Interview With Mário Radačovský, Director of Slovak National Theatre Ballet Company

Mário Radačovský, foto: Martin Črep

He has been Artistic Director of Slovak National Theatre (SNT) Ballet ensemble for three years. As a dancer he used to be a soloist with SNT, a member of Nederlands Dans Theater (NDT) of many years and principal soloist with the Les Grands Ballets Canadiens de Montréal. He has changed the career of a successful dancer for that of an enthusiastic director and prolific choreographer, shuttling between two countries – Slovakia and Canada. He carries on the tradition of the National Theatres of Prague and Bratislava coming together, this year  - as a part of traditional performances of SNT Ballet on tour in Prague he introduced to the audiences of the Czech capital a new thematic production. In the meantime he was so kind as to spare some time for an interview with Taneční Aktuality, so our readers can see what the "reconstruction" of the principal Slovak ballet ensemble is like.

Two seasons is a rather short period of time for any conclusions, anyway, do you think you could sum up both the successes and failures of your plans as an artistic director?
I reckon that in the course of the two seasons we have done some great job and the ensemble have set out on a new path. However, this is just my point of view, which is naturally rather subjective. Of course I can imagine doing certain things in a bit different way, some transformations take more time than others, but overall I am quite satisfied. When I became a director I took over a purely classical-oriented company, which even in classical repertoire had not reached any significant level, let alone the missing neoclassical and modern repertoire. There were some gifted and outstanding dancers, who performed rather rarely, there were neither principal soloists with the ensemble, nor any foreign ballet masters used to come to Bratislava – these were the things to start with. In my opinion we have managed to compose a much more varied repertoire, including some neoclassical and modern pieces by me such as Warhol, Bolero a viac and KY-TIME. There is also a choreography by Balanchine on the repertoire and we would like to add some more by him, Nacho Duato is going to perform in Bratislava too, we would also like to mount another piece by Kylián and perhaps we will succeed in getting Romeo and Juliet by John Neumeier, although this is still a matter of further negotiations.

And what about foreign pedagogues?
Well, I think we have been quite successful in this respect, I have been trying to get in touch with some of my former colleagues in Canada, the Netherlands and elsewhere and, as a result, some new pedagogues came such as Patricia Barker, an outstanding dancer and pedagogue from Seattle (and a traditional guest to Bratislava by the way), Patrick Hinson, former dancer with the New York City Ballet and American Ballet Theatre, Francis Malovik of Paris Opéra Ballet, former colleague of Rudolf Nureyev. Naturally we have also had some guests from the East too, I surely do not want to avoid them. However, many changes within the ensemble were needed, about one third of the company have left over the past two years and this "reconstruction" is still under way.

Reconstruction seems to be your favourite word.
Indeed, but this is precisely what has happened recently. Actually, I quite often talk about it with Mr. Kylián as we still keep in touch and I think highly of his views. His ensemble have been a role model to me as far as quality is concerned, of course I do not want SNT to become another NDT. Actually, this will never happen as we will never focus purely on neoclassical and modern repertoire, classical pieces are still an inherent part of the SNT Ballet repertoire and we are obliged to treat them accordingly. Still I want the company to attain as high standards as possible and I would also like them to adopt the procedures and ways of communication I experienced in NDT under the direction of Jiří Kylián. Everybody in NDT knew that things were still going on, there were no slack periods, we had been constantly working on diverse projects. And this is what I would like to achieve here too, to make people keen on ballet both inside and outside the ensemble.

You said that there used to be no complex hierarchy of soloists within the SNT Ballet company, what is the situation like now?
Well this is always a bit tricky thing. I have promoted Roman Novitzky to the position of principal with the ensemble and I wish I had one or two more dancers like him. Adrian Ducin is a very skilled performer too, he has been promoted to the position of soloist already. However, as for gentlemen, the situation is much more complicated than with ladies. There are six or seven ladies who have made a considerable progress recently. At the beginning of the season 14 new dancers took up an engagement at SNT Ballet, who helped to raise the level of corps de ballet significantly. And this is what marks the level of the whole ensemble to me as it is not so difficult to hire brilliant soloists elsewhere, but without a good-class corps it is no good. It is also up to individual dancers to react to the recent changes, some of them still act as if nothing had happened.
We had a meeting on October 16th, the anniversary of my becoming the artistic director two years ago, actually we meet once a month to discuss the changes, talk about our work and so on and I told them quite plainly that after two years everyone should be familiar with my aims, therefore I do not accept any excuses such as "I didn't know what your goals were." Everybody should know what pieces and choreographers I would like to introduce to Slovak audiences, it might happen that somebody who has been a part of the ensemble for ten years would not conform to the new criteria but that is the way it is.

So it is sometimes quite frustrating, isn't it?
Well, yes, sometimes it is really hard to say goodbye to some dancers, so much the more that salaries of professional dancers are quite unsatisfactory and we cannot afford to pay them more, but this is very much the same all over Slovakia. I have raised their salaries significantly over the past two years but still it is far from the income of dancers in Austria, which is just over the hill. Two brilliant gentlemen soloists left the ensemble last season and nobody can blame them, though I miss them much of course. On the other hand, it might happen that some of the dancers who went abroad would come back after some time and help thus to increase the level of the ensemble, the fluctuation in our profession is quite high. Moreover, as many as 140 applicants entered competition for positions in our company this spring and I hope the number is going to increase over time.

What is the response of audiences like?
Actually, in some respects they have reacted quite positively, some things are perhaps more difficult for them to get used to, the whole process will obviously take some time. We have been trying to change the whole marketing philosophy of SNT Ballet, because too few people have noticed the changes we have been trying to put through so far. At the moment we are working on a new campaign. But overall I reckon that the response is rather positive, I see more young people coming to the performances. In the old building an average used to be about 300 spectators per performance, now as many as 500 or 550 spectators come to the new building, which is a success considering the fact the site has not been completed yet. The huge auditorium of the new building still looks half-empty, but I think even more people will come as soon as the construction is over.
We have been also trying to get spectators outside Bratislava on tours over Slovakia, we are going to perform in Nitra, Piešťany, Prešov, Košice, Zvolen and other places in a similar way to our tours over the Netherlands with NDT. The economic situation of people in Eastern Slovakia is not such that they would come all the way to Bratislava with their family, spending thousands (Note: of Slovak crowns) on the trip and tickets.
Therefore there is a certain social aspect to it too and we have asked for further subsidies to be able to tour Slovakia regularly and bring ballet to wider audiences and hopefully, earn their interest.

Besides being a director of the ensemble, you still keep on performing on the stage too, in September there was an opening night of Ivan the Terrible which you claimed for yourself.
Well, as for performing this is sort of a farewell performance to me, at least as for leading roles in full-length productions. And once you take up a position of a ballet director and a choreographer at the same time, you have to let other things go as it is not possible to maintain the same level of your work as you used to before. Maybe one more year or two as a performer, but I will let it go eventually. I am sure I know precisely when to finish my dancing career. Needless to say, it was a pleasant experience to perform with the ensemble I am director of in Ivan the Terrible, I was quite reluctant at the beginning, but I am happy about my decision in the end, by the way I hope it was a pleasant experience for them too. But it will come to an end soon. I have never really come to terms with myself as a dancer, I do not like to watch my performances on video either and I would never like to go as far as to be merely tolerated on the stage just because of my position or respect.

Dancer? Choreographer! 

It is quite obvious that the new piece called 68, premiered in May and performed as a part of KY-TIME in Prague is an allusion to the Warsaw Pact invasion to Czechoslovakia 40 years ago, but what was your primary motivation to visualise this theme in dance?
Honestly, to me the theme is still very important and I think 68 should be a part of our repertoire; though I was born later and thus could not experience the events, it is dedicated to my parents and their generation. Actually, their generation is a somewhat "lost generation" too, for few months it seemed they had more freedom and opportunities than anyone since the communist regime had taken over the power and then all of a sudden it was gone. It is essential to commemorate fated dates like this, because young people nowadays have no clue what happened back then, I can see it with my 17-year-old nieces. I mean we should not over-dramatize the events or bear trauma from them, we should just remember our past to appreciate the present more. Young people nowadays often do not realize the opportunities they have.

But you are still young too.
Of course I do not think I am an old man at 37, though as a dancer I will be an old man soon. But I have experienced the regime and I reckon I feel what our nations have gone through and what my parents have gone through, above all. I do not want to act a pettifogger to young people, but I think that many things that are nowadays considered commonplace are not commonplace at all and people should mind that. Maybe they will as they grow older… just the fact that you can jump into a car and go wherever you want, without any visa clause and stuff. Of course it looks like petty things, but I have, since a certain moment in my life, marked by my illness, focused on details, on these little things many people do not notice at all. And this is very much what happens with 1968, the freedom that we have now seems so commonplace. But it is not and we should mind that.

Does the choreography reflect more the era or the experience of your family?
Actually both is pretty much reflected there, but I do not tell a particular story, though I had my parents in my mind quite often. Their lives changed dramatically from day to day. They could leave Slovakia, but decided to stay there instead so that they would still keep in touch with their families. Maybe even I would not have been born at all, had they decided to leave. All that they had gone through and how they brought up my brother and me has always been important to me and I am proud of them and grateful for everything they had to sacrifice for us.

So you wanted to get all those things to the choreography?
Well, the whole thing is a bit more abstract and multi-layered and the question is, what message would a spectator get from it. There is a couple of protagonists that goes through the whole choreography and then a substantial change at the end, there is a certain hint when the curtain goes up as if towards freedom, but maybe the audience will not get the message. From what I have heard, some people said they had not understood it at all, but others were impressed a lot. Which probably had to do less with the choreography than the fact that to them, people in their sixties it was more of a memento of the time as I included in the production also sounds of flying helicopters, tanks, chanting… I suppose these people did not think about what they had seen as much as about their own memories. Anyway, this is what I wanted them to do, actually I do not want to bring back bad memories, but if they go to the theatre with their families, they might talk about what they saw afterwards and the performance has thus reached its goal. 

What about you and reviews?
Actually I do not care about them, what matters to me is the reaction of the audience. I pursue my own goals and I would never make a production just to suit somebody's taste. Of course I do not find all my work perfect and sometimes I like to read what others think about it, but that is definitely not a measure of quality to me. Everybody is entitled to express his or her opinion, but so am I as a choreographer and I do it with my work, we can discuss things afterwards. Actually, in this respect I like the way we support each other with Petr Zuska – when I go to Prague I tell him my opinion on his work and so does he when he comes to Bratislava… I do not avoid antagonistic views at all, sometimes you can turn them to good account.

Talking about Petr Zuska, do you consider mounting any of his choreographies?
Sure, we have started to discuss things a bit already. I like Solo for Three pretty much, but Petr is not willing to give the piece away yet as it is very personal to him. But I also like the duet Les Bras de Mer very much, so it will be probably the first work by him mounted in our theatre. Petr Zuska is surely one of the choreographers who should not be omitted in our repertoire, as well as we have mounted some pieces by Libor Vaculík already. I still remember the way he helped me, and not only me, when I just started my dancing career, moreover, he had been a part of SNT of many years, he used to be a soloist with the ballet ensemble too, so there was no doubt his work should be a part of our repertoire as well. Actually, to me Petr Zuska and him are the best choreographers currently working in the Czech Republic.

And why Ivan the Terrible?
Well, one of the reasons was that I wanted to mount a powerful, dramatic ballet production that I felt was missing back then and, above all, a piece that is predominantly based on the performances of the gentlemen part of the ensemble. The whole classical repertoire is pretty much based on performances of ladies, as for gentlemen, there are usually just few soloists to dance some variations, but I wanted to introduce a piece which gives the floor to gentlemen. Moreover, most of the recent changes within the ensemble have happened among gentlemen and I would like to further increase their numbers in the future. I also wanted to give them an opportunity to improve their level in partnering skills, because duets in Vaculík's work are really demanding of dancers so one can learn from them a lot. Anyway, the whole ensemble performs in Ivan the Terrible and nobody can just shirk there.

Who do you dance with in the performance?
Actually there are three casts for the leading roles at the moment, me and Klaudia Bittererová, Roman Novitzky with Katka Košíková and Andrej Szabó with Katka Kaanová. Both the latter two ladies are newcomers to the ensemble, but very talented ones. But it was actually quite difficult to cope with the casts as I originally wanted the two gentlemen that left the company to alternate the leading role. Fortunately, Roman was a very pleasant surprise to me as he turned out to be a brilliant dancer and actor, Andrej was injured for some time so he has been studying the role recently and he has not performed yet.

Kylián and more

What was the mounting of Kylián's choreographies like?
Well, it was not that easy, because I put the dancers under pressure a bit at the beginning. When we started to mount Un Ballo, I told them that everybody would study his or her part, but only the best ones would perform. Simply, that it would not be an attempt to perform Kylián, it would be either Kylián or nothing. A dancer can surely learn a lot from Un Ballo, but I kept my word so out of the 28 pairs that originally studied the part only 14 perform, seven and seven for two casts. It was not easy at all, neither for them nor for me. Mr. Kylián could not come to see the premiere as he had a performance in Oslo that evening but I sent him a DVD from the first two opening nights and he was quite satisfied. At first he would let us mount just Six Dances but I persuaded him to let us perform Un Ballo as well so that we had two choreographies by him. Six Dances were easier, the dancers found their characters soon, Un Ballo was much harder.   

Will Mr. Kylián satisfaction lead to another "borrowing"?
I would like to mount a choreography in Bratislava that he would create exclusively for our company. We talked about it when I became the director and Mr. Kylián said, "Mário, first of all you have to reconstruct the ensemble." So I have been reconstructing it and I hope we succeed in having another piece by him in the future.

When you became a director, you said that you were going to stay in Slovakia for five or seven seasons, what are your plans now?
Those two years passed so quickly that I do not think about it this way anymore. I do my work the best I can and if I had to leave tomorrow, I would leave tomorrow, my conscience is clear.
Of course, you can do wrong to some people in this position, but I am sure about my goals, I want the SNT Ballet to become a significant ballet company in Europe with connections to other companies and I want the ensemble to be something that will last in the dancers. 

You also said that Canada was definitely your home. Have the two years that you spent in your native country changed anything?
Well it is true the two years have somehow influenced me, but I am trying to make it clear to myself. Slovakia is where I work, I have been trying to do my best for the ensemble, of course that I will always feel like a Slovak, but Canada is more of a home to me in both the emotional sense of word and my private life. (Note: Radačovský’s partner, the dancer Anik Bissonnette lives in Canada.) 

Are you going to mount any new choreographies?
Yes, I have just finished a little surprise for the Canadian governor, who is going to visit Slovakia. It is a choreography for four dancers to the music of Canadian authors.
For the next season, we have been mounting a big project for the jubilee ninetieth season. It will be directed by Patrik Lančarič, music is composed by Pavol Hammel. It is a full-length piece called Mount Everest, so we will see if we succeed in climbing this mountain. It is rather a bit of a mainstream piece, but actually something like that was missing in the repertoire. Sure, art is art,  but it is the year 2008 and we also need famous names that would bring people to the theatre. Pavol Hammel is in his sixties but he has a special position in the Slovak pop music, recently he has also found his audience among the young generation. I am not sure about the situation in the Czech Republic but in Slovakia, people seem to be fed up with foreign pop and they begin to rediscover the Slovak "classics". Miro Žbirka is back, the same with Elán, people are more interested in local artists. So I think this is a great opportunity to introduce a piece like that and hopefully it brings to theatre young people, who may not have been to ballet performance before.    

Warhol must appealing too.
That is certainly a performance that has brought a new sort of audiences to ballet but it has brought about some troubles as well because it has been designed to make the most of the technical potential of the new building of SNT and still not everything has been working the way it should have been. I am going to change some sequences so that the performance is not hampered by that anymore.

I see, so that is why Ivan the Terrible had to do without the revolving stage and other stage design features we know from the Brno version.
Yes, we had to make a lot of compromises and if the technical conditions change, we will introduce some features again. When I watch the video from Brno and I see the finale, I think it is a pity that we could not do it the same way, that it would be great to have a revolving stage and the grand staircase but on the other hand, what has been lost in the technical sense has to be made up for by the dancers. Moreover, Libor put up projections he did not have in Brno. But the choreography is the same and the last performances were almost sold out, which is what matters the most. Of course, people in Brno would say that their production was better, the same would be said by people in Bratislava about the local production, but what matters to me is that we have had five almost sold out performances and standing ovations. And that is a good promotion because people tell each other that this show is definitely worth seeing.

Ivan the Terrible is a neoclassical piece, but what is the situation like with contemporary dance?
Well, that is a bit of a problem, mostly because there are no particular projects at the moment. In Slovakia, there have been two dominant individuals - Ján Ďurovčík and Ivan Holováč, but honestly their work does not suit my taste that much. I would rather give a chance to somebody younger, Lukáš Timulák and others. To let them work on a gala event, like the one to support cancer research that took place in September and I would naturally ask the dancers of the SNT Ballet to take part in it and try out the choreography. I believe that it is just a matter of time when someone talented appears.

Do you also follow the scene outside SNT?
Of course I know of some talented people as far as modern dance in Slovakia is concerned, but cooperation is not likely with all of them, at least not as for the work with our company. But I would like to give them an opportunity to perform in our theatre, for instance, Šárka Ondrišová, this year's winner of the DOSKY award is going to perform there. In fact we cancelled one of our scheduled performances so that she could perform. In my opinion, we should keep an open mind and ignore all the prejudice of those who oppose the "modernists" at the National Theatre. If something is good, I do not care whether it is classical or modern. There are bad classical performances too, some of them mounted at SNT so I disagree with those claiming that modern pieces are not worthy the National Theatre. They are. If something has an excellent quality, it should be there.
This is really essential because it will also bring both the audiences and artists associated with contemporary dance to our theatre. If we do not avoid them, they will come to see our performances and there will be a scope for further cooperation and mutual influences. There are so few people in Slovakia associated with our profession that we should cooperate rather than struggle against each other . SNT has been recently a patron of the contemporary dance festival "Bratislava v pohybe" which is something our ensemble can learn a lot from too, the dancers can see and try the new trends themselves, which is fundamental to them as nowadays performers have to be versatile and flexible. I always remember Jiří Kylián's favourite saying: “National Theatre is not a National Museum.” And I follow that saying.

Lucie Kocourková
November 2008

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