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Interview: Vlastimil Harapes, Artistic Director of the Prague National Ballet

By Patricia Boccadoro

PARIS, 24 June 2002—The Prague National Ballet, a company founded in 1883, made its first appearance in France at the Nouveau Festival International de Danse de Paris at the Chatelet earlier this season. Since Tchaikovsky's visit to the Prague National Theatre when Swan Lake was staged in the composer's honour, the company, despite the influence of Diahilev's Ballets Russes in the 1920's, had remained resolutely classical until the nomination of Vlastimil Harapes as artistic director in 1990.

"A company is the reflection of the man who leads it", the multi-talented Mr. Harapes, also famous in his own country as a singer and movie-actor, told me in a recent interview.

"When I took over the troupe, many of the dancers were getting a little long in the tooth with their never-ending contracts, so that was the first thing I had to change. Now the average age is between twenty-three and twenty-four years old. Then I turned to the repertory to make a harmonious balance between the traditional ballets and contemporary works. Today", he announced proudly, "we are working with Grigorovitch as well as Kylian, and of course we dance Balanchine without whom ballet doesn't exist".

Vlastimil Harapes, who was the company's star dancer in the 1970's and was himself trained at the Prague Conservatory before completing his studies with Alexander Pushkin in Saint Petersburg, sets great store by technique although not to the detriment of "the heart".

"My dancers, of whom all but three are of Czechlosovakian nationality, must dance with their hearts", he emphasised, "not like at the Paris Opéra where the soloists I saw in "Notre-Dame de Paris" were dramatically weak. In many companies, over-due emphasis is given to technique these days", he commented.

Stressing their origins, the dancers, all trained at the Conservatory of Prague interpreted a programme of works of their famous compatriot Jiri Kylian, who fled the country in 1968*, because their director considered Kylian's ballets belong to them.

"Sinfonietta", Harapes insisted, "is our ballet. Janacek, who, incidentally is from Moravia, composed the music in 1926 as a hymn to freedom and liberty. The dancers love the work not only for its beauty and spirituality, but because they feel Kylian wrote his ballet ** with its undertones of sorrow mixed with nostalgia, with us in mind. Certainly for the Czech people. We dance Sinfonietta differently from any other company because the music is part of us, and the style suits our soloists who are exceptionally musical and totally involved emotionally".

The second work of the evening, Return to a Strange Land, again to a score by Janacek, was created in 1975 as a tribute to the great South African choreographer, John Cranko, who died in the summer of 1973. It is a meditation on life and death, where the title embodies the concept of the place we come from, and to which we return. The ballet is a lovely lyrical series of duets and pas de trois ideally suited to the temperament of the interpreters, and was beautifully danced.

The programme was completed with, L'Enfant et les Sortilèges, based on a poem by Colette, and set to music by French composer, Maurice Ravel. Harapes told me he had brought it to Paris more because it underlined the strong dramatic qualities of the company rather than because he thought it might appeal to a French audience, but whatever the reason, it fell a little flat. The troupe seemed less at ease with the style, lacking the sense of fun that should accompany the work, and not understanding its quiet charm.

Before I left, Mr. Harapes told me that the next programme would include two pieces by Balanchine, and one by Alvin Ailey, adding that he liked changes, believing it enriched the dancers to bring in the work of different choreographers.

"I see the future as a judicious mix between people like Balanchine, Glen Tetley, Alvin Ailey, and the classics which I re-stage myself. But I am first and foremost a director. I don't hold with choreographers running companies. I like to finish their work and stage it the way that suits my troupe", he said.


*At the time of the Russian invasion.

**Created for the Netherlands Dance Theatre in 1978.


The Prague National Ballet will perform at the Granada International Festival of Music and Dance in Spain on 24 June 2002.

Patricia Boccadoro writes on dance in Europe. She contributes to The Guardian, The Observer and Dancing Times and was dance consultant to the BBC Omnibus documentary on Rudolf Nureyev. Ms. Boccadoro is the dance editor for Culturekiosque.com.

 


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