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About ballet, life and ovations

A quick interview – the ballet master Michaela Černá: I make sure, ballet has a soul

Karolína Lišková
18.Mar 2019
+ Add on Seznam.cz
9 minutes

Life is movement for her. She danced in Prague, Russia, America or even in Cuba. She played the part of every imaginable famous character, whether it was Odette in Swan Lake, Lady Macbeth in Macbeth or the girl in Carmina Burana. The list is long. But despite all the jumps and hoops and life obstacles, Michaela Černá always returned to the Prague National Theatre, where she currently holds the position of ballet master. And although she isn‘t a star on the stage per say, she remains a star behind it. Last year she celebrated her sixtieth birthday, but you’d be far from thinking that. She found time in her busy program for an interview with Luxury Prague Life, and talked not only about what ballet means to her.

You were a ballet dancer until the age of thirty-eight, since then you’ve been a ballet master. Is that correct?

I started my professional career as a solo ballet dancer at the National theatre in Bratislava. Two years later, I went on to the National theatre in Prague, as well as a solo ballet dancer. And then I became a ballet master here.

Recently you celebrated your sixtieth birthday, so you’ve been a ballet master for twenty-two years.

Yes. It’s incredible how time flies. I had the fortune of continuing in an environment that I like to be in after my active career.

A ballet master also works in the role of a teacher who leads trainings, which could be warm-up exercises of dancers before a whole day of rehearsals, or before a performance. One of my most beloved teachers instilled in us, that traning is a kind of breakfast of dancers. The way you do the warm-up will affect your entire day. A ballet master is, at the same time, the assistant choreographer. When for example, a choregraph creates a ballet, we take over, teach it and then we look after it and practice. Or, in adopting finished ballets, the assistant choregrapher studies it here. We then become the assistants of assistants. Basically, our work entails taking care of the performances in the repertoir. 

Luxusní vila na prodej v okolí Prahy - 320m
Luxusní vila na prodej v okolí Prahy - 320m,

You were incredibly lucky that you could keep doing ballet. You didn’t have to retire like the other ballet dancers, and work as a secretary somewhere. Even so, do you still dance sometimes?

Yes I do, but just for myself. But in my mind I’m always dancing. And when I look at my dancers, then I always dance with them, even though I’m sitting. But foremost, I try to make my dancers perform their best. I always think about how to show and pass on everything, so that they understand, and so that they do it with ease.

In collective dances it’s very important that all dancers dance ‘the same’, but at the same time it’s important, that it doesn’t look like some communist type performance, but a dance which has a soul. In solo parts, technique is also very important. And again… It has to have a soul as well. And that’s what we ballet masters have in our responsibility. When we finish rehearsing and we go sit into the audience, then we watch the result in great suspense.

Every profession has its beautiful moments. I’ve had an extraordinary amount of moments, when somebody was applauding. I am incredibly happy, when the dancers do well and when I myself contributed with some of my remarks and advice. I enjoy their success on the inside. And I really want them to experience the short and transient moment, when a spark jumps from the podium to the audience, and it reacts in return.

Do you ever regret that you’ve never tried any other profession?

Not really. In my youth, the paths of fate led me to ballet. I started with sport, gymnastics and ice-skating. I started with ballet quite late. When I was nine. To this day, I think that gymnastics is a good foundation for ballet and dancing in general.

That journey wasn’t easy. There was always some obstacle that got in the way, but fate always brought me back. As an example, I remember that when I started doing ballet, I was the smallest in class, and when I was fifteen I had a growth spurt. Then a teacher came from Russia, who didn’t mind, he removed the obstacle and I made it. Suddenly, I was in competitions and I was winning awards.

There are many examples like this. Whether they’re involuntary, such as injuries, operations, illnesses and so on, or voluntary, such as suspending my career, for example due to pregnancy. That’s why I think it’s important to cherish the little things, to keep believing and not let things break you. Life is beautiful. You never know, what fate will bring, whether good or bad.

For me, it’s incredible to manage to return to ballet despite illness or pregnancy, that specifically has a very big impact on a woman’s body.

It’s not exactly easy, and it requires patience, willpower and diligence. But I always say, that ballet and dancing is a kind of healthy drug.

You overcome illness and pain with dance. It’s a hard sport, also because there is huge competition. What was the competition like when you used to dance?

Competition always was, is and will be. Every time period has its own kind, and they can’t be compared. I don’t like to compare.

You’re in your second marriage now. Husbands are dancers?

No, I have musicians. (lauughter) The first one was a violinist, and the second one is a contrabassist. My husband Jiří Hudec plays in the Czech Philharmonic. We’re together to this day, and we have a son Pavel.

And the son doesn’t follow in your foosteps, of ballet?

No, my son follows in the steps of his father, in music and contrabass. He also likes to draw and paint. So, he is artististically minded.

How old were you, when you went to Russia or to America?

Seventeen.

During the regime, that there was back then, you experienced the wide world, and what’s more, at such a young age. What did you feel?

I loved ballet so much, that I only thought about ballet, and everything that came with it. I went to Petersburg with Luboš Kafka, a friend who was two years older and who also loved ballet. We were all so into ballet, that we didn’t really see reality. When I look back, I have the feeling, that we were living in some sort of dream. At the time, there weren’t any videos and the opportunity to go study in Leningrad (Petersburg today) was an amazing experience. We tried to absorb what we could. The way I had memorized the best was the one from the dormitory to the school, where I spent the whole day, and the the way back. 

Luxusní byt na prodej Praha - 320m
Luxusní byt na prodej Praha - 320m, Praha 5

Some nights, or at the weekends we would go to the theatre. We even had our final performance at the Mariinsky Theatre, which left the kind of impression in me that I’ve kept my whole life. The first time in my whole life I experienced great success, ovations, and then quiet at the dormitory. Well, that was a kind of big wake up call into reality. And back then I thought of the saying – fame will pass, like field grass. But that moment of joy is beautiful.

I lived in a dormitory with two Iras from Yakutsk, and we spent a beautiful time together. We talked a lot and I learned Russian. But when someone asks me, what does Petersburg look like, I can’t give them much of an answer. As a tourist, I’d still have to go.

You haven’t been there since then?

Unfortunately not.

Where were you, specifically, in America?

From Russia, I went straight to America, to Saratoga in the state of New York. There are summer ballet courses at the Saratoga Ballet Center in the USA, which I could attend thanks to the award I won in Lausanne. I didn’t know any English, the only thing I knew was ‘hello, how are you’. My dad was freaking out. But I didn’t take it too bad, I was looking forward to what new things from dance and ballet I’ll learn and see. And apart from ballet, they were teaching me English. In four weeks, I could already speak quite well.

What did your parents say? They couldn’t have been happy that you were leaving them at such a young age, and what’s more, so far away…

I guess not. I guess you’d have to ask them. On the other hand, they knew that it was good for me career-wise. But today I admire them, especially for who they were back then.

Back then, there was no skype…

Today, it’s probably quite unimaginable for someone, not even I am able to imagine it today. We pretty much left and disappeared. The only option was to order a telephone call from Petersburg once a month. Most of the time we wrote each other letters. And in America, they practically had no information about me for four weeks, because there was still the iron curtain.

Even there, were you not aware that you were in the west due to ballet?

Yes, I really only perceived the things that had to do with ballet and dancing. I was ecstatic. There was even George Balanchine there at the time with the New York City Ballet, and I was given the opportunity to go to a training with professional dancers of this group. With the stars, that I only knew from pictures! I thought it was a miracle, and it really helped me, because I saw , that there were even some dancers taller then me. I told myself, that it doesn’t matter if a person is small or big, what’s important is what he can do. And also if you’re likeable or not.

But I’ve also come across choreographers, who preferred taller dancers, and they cast me into roles, that I myself wouldn’t apply for.

You like to ski, but back then a sport such as this was banned due to work.

Yes, skiing wasn’t very popular. I skiid when I was fourteen in rubber boots. But then, they advised against that, and I put skiing off for many years. When I stopped doing ballet at the age of fourty, I thought to myself, maybe I’m an old ballet dancer, but I’m a young woman. My ex-husband liked to ski, all my children skiid. (From her first marriage, her husband has the daughter Martina, and the son Tom). I tried on the new shoes, which seemed like casts compared to the rubber boots I was used to wearing. But when I realized, how great they were to ski in, I applied for a skiing lesson along with my son Pavel, who was four years old back then. I wanted to know how to ski on carving skiis. Then I snow plowed down my first hill, and I got really into it. I’m careful, but I really enjoy skiing. Now, I don’t snow plow anymore, I just ski.

It must be really difficult to learn something like that after the age of fourty.

It isn’t, I started skating again. As a child I skated until the age of nine. I thought I’ve forgotten all of it, but I bought skates – and lo and behold, I was skating.

Aren’t you afraid? The older I am, the more careful I am when I’m trying something new…

You know the saying… What you learn when you’re young… you’ll as if find in your old age.

That’s the saying, but I didn’t believe it was true.

I also didn’t believe it. But once, I got this great craving to go skating again, so I put my skates on and I thought to myself ‘oh, this is slippery’. But in a few moments, I found my balance, and it kept coming back. I also like bike riding. You can’t just stop with your active physical life. The body is used to movement its whole life. Maybe you don’t need it as much, but even then sometimes you get a real craving for exercise. Moreover, when you stretch and exercise or you feel better with some other physical activity, it will make you happy and feel better. Apart from physically active hobbies I also like to crochet. I really enjoy it.

A lot of people have a lot of health problems, and see doctors by the age of sixty. Do ballet dancers have some issues that others don’t?

They do. For example with their back. Which is why any physical activity is beneficial. Otherwise muscles will start to loosen up and start hurting. I have to sit straight, then my back doesn’t hurt.

And what about toes? After all, you always stand on your toes…

Should I show them to you? (laughter) ‘On her head a kerchief pinned, with a stick – crook-legged creature‘. I have incredibly crooked toes, especially my big toe. (an inturned big toe) The hallux used to bring me a lot of pain when I was young. Back then they told me to put curd cheese, or raw potatoes on them and so on.

Then one orthopedist told me, that I should most of all pick my shoes right. I don’t wear pointed shoes at all, and I can’t wear high heels either. Then my big toe hurts. I choose my shoes with great care, so that they’re suitable healthwise. And I have training ballerinas at the ballet hall, which are tailored to fit. 

What performance are you preparing at the moment?

Our new upcoming premiere will be my beloved ballet about swans. ‘Swan Lake” by John Crank from Stuttgart, will be performed by Andria Hall, Birgit Deharde and Filip Barankiewicz. I’m glad, that I can be in our team of ballet masters, who share in the preparations of this great masterpiece. (Terezka Podařilová, Nelly Danko, Jiří Kodym and Alexej Afanasiev).

Thank you very much for the interview.

About ballet, life and ovations

Life is movement for her. She danced in Prague, Russia, America or even in Cuba. She played the part of every imaginable famous character, whether it was Odette in Swan Lake, Lady Macbeth in Macbeth or the girl in Carmina Burana. The list is long. But despite all the jumps and hoops and life obstacles, Michaela Černá always returned to the Prague National Theatre, where she currently holds the position of ballet master. And although she isn‘t a star on the stage per say, she remains a star behind it. Last year she celebrated her sixtieth birthday, but you’d be far from thinking that. She found time in her busy program for an interview with Luxury Prague Life, and talked not only about what ballet means to her.

Fast confession:

What’s the first thing that comes to mind when I say ballet?

Beauty.

When you were little, what did you want to become?

Either an artist, or a ballet dancer. The roughest diet you’ve ever tried? A three day fast, it was quite enjoyable, but I’m never trying that again. (laughter)

The worst pain, you’ve ever experienced from dancing?

When I dislocated my back.

The most beautiful feeling that ballet ever let you experience?

A feeling of fulfillment.

What else apart from ballet can you not imagine your life without?

Without movement.

What is lacking in today’s ballet dancers?

Nothing, I think theyre great, and moreover, they foray into many genres.

What dancing style do you like?

Any that has a spark.

Should a ballet dancer have a plan B?

Not on stage, but in life probably.

What did ballet give and what did it take?

Well, most of all it gave me a life of fulfillment, and I think it didn’t take anything.

What do you still want to achieve in dancing?

Im happy.

A recipe for how to persevere?

Optimism, and to enjoy the little things.

Which politician in your opinion ‘dances as he sees fit’?

I think that politicians rather speak, than dance.

Where in the world was dancing the best for you?

Everywhere. I have great memories from Petersburg, Saratoga in the USA and Cuba.
The interviewee asks the interviewer:

Do you like dancing?

I like dancing most of all.
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