Beginning in 2006, the citizens of Prague have come to expect a splendid annual treat. For one night only in January, they bear witness to some of the world’s finest ballet dancers leaping and pirouetting across the stage of the Prague State Opera House.
This sole evening, otherwise known as the Prague Ballet Gala, is a gift from one of their own —Jana Kůrová, herself a home-grown ballet star with years of international acclaim to her name.
Gala attendees this year were treated to a repertoire of dramatic performances by principal dancers from the Royal Ballet, the Hong Kong Ballet, and the National Ballet of Canada, to name three of the respected institutions from whose elite ranks the night’s celebrated line-up was selected. Two highly anticipated guest dancer were Desmond Richardson, the renowned U.S. ballet artist from Complexions Contemporary Ballet, and Zdeněk Konvalina — born in Ostrava — a principal dancer for the National Ballet of Canada returning to a local stage for the first time since his North American departure in 2001.
From movement set to Édith Piaf’s Je Ne Regrette Rien to choreography by the 18th century ballet master Marcus Petipa for the Giselle Grand pas de deux, the evening encapsulated the range and evolution of ballet, from classical to contemporary interpretations. It was a festive display of powerhouse performances more likely to be glimpsed by audiences in cities with established ballet traditions.
So, why and how did Prague get to be the beneficiary of such a bounty?
The answer from Kůrová, Prague International Ballet’s founder and artistic director, was two-fold and delivered over espresso in Slovanský Dům’s Café Pavlina on a late- January afternoon.
“I wanted to do something special for the Czech people and also to preserve the heritage of the ballet art here,” Kůrová said, fresh off the heels of the successful 2008 gala.
If the tradition of Czech ballet needed looking after, it could find no better advocate than Kůrová.
A prima ballerina for the Prague National Theater from 1977 to 1991, and the youngest ever principal dancer in the institution’s history, Kůrová was a successful product of the Czech ballet art. She graduated from the Prague State Conservatory in 1980 and went on to study at the famed Bolshoi Ballet School in Moscow, ultimately ending up in the notable New York studio of David Howard.
She flourished on the international scene, winning ballet competitions in the United States, Japan, Bulgaria, Switzerland and at home. Invitations to perform as a guest artist for other ballet companies and in ballet festivals were numerous and took her to countries such as Cuba, Italy, Canada, Spain, Belgium, and Germany. Her many career highlights include performances for Queen Sofia of Spain, and on Broadway’s venerated stages in an All-Star Gala event sponsored by Rudolf Nureyev, Leonard Bernstein, Luciano Pavarotti and Elizabeth Taylor.
After years of dancing and competing abroad she returned home to a disquieting development: there were few avenues to watch high-quality ballet performances. Equally as disturbing was the younger generation’s ignorance or shunning of the classical dance form.
“I don’t know why or how it happened, but the focus in Prague had shifted to modern dance,” Kůrová said of ballet’s decline in favor. “Change is always good, and people are discovering new styles of expression with modern dance. But with a background in classical dance your creative range becomes much broader. This is why I prefer a classical foundation.”
She set about trying to amend the situation and the Prague International Ballet was born in 2005.
The foundation’s mission is outlined in three parts: protecting the culture of ballet, grooming a new generation of dancers in the ways of the art, and educating and exposing the masses as well as young dancers to top quality ballet performance, courtesy of its hallmark January event.
“The level of ballet art in the Czech Republic is not very high,” Kůrová admitted with a rueful shake of her head, her slight and elegant frame in sharp contrast with the mammoth responsibility she voluntarily took on over three years ago. “I wanted people to know the history of ballet, its greatest names, and its contemporary stars. I wanted them to see the highest possible form of the art in its diverse variations.”
Prague has not turned a deaf ear to her impassioned call.
Each year since the gala’s inception, audiences have flocked to the Opera house to watch international ballet superstars such as Viengsay Valdes, Romel Frometa, Charles Jude and Paulina Semionová soar through the air. People now recall names and past performances. In other words, brand recognition is starting to grow. The corporate sponsorship that was difficult to attain in the gala’s inaugural year has become more forthcoming, with donors and partner companies expressing interest in lending assistance for future performances.
“I still spend a lot of time on the phone looking for funding, but now I don’t have to give a long explanation about who I am and what I want,” she said with a laugh, describing her other primary role as cold-calling fundraiser.
But despite the positive feedback, the work continues for Kůrová and her staff of four. Preparations are already underway for next January’s event and include plans of expanding the foundation’s outreach agenda, which includes making gala performances available on DVD.
“Each gala night is a premiere event — you will never see the same performance twice,” Kůrová explained to Lifestyles Magazine in Prague.
“And for this we have to start trying to get the dancers early. This can be difficult because some of them might be unavailable for years.”
The work of returning ballet to prominence as an art form encompasses more than just the gala. The foundation’s educational arm includes ballet and dance workshops in Ostrava that run from one to four weeks in the summer.
“I want to show children — young dancers — what is possible for them in the world of ballet. [I want them to know] that they can be excellent dancers and have opportunities to perform on the biggest stages in the world.”
The program receives students locally and from around the globe, and the roster for this summer is already half full. To accommodate the growing popularity of the workshops, Kůrová plans to extend the sessions by one week and also hopes to start a second camp located in Prague.
Ultimately, Kůrová believes the Czech Republic has the potential to take its place among other countries as a destination for viewing world-class ballet performances. After all, it has created top quality dancers such as herself and Konvalina, as well as numerous others who have found success abroad.
This, however, is offset by a sobering reality — the cream of the crop always leave, a scenario she attributes to the fact that young stars who are naturally eager to learn more and expand their range are stymied by established institutions that frown on change.
“I think many of the ballet companies here like the level that they have,” she said. “Personally, I prefer to go where I can learn more. I enjoy choreography and whenever I can I take the chance to go abroad to compare styles.”
She also notes that too little is done to bring back homegrown stars. Konvalina’s performance at the gala, for example, was his first opportunity to perform for fellow Czechs since leaving the country over six years ago.
“He was quite nervous actually, because his mother and brother were in the audience,” Kůrová revealed. “He’s an excellent dancer, and it’s a pity that no Czech ballet company had ever invited him prior to this night.”
Kůrová would like to see local ballet companies do more to welcome new styles and perspectives, and already sees a small movement in that direction, citing last year’s return of the Les Ballets de Monte-Carlo after an extended absence for a two-day performance of Romeo & Juliet at the National Theater.
Change will take time, she admits, and she is optimistic that one day ballet will enjoy a robust revival among Czechs, with more international dance companies performing in the Czech Republic and local troupes competing successfully on stages away from home.
“Culture is everywhere,” she said. “Going to the cinema or going for coffee is culture. There is no reason that ballet cannot be a part of that. And it will be good for Czech people.”