An Intro to Czech Ballet

Roman Vašek


The professional ballet in the Czech Republic is mostly carried out in the network of multi-company theatres, which are predominantly founded and supported by towns. Regions and the state (via the Ministry of Culture) contribute to the operation of the theatres to a small extent only. The state directly manages only the National Theatre in Prague with ballet being the integral part of it. Permanent ballet companies, which usually produce two or three premieres every year, reside in most regional towns (Praha, Plzeň, Ústí nad Labem, Liberec, České Budějovice, Brno, Olomouc and Ostrava). For the sake of completeness, it is necessary to rank Laterna Magika from Prague among the ballet companies (it was first presented at Expo in Brussels in 1958) as well as the non-independent ballet in Opava, supporting ballet companies of the National Theatre in Prague, and the ballet company for the musical repertoire of the Brno City Theatre. The scale of ballet companies is complemented with conservatory and independent companies. There are about 350 dancers in Czech ballet, about 85 % of them work full time. Most dancers have contracts with the duration from 1 to 3 years. One half of the dancers are artists from abroad, mainly from the European Union countries, and Japan. Almost all Czech dancers graduated from any of five eight-year dance conservatories in the Czech Republic.

Regarding quality, Czech ballet production has significantly changed in the past thirty years. The rise in interpretation was triggered in the 1990s mainly with the arrival of dancers from the countries of the former Soviet Union and partially by the foundation of two private conservatories. Unlike the time of normalization (1968-1989), a natural generation alteration does work in contemporary ballet (the average age in the companies has dropped to 28 years of age). Dramaturgy of ballet companies has changed significantly as they cooperate with foreign authors more often.


Ballet productions are largely prepared by artistic directors, who work as choreographers as well. It is necessary to mention three Czechs, who rank among the distinctive choreographic individualities, yet the impact of each of them on Czech ballet differs.
Jiří Kylián ranks among fundamental Czech choreographers, who spent most of his artistic career in the Dutch Dance Theatre. He has not influenced the development of Czech ballet directly. His work has become an important element in the repertoire of big ballet companies in Prague, Brno and Ostrava as well as an impulse for their interpretation growth. Kylián’s influence may be seen in his students, who are engaged in Czech ballet or contemporary independent dance (Nataša Novotná, Václav Kuneš, Jiří Pokorný – born in 1981, Mário Radačovský).
Libor Vaculík has been yet another important person in Czech ballet since the 1990s – he is the epic choreographer, narrator, who likes to adapt famous literary or film works for dance productions. He repeatedly works for big ballet companies in Prague, Brno and Pilsen, yet he also works for smaller stages (recently in Liberec). He has a sense for dance fiction and perfect depiction of main characters. This is the reason why performers in his ballets are often nominated for prestigious awards. He has a special liking for impressive productions regarding stage design, that is why he is successful when staging musicals.
However, Petr Zuska is different as he is a purely musical choreographer with a clearly distinguishable and smoothly bound motion. His work is based on his interest in philosophy and topics resonating in society. He likes to work with symbols, even in scenography, which is often the main inspiration for the whole choreography.


National Theatre Ballet in Prague holds the leading position among the ballet companies. It is incomparable with the others as for the size (it has about 80 dancers), economic background and working conditions. Petr Zuska left the essential imprint in the company when he was the director in 2002 – 2017. Zuska created a varied repertoire and he staged the works of world-famous contemporary choreographers as the first one in the Czech Republic (Nacho Duato, Ohad Naharin, Mats Ek, William Forsythe, Alexander Ekman, and others). Speaking of Czech authors, he repeatedly staged works by Jiří Kylián, Libor Vaculík and Jan Kodet. Yet his authorial input was essential: his choreographies made about one fourth of the repertoire. We may say that National Theatre Ballet has become unmistakable in the European context – thanks to him. In 2017, he was replaced by the former top soloist Filip Barankiewicz. The first season has foreshadowed that he is going to focus on a neoclassicist repertoire.
The National Theatre also manages the Laterna magika company, which originated in 1958 as a stage experimenting with merging of live acting/dancing action with film and inventive scenic design. The company is currently looking for its place in the sun. It attempted to revive the synthetic merger of dance and new technologies in the recent premiere of Cube by Pavel Knolle, David Stránský, and Štěpán Pechar. The National Theatre Brno has the second biggest company (over 40 dancers). Mário Radačovský, the choreographer with experience from directing ballet of the Slovak National Theatre in Bratislava, joined the management of the Brno ballet in 2013. The adopted works dominate the repertoire, such as choreographies by Jiří Kylián or George Balanchine, which were staged in Brno for the first time. The artistic director actively participates in the repertoire, although there has been only one production created for Brno in particular (a rare adaptation of the West Side Story musical).
The third biggest company in the National Moravian-Silesian Theatre in Ostrava has about 40 dancers. The director is Lenka Dřímalová, who, despite having studied choreography, gave up her creative ambitions and began to carry out an ambitious repertoire on the edge of operating conditions. Artistic outputs are exceptional. Works by Jiří Kylián or Itzik Galili are staged in high-quality interpretation. It was the first time outside Prague when August Bournonville’s choreography (La Sylphide) had been staged; the recent world premiere of the ballet Three Musketeers is worth mentioning as well as the adaptation of Mario Schröder’s Chaplin.


The middle-sized companies with about thirty members are in Olomouc and Pilsen. The ballet of the Moravian Theatre in Olomouc with its conservative structure of the repertoire is beyond all the ballet context in the Czech Republic. The repertoire is mostly created by artistic director Robert Balogh, who focuses on staging new epic ballet, in which he adapts famous works or popular topics: The Water Nymph, The Lady with the Camellias, Othello, The Taming of the Shrew. These are traditionally structured and audience-friendly productions. In the “classical” line followed by Hana Vláčilová, the ballet in Olomouc stages works of the late 19th century: The Swan Lake, The Sleeping Beauty, The Nutcracker or Don Quixote. Barring the exceptions, the companies does not stage composed programs with more experimental choreographies. The ballet of the J. K. Tyl Theatre in Pilsen managed by Jiří Pokorný (born in 1971) ranks among the most active ones – it stages four premieres on three stages and participates in many productions in opera and musical performances. The repertoire is made of feature productions the most. In the first years of Pokorný’s work in Pilsen, the top-quality line of dramaturgy was conducted by Libor Vaculík’s ballets; however, talented dancers from the company got a chance, too (Alena Pešková and later Richard Ševčík started their choreographic careers here). The ballet Manon was an important premiere of 2017 with the debut made by choreographer Filip Veverka. The ballet in Pilsen has played it safe in the long run, yet it has presented some inspiring experiments as well.


The ballet of F. X. Šalda Theatre in Liberec belongs to the category of small companies with twenty dancers or less. As the new artistic director Alena Pešková arrived in 2010, the company was enriched by an interesting creative personality full of ideas. The conditions are far from being ideal: the company is imbalanced, and it does not have a live orchestra at its disposal – apart from several exceptions. Alena Pešková has set out in the direction of independent artistic theatre and created pieces for dancers of varied skills. The decent technical skills of the dancers were the prerequisite, yet the acting and expression qualities were a must. Alena Pešková’s main asset is experimenting with theatre shapes, working with non-dancing overlaps – she is looking for innovative possibilities to interconnect speech, singing and the art of film. Referring to regional topic related to Liberec in the dramaturgy is worth mentioning as well.
The arrival of Attila Egerházi, who had been the artistic director since 2009, was crucial for the qualitative upswing of the small ballet in the South Bohemian Theatre České Budějovice. It was a rare case in the context of the Czech Republic as the choreographer shaped the company with his production and provided it with a distinctive character. In his choreographies, Egerházi was looking for new motion shapes and music inspirations. The groundbreaking production in České Budějovice was The Case of Kafka with the music collage of pieces by Arvo Pärt, Henryk Górecki and Alfred Schnittke. Otherwise, composed programs dominated the repertoire with the participation of Egerházi or top-quality choreographers of a similar nature. It was the first time the work of Václav Kuneš had appeared in the repertoire of a Czech ballet company; other famous guest choreographers were Petr Zuska, Jan Kodet, or Rui Horta. In 2016, Lukáš Slavický became the director and it would be too early to define the way he wants to follow. He has managed to pursue acquisitions, such as the adaptation of Libor Vaculík’s successful ballet Valmont for the summer open-air stage in Český Krumlov or approaching the renowned Petr Zuska for creating a new ballet.
The cultural offer in Ústí nad Labem is permanently in danger due to regional politicians. The North Bohemian Theatre of Opera and Ballet is in a complicated situation, which is the only “music and dance” theatre with the status of a limited liability company co-owned by the town and the region. The ballet company led by Margarita Plešková is naturally influenced by the complicated situation as well.
The ballet in the Silesian Theatre Opava is a special case. The company is not formally independent and falls within the competence of the opera. Most performances are played in the music theatre, yet it also stages one ballet premiere per year. The conditions of the ballet in Opava are humble – the overall number of dancers dropped to eight several years ago and the budget is very limited. One of the active dancers is usually in charge of the company, now it is Martin Tomsa.


The network of ballet companies is complemented by two significant companies of Prague dance conservatories (Bohemia Ballet and Ballet Praha Junior) and several independent companies with the Prague Chamber Ballet having chief status. It was established back in 1975 and it brought new choreographic methods in Czechoslovak ballet during the normalization. The shaping person of the company was Pavel Šmok, whose choreographies have been on the repertoire until nowadays. The Prague Chamber Ballet is currently facing the absence of a similar distinctive and creative person, who would provide it with characteristic features.
DekkaDancers with dancers from the National Theatre provides the opportunity for emerging young choreographers – Ondřej Vinklát, Štěpán Pechar or Marek Svobodník. Ballet Hommes Fatals is also linked to dancers from the National Theatre in Prague. It is a travesty company professionally engaged in ballet parodies.
We can trace several positive trends in Czech ballet. Apart from a dense network of companies, we can prove their great productivity (the number of performances as well as a growing number of visitors). Thanks to big competition and the arrival of foreign dancers, the interpretation level has improved significantly even in smaller regional companies. Ballets are more elaborate and successful in approaching the audiences, and are open for cooperation with interesting foreign authors.