|Tanec Praha civic association is the organization that manages the Ponec Theatre, the best known theatre for dance and motion theater in Prague, Czech Republic, and the organizers of the Tanec Praha international contemporary dance festival held each year in June and July. In this interview we spoke with Tanec Praha’s director, Yvona Kreuzmannovà, who continues to be a leader of the Czech contemporary dance scene in that role and through other programs like the Czech Dance Platform held to discover and support the development of young choreographers in the Czech Republic.
Interviewer: Kyoko Iwaki, jounalist
In November 1989, the Velvet Revolution occurred and the Communist regime in your country collapsed and gave way to the movement towards a democratic state. During the summer of the same year, the City Agency PKS, the organization leading the Prague Summer Culture Festival, had decided to include dance to its programming for the first time. It was from this epoch-making year onwards that the contemporary dance scene in the Czech Republic started moving towards a new path.
Yes, that is true. Before the revolution, all contemporary dance performances in what is now the Czech Republic were presented underground. It was not considered as a professional art form. The company that I belonged to practiced Martha Graham technique for six time a week, but, still, it was not recognized as a professional company. There were other companies that practiced methods of Isadora Duncan and José Limon for example, but they also were considered only amateurs. At that time in our country, the only kinds of dance that were recognized as professional art forms were either ballet, inheriting the Russian heritage, or traditional folk dancing. Since contemporary dance predicates the expression of a free-minded individual, it was considered as a violent [dangerous] art form providing space to think freely, for both the creators and the audience. However, after 1989, these conservative ideas started to change.
The first person that introduced contemporary dance in today’s Czech Republic was Jiří Kylián. Being a choreographer born in Prague, he personally persuaded the City Agency PKS and brought his junior company, the Nederlands Dance Theater II, to the Prague Summer Culture Festival in 1989. I was greatly moved by the company’s performance, and felt that ‘this
is the new generation of Czech dance.’ And so, from the next year, I started working as the attaché de presse
of the festival, alongside my study of dance history and dramaturgy at the Music Academy of Performing Arts. I remember how difficult it was at that time to explain what contemporary dance is to the Czech media. Sometimes I was even asked how it was different from disco dancing [laughs]! The knowledge of contemporary dance was more or less equivalent to nothing.
Despite the fact that contemporary dance was nearly non-existent in your country, in 1991, with support from the Interior Ministry, you established the Tanec Praha Civic Association. And from that year, your organization started to take charge of the Prague Summer Culture Festival, instead of the City Agency PKS. The name of the festival was accordingly changed to Tanec Praha (tanec, meaning dance in Czech).
In the past and the present, I have this indefatigable mission: that is, making the Czech people realize that contemporary dance is a professional art form, and developing an established social status for the people involved in the art form. Based on this vision, I established Tanec Praha in 1991 with a few colleagues. The founding members of the organization were not only performing arts professionals but also included specialists in PR and marketing.
Of course, it was not easy to persuade the politicians and attain budget for the Tanec Praha Festival. At first, they asked me if I could run the festival as part of the prestigious Prague Spring International Music Festival. Needless to say, I declined the offer. I definitely wanted to run an independent festival called Tanec Praha. Realizing my unshakeable will, one politician in the Cultural Ministry once said that even if I am thrown out of the door, I will come back from the window! Indeed, I am a person like that [laughs]. Once I know what I want, I don’t compromise.
Luckily, immediately after the collapse of the Communist regime, there were many politicians who were smart enough to support my vision, which aims to spread the possibilities of contemporary dance in Prague. So, we were able to organize the initial festival by getting one million Czech Crowns from both the Cultural Ministry and the City of Prague. However, the first festival failed to attain strong audience attendance, and ended with an finanical deficit. In spite of this unsuccessful start, the Cultural Ministry did not cut our budget, but rather covered our initial deficit and continued to support the second independent festival. We feel truly grateful for this support. Tanec Praha Festival started only as a baby organization, which could have ended at any time. But now, the people in the Cultural Ministry say that what Tanec Praha does to the contemporary Czech dance scene is equally important as what Prague Spring International Music Festival does to the Czech music scene.
At the same time, between 1991 and 1992, you studied abroad in Paris and the United States. Why did you decide to go outside of the Czech Republic?
There was only one reason why I went abroad: to finish my university studies. When I was studying at the Music Academy of Performing Arts in Prague, the institution could not provide the students with knowledge on state-of-the-art contemporary dance. And so, I needed to go to Paris and see the performances there to learn about what was going on in the contemporary dance circuit. Also in Paris, I was able to build connections with dance professionals in Europe who you could not meet in the Czech Republic. Honestly, among the roughly one-hundred performances that I attended in Paris, there were only five or six that I truly wanted to bring to my country. Apart from these few, they were either outdated, low in quality, or seemed too difficult for the Czech audience who were not cultivated in contemporary dance.
After Paris, I attained a two-month grant to visit Boston, Washington D.C., New York and Columbus, Ohio. It was a great opportunity to see the economically self-sustained American dance scene, which is very different from the state-funded scene in France. When I returned to the Czech Republic in 1992, I asked Sam Miller, the then artistic director of the Jacob’s Pillow Festival, to become the external advisor of Tanec Praha. Since I had very little experience in running organizations, I consulted Sam to get advice on the long-term development strategy for Czech contemporary dance. We decided that first and foremost, it was important to develop a solid base of audience in the Czech Republic. By making a certain amount of people realize the beauty of contemporary dance, we thought that, from there, we could develop the Czech dance scene in the future.
Before the establishment of Tanec Praha Civic Association, did you have any administrative experience in the art field?
Good question. The answer is ‘No’ [laughs]. I have to explain by tracking the story back a bit to the days before the collapse of the [Communist] regime. My parents were not supporters of Communism. For this reason, even though I got very good grades in my studies, I was not able to enter a university. Many universities overtly expressed their unwillingness to accept children from non-communist families. Being deprived of the option to continue my studies, I had no choice but to start working. So, when I was eighteen, I started working in a travel agency. Very soon, I started organizing individual as well as organizational trips for big exhibitions and international conferences. In hindsight, this experience turned out to be extremely helpful later in my career.
During my second year at the travel agency, my boss, who noticed that I could speak multiple languages and that I was very good at what I did, suggested that I should study in a university to build up my career. Of course, I explained to the boss why that was not an option for me. However, since my boss provided me with an excellent reference letter, I was able to enter The University of Economics, Prague, to study economy of tourism. But, in my second year in the university, one of my colleagues who was in the same dance group asked me what I was doing in the school of economy. She said that I should study art together with her in another university. Without doubt, that would have been the optimal solution for me also, so this time with the reference letter from the University of Economics, I went to take the entrance exam of the Music Academy of Performing Arts.
At first, I was taking the exam of the choreography course, but during the exam, the head of the Dance Department told me that I couldn’t enter the choreography course because I didn’t have three years of experience in ballet. Alternatively, she suggested that I should take the exam of the dance theory course; I think that she somehow wanted me in her department. And so, at last, I started studying dance history and dramaturgy in an art university. Going back to your question, since I had already worked in many fields when I started the Tanec Praha, all of those experiences, which seemed irrelevant, actually helped a lot when I started running the organization. But, of course, I made a lot of mistakes at the beginning; everything was learned through first-hand experience.
Your festival is called, Tanec Praha: International Festival of Contemporary Dance and Movement Theatre. Why did you deliberately add the word ‘movement theatre’ to the name of the festival?
Believe it or not, there are over a hundred theatres in the city of Prague. In most of these theatres, classic repertoires are repeated endlessly. By adding the word ‘movement theatre,’ I wanted to expand the horizon of this very conservative theatre scene in my country. I wanted to inform the public that there could be theatre forms devoid of texts and words. This opinion was strongly substantiated in 1995, when Lloyd Newson’s DV8 came to Tanec Praha Festival to present Enter Achilles
. The audience clearly realized that dance is, in effect, one form of theatre. Seeing this change, I was extremely excited. I remember many people calling me just because they wanted to see the performance of DV8; even theatre actors and film directors called me! Without doubt, Lloyd Newson is one the choreographers who strongly influenced the Prague contemporary dance scene. Through his work, the audience in Prague noticed that contemporary dance was not only a physical training [discipline] of abstract movements.
Can you tell me about other epoch-making performances during the 28-year history of Tanec Praha Festival?
During the first few years, the festival often invited the Le Ballet du Grand Théâtre de Genève, as they had a brilliant repertoire consisted of works by the greatest choreographers in the world. Through their performances, I introduced many first-rate choreographers to Prague, and one of them was Ohad Naharin. His junior company, the Batsheva Ensemble, had been invited twice to Prague, in 1999 and 2004, both of which ended in a great success. I am very happy that finally, this year, we are able to invite the main company, the Batsheva Dance Company, and present what is called their Last Work
. I would say that another epoch-making change occurred during the 1993 festival, when we invited Maguy Marin’s May B
and Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company’s evening with D-Man in the Water
. When Marin’s piece, which was based on Samuel Beckett’s work, was performed in Prague, half of the audience fell asleep, but the other half responded enthusiastically. As for Bill T’s performance, even though the dancers were fully naked on stage, and although the content was politically quite challenging, the audience rightly understood the aesthetics underpinning the work and appreciated the craft. From around this time, I started to feel that the dance audience in the Czech Republic was really developing.
From Angelin Preljocaj, Savion Glover, Josef Nadj to Mikhail Baryshnikov, you invite a wide variety of dance artists to the Tanec Praha Festival. What are your criteria in the programming?
First of all, quality is paramount. Even though there are various tastes in the kind of dance you prefer, there is an absolute scale when measuring the quality of the dance piece. For this reason, when ten dance professionals gather to discuss about several dance pieces, they would always agree in which dance piece qualitatively stands out from the rest. The second criterion is whether or not the Czech audience could understand the concept of the piece. The audience of contemporary dance can be both mesmerized and bored in an instance. They are very fragile audiences. To this end, I refrained from inviting highly experimental dance pieces in the first few years of the festival. The third criterion is to invite pieces that are physically strong. As I myself used to study dance, I fully understand how time-consuming and laborious it is to learn the physical language of a certain contemporary choreographer. This is why I find immeasurable pleasure in watching dancers who have completely mastered a physical language. Having said that, however, recently I have been inviting pieces, which are more conceptual rather than physical. During the last decade, I have focused on the diversity of the program, in addition to all the criteria I have mentioned.
In 1995, you established the Czech Dance Platform. Why did you decide to launch a dance platform focusing on domestic dance pieces?
Tanec Praha Festival and Czech Dance Platform carry two very different missions. The former functions as a festival that introduces international works to our country, and the latter works as a platform that presents domestic works to international presenters. The latter platform was structured by studying Rencontres Choréographiques Internationale de Seine Saint-Denis in France (the former Concours choréographique international de Bagnolet). In Rencontres
, around fifty to hundred presenters attended around fifteen dance performances in one weekend, not only in Paris. I thought that this was a superbly effective way to introduce young talents to the world, and so, I decided to do the same thing in my country and established the Czech Dance Platform in 1995.
The initial platform was titled Entrée to Dance
, and was organized in Hradec Kràlové – a town with less than 100,000 residents. I invited as many European dance professionals as possible to this small city, and showed them Czech contemporary dance pieces, which were still in a semi-amateur state. For the next few years, the platform was held there, but from 2000, the platform was moved to Prague. This was because the opening of the Ponec Theatre, which is now run by Tanec Praha NGO, was expected in the same year; and, by presenting some of the performances in this theatre, we wanted to make sure that Ponec Theatre would be known as a theatre devoted to contemporary dance.
Additionally, from around the millennium, internationally known Czech choreographers such as Jan Kodec started to return to the country, and the dance scene in my country started to mature. In 2010, for the first time, over fifty presenters applied to attend the platform. Unfortunately, however, the volcano in Iceland erupted that year, and many of the presenters had to cancel their flight [laughs]. Last year was the 20th anniversary of the Platform, and fifty-nine presenters joined from around the world. This year it is around eighty, and next year, I think around a hundred presenters will be joining us in Prague. I think that this number substantiates the fact that in twenty years, the Czech dance scene has truly matured to an international standard.
Recently, companies such as International Theatre Studio Farm in the Cave and Dance Company DOT504 have been often presented in international performing arts markets. These companies are not afraid to go beyond the traditional categorizations of theatre and dance, and work in an interdisciplinary field. Can you name several other companies that are developing cutting-edge performing arts pieces in your country?
Farm in the Cave is a company that Tanec Praha has been working together with from the very beginning of the organization. The company still has a strong presence in the international scene, as one of the most successful independent companies representing the Czech Republic. Some other cutting-edge companies include VerTe Dance, NANOHACH Company, 420PEOPLE or Spitfire Company. They are the first generation of artists who were allowed to pursue individual expressions after the Revolution; and so, all of these artists freely developed their own visions and aesthetics without any restrictions. For this reason, their artworks are very individual and strong. I am now interested in how the younger generation of artists will respond to these existing companies and develop their own art forms.
In 2001, the Ponec Theatre opened in the Prague 3 district as the only contemporary dance theatre in the Czech Republic. Together with Tanec Praha Festival and Czech Dance Platform, you now also take care of the year-around activities at this theatre. Can you tell me how this theatre came to be specialized in contemporary dance?
For quite a long time, we were looking for a theatre that could become our base. Before the Ponec Theatre, we had three or four other plans in mind, but we never managed to attain any of the venues. Then around the end of the millennium, I’ve heard that the Prague 3 district was holding a public competition for organizations that could renovate and reuse a derelict cinema. When I first visited the place, the building didn’t attract me. Since it had not been used for many years, the building was completely a wreck. However, the size and scale of the former cinema was perfect for presenting contemporary dance performances: twelve-meters width from the left to the right wall, and six-meters high to the ceiling. I though that it was a perfect space for accommodating small to middle scale contemporary dance. So, although I was pregnant at that time, I immediately started talking to the public officers of Prague 3 district, persuading them tenaciously that we would be the most suitable organization to use the building.
Two weeks after I had my first baby, the committee called me and said, ‘we think that your idea is brilliant, but how are you going to raise money for the renovation?’ One of the conditions for attaining the building was that we had to open the building in less than three years by securing money for the renovation. Without any solid basis, I answered to them that ‘everything should be fine, as we are experts in fundraising. I can imagine that the Cultural Ministry would support us.’ How naïve [laughs]! Anyway, I don’t now how but the committee believed my words and selected Tanec Praha as the winner of the competition. Other competitors were so furious; a rock music group didn’t understand at all why a weird art form such as contemporary dance could be more important than rock music concerts. We were extremely lucky.
However, the fundraising that went on for the next two years, which I had to manage while taking care of two little children, was very difficult. In 2000, we got our first big funding of ten million Czech Crowns from the state, and, gradually, from there, money started pouring in. All of the reconstruction was done for only twenty million Czech Crowns. In June 2001, most performances of the Tanec Praha Festival were presented in this building, although we didn’t have a proper roof at that time [laughs]. Currently, over two-hundred public events are held at the Ponec Theatre annually.
The children’s program, which you started during the mid-2000, is one of those public events at the theatre.
Yes. First, we opened a Children’s Studio where kids around five to eight could learn to enjoy dancing. Through movement, rhythm and visual art, we teach children how dance could be fun. Also, at the Ponec Theatre, we produce original dance pieces for children. Developing high quality dance performances for children is extremely important for nurturing the future audience. This is why, although we do not fully produce dance pieces for adults, we raise money on our own and create dance productions specifically for children. Moreover, when I was adviser to the Minister of Culture, I managed to persuade the Ministry of Education to include dance as one of the optional subjects in elementary and secondary education. Therefore, in Tanec Praha, we also organize a project in which dance artists are sent to these schools to teach dance to young students.
Was Ponec Theatre the first independent theatre that opened in Prague?
No. The first theatre opened to independent artists that was opened in Prague was the ARCHA Theatre, which re-opened in 1994. Then, the next year, the Duncan Centre, which specializes in contemporary dance education, opened its doors to the public. The Alfred ve dvore Theatre focusing on movement development and experimental dramaturgy soon opened, and Ponec theatre followed the opening of these theatres. At the moment, in Prague, there are also other independent theatres such as Studio Alta, which presents experimental theatre including mainly contemporary dance and La Fabrica theatre, which is used as a multi-purpose space. Around the millennium, the number of independent theatres surged in Prague. The only problem is that all of these theatres are based in Prague. The contemporary dance scene in the Czech Republic is very centralized.
The performances of Tanec Praha Festival are now presented not only in Prague, but also in theatres across the Czech Republic. Is this one strategy to ameliorate the highly-centralized dance scene in your country?
Yes. In my country, any rural city has an opera theatre. In these theatres, unbelievably obsolete performances of opera, theatre and ballet are still presented. The quality of ballet performances is mainly horrible. For this reason, from the very beginning of the festival, I teamed up with new progressive venues in regions so that the audience could attend at least one contemporary dance performance a year. First, we started with Brno, then Plzen, Ostrava and other cities followed. Also, because we relocated the Czech Dance Platform to Prague from 2000, we alternatively decided to present domestic performances of Tanec Praha Festival in regional. We also decided that the domestic artist who attends the Tanec Praha Festival should always collaborate with international theatres and/or artists. We wanted to make sure that some influence of the international dance scene would be provided to Czech dance scene. However, every year in Tanec Praha Festival, one world premier performance of a domestic artist is shown exclusively in Prague. The performance of Tereza Ondrovà and Peter Savel that you saw yesterday night at the Ponec Theatre was that world premier. Their production was co-produced by NorrlandsOperan Umea, CNC Roubaix - Ballet du Nord and Plesni Teater Ljubljana, so after the world premier, they will be touring around these international theatres.
I want to ask also about the European Capital of Culture Plzen 2015. From 2009 to 2011, you worked hard as the artistic director for this Plzen 2015 project. However, when it comes to these big projects, I know that a lot of politics starts to intervene and that most of your initial visions are unlikely to materialize. Can you tell us what you personally wanted to achieve in this project, and how that vision inevitably shifted in the end.
As an artistic director, my motto was ‘Pilsen Open Up!’ I did not want the European Capital of Culture project to be a one-off event. Rather, I wanted the city of Plzen to open up to various artists and change into a sustainable city of art. To this end, I had a plan to reuse the storehouses and factories in the local region as residency spaces, studios and galleries. However, the local politicians had a different vision in mind, and my motto was not realized fully in the long run. As is the case with most politicians who don’t have a clue about what art is, the local politicians started to say that they wanted to construct a New theatre in the region. Appalled by their ignorance, I have been called off the post. A project that was miles away from my initial plan was moving forward. Afterwards, however, after several changes of project leaders, I started to get involved in the project on a smaller scale.
I started taking care of only the dance programming, as I wanted to realize my vision at least in the dance field. At very last moment, they renovated a huge dilapidated factory and opened up a multi-purpose space called DEP2015. There we invited the Sasha Waltz Company to perform. Also, I invited Yukio Suzuki
to the Open Residency Program. In this program, Yukio visited multiple cities to do residencies in various public spaces across the country, and he created a small dance piece with the Czech artists. Three weeks of intensive training with Yukio, and creating a dance piece together, was an amazing experience for the young participants.
Lastly, can you tell me about some of the future projects that you are working on right now?
First of all, together with several European universities, theatres and festivals, Tanec Praha is joining an international collaboration project for audience development called Be SpectACTive! This project is supported by Creative Europe. In this project, we invite the audience to join the programming process, dramaturgy lectures, workshops and so on, and analyse how the participation will change the qualitative aspect of audience development. I think this project is useful, as multiple universities will scientifically verify the outcome. Secondly, I am leading a project to launch a large-scale contemporary dance festival Aerowaves Spring Forward in Pilsen. I hope to realize this project in all new venues there next year, and, so, I have to visit the Czech politicians again to convince them. My mission to develop and nurture contemporary art forms, especially dance, in the Czech Republic will go on forever! It is a never-ending process of fighting and struggle.