of the text which will be shown in spring 2009 at a CZECH MADE? exhibition in Prague, Brno,Ostrava and in the European Parliament in Strasbourg.
Translation David Mraček.
Adéla Pospíchalová works for the organization People in Need.