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Jana Bohutínská - Throwing Down the Gauntlet to Czech Dance

In this article I reflect on the factors and circumstances that, in my opinion (thus from a purely subjective viewpoint, albeit one cultivated by years of theoretical-critical work in the field), are changing or will change and are significantly affecting or will affect the identity of dance identity and physical theatre in the Czech Republic. I focus on four factors and regard them as interconnected. How the dance field faces up to them will determine how they in turn influence the internal and external strength of the field.

Change

There’s a saying that ‘change is life’. Life is indeed about change, but the opposite is also true. Change is a basic human disposition. We are programmed for change. Were it not so, we would neither grow nor grow old, we would lack the ability to learn, we would be unable to absorb nutrients from food and expel everything we don’t need from our bodies, we would be unable to breathe.

If change were not a part of what it means to be human, we would be unable to live at all. However, some changes we experience as easy, while others are felt to be incredibly difficult or even impossible. John Whitmore has pointed out that many people are left disconcerted by the sense of insecurity and fear change evokes and introduces.[1] Moreover, we live in a world that is changing almost from one day to the next; where people, too, are changing rapidly. Whitmore adds that people want to be able to influence the world around them and to have choices and this is part of a fundamental process of change that society acknowledges and is represented as a transition from ‘coercion’  to ‘choice’.[2] He argues that change in life is the norm[3] and therefore it is essential to learn to be flexible and adaptable. 

In conformity with the law of action and reaction, it’s understandable that in a world where change is the norm, there are surges in conservatism, traditionalism, nationalism, and ideology – locally and globally. Their objective is to re-establish a widely shared sense of stability, to take stand for this putative good, and to achieve this if necessary even by force. This is absurd and has no hope of success. ‘Responsibility requires the possibility to choose. The possibility to choose implies freedom.’[4] Responsibility and freedom are not, however, regarded by everyone positively. For many they also represent terrible demons. That is the reality.

And what does this have to do with dance? It exists in this same world of change and it can choose between the path of flexibility and adaptability and the path of conservatism and ideology. There is much we perceive as a change for the worse – less money, a cultural minister worse than the one before, an even deeper lack of understanding for the importance of our field. We want laws and rules that mark out our rights and demands, we call for responsibility for the culture of the state – we actually want the frame to be tighter. On the other hand, in reality we are masters of flexibility and adaptability. In reality we know how to react to challenges. We just don’t always grasp them as challenges presented to us by the fact that we live and work in a free society and then feel a substantial dose of resentment (for instance, financial support from the state and the municipalities has for us come to be so taken for granted that we don’t like to admit that it is in fact a privilege; and we don’t want to acknowledge how much such support is actually constraining and entangles us in power structures, and there is also the question of to what extent those who receive support can genuinely and freely criticise power; for us, the only acceptable direction of support is for it to continuously grow, not noticing that the priorities of society are also dynamic – but when we don’t get the money, we again do our best and we look for and find other funding opportunities).

A positive development, in my opinion, is that the sentimental view that under the previous regime culture was important and supported and not marginalised like today is slowly vanishing from the public space. Whoever says this, however, always ‘forgets’ to add that under socialism culture was above all an important medium of ideological propaganda and those artists who did not support the regime eked out a miserable living and were faced with oppression and a ban.

Supply and demand

Dance in the Czech Republic (that is, those of its protagonists who are entirely or at least somewhat flexible and adaptable) is experimenting with new approaches to funding and working with the public. Creators and organisers are taking advantage of the possibilities of crowdfunding (for example, the dancer and choreographer Dora Sulženko Hoštová, for the premiere of her work Proces (The Trial) 2014, obtained funding through the domestic crowdfunding portal Everfund.cz, which was developed as one of the activities of Pilsen – European Capital of Culture 2015; or Studio Alta, which is trying to develop itself through Hithit.com) and participatory planning on dramaturgical preparations (e.g. for the programme for Ponec Theatre for 2016).

Attempts to directly draw the spectator into the creative process can be observed being employed not just at the start but also in the course of the creative process – evidence of this is for instance the use of open rehearsals, presenting work in progress, or discussions with audiences following a performance. The spectator thus becomes a co-creator no longer just through mental work on the Ingarden level, but also genuinely collaborates with the creators. In dance this strengthens the community spirit and also cultivates a – until recently rather denigrated – view of audiences as customers and creative work as a matter of supply and demand. That this process directly impinges on the very nature of creative work and influences its identity probably needs little discussion. As we shall see.

The minority

In its first issue of 2015 the weekly Ekonom[5] published the results of a large survey conducted by TNS Aisa focusing on satisfaction among the Czech public. The findings do not make optimistic reading. Czechs are rather increasingly dissatisfied with their lives and are continuing to withdraw into their private lives (this tendency resembles one observed under the communist regime, only the reasons for its occurrence are different from what they were then). To the question of what provides them with a sense of confidence and self-assurance, only three per cent of women and men asked responded ‘work’. This strikes me as alarming. Czechs seem to have even more profoundly overlooked the fact that satisfaction is not a gift from above but something that can be worked on, and that everyone is responsible for his or her own satisfaction.

The survey also examined what leisure-time activities Czechs engage in at least once a week. Attending cultural activities was indicated by 20 per cent of people aged fifteen to nineteen, after which the frequency decreases with age, and among thirty-year-olds and thirty-nine-year-olds the share of those who set out somewhere at least once a week is just 10 per cent. With a little exaggeration then, culture-loving citizens might very well apply for a right to protection as a minority. This corresponds to the observation that ‘intellectuals like people of faith and artists belong to that small part of the population that genuinely needs freedom, whereas the large majority of our fellow citizens can perhaps get by without it. It is important to bear this in mind, and intellectuals who do not concern themselves with this are playing with fire. They cannot expect that someone else will secure this freedom on their behalf.’[6]

If we place alongside this the importance of culture for life in the European space and for European identity and democracy in Europe, which is something discussed mostly by those of us who genuinely need culture and the arts for our lives because we know that they are a source of essential values for society and a zone of freedom,[7] and we are convinced that they are directly or indirectly also needed by others who however themselves do not share this conviction, we arrive at a crucial paradox. However, this paradox will again only be grasped by those who understand that no simplifying black-and-white answers really exist in the world – and it is from culture or more narrowly the arts that we derive this understanding. We are moving in circles when we try to explain our position – it is easy to make the argument to people who share this conviction, but difficult to do so to everyone else who does not understand our point of view, and they make up the majority. 

In conformity with the law of action and reaction, it is understandable that even within the world of culture (and the arts) there blows a breeze that wants to destroy it (them) – if it were at all possible. The unacceptability of complexity is engenders efforts to simplify – to offer easily intelligible TV series in place of the arts, to promote the influence of ‘safe’ models in place of ‘dangerously’ making the world a subject of inquiry. I am writing this text in Prague, the capital of a country whose inhabitants, after a quarter century of democracy, unfortunately elected Miloš Zeman President in the first direct presidential elections  – a person who has built and continues to build his image on increasingly vulgar simplifications (for example, he proposed dealing with the current problem of extremist-Islamic terrorism in Europe by deporting the Muslim minority from Europe, regardless of what generation of European Muslims these individuals are and what opinions these people espouse individually; he enjoys reviving issues from the past and amplifies the sense of threat, and that moreover is in part what won him the elections) and who evidently regards vulgarity as an advantage (in a populist spirit it corresponds precisely to what his voters expect from him).

Dance is also susceptible to simplification, but it seems to me that owing to its nature, as a physical and abstract art based on movement, rather less so than is straight drama for instance. It is much harder to project into dance a simplified view of the world adopted from tabloid magazines or TV series or to read such a view in dance than it is to do with words in the realm of drama. Fortunately dance is not as susceptible to falling into the trap of attempting to lure in audiences with the faces and words of wisdom of ‘stars’ and compete with TV entertainment – nor by its very nature does dance have any simple means by which it could do this. I do not share the distaste for elitism and I find nothing wrong with the existence of the arts, which are expensive and may not be intellectually accessible to everyone, and that goes against the spirit of egalitarianism so deeply engrained in Czech society[8] (it should be noted that the only truly intellectual drama stage in Prague, the Prague Chamber Theatre (Pražské komorní divadlo), ended up having to close its doors owing to a lack of financial resources; we don’t want to invest in minorities, and we regularly demonstrate this to ourselves and the world through our approach to the Roma minority and the almost fascistic rhetoric that governs the debate on home births in the Czech Republic) and against (at least the declared) inclinations of many dance artists. On the other hand, attempts to clarify, discuss, refine, and cultivate is not the same thing as simplification, just as an experience lived is different from an experience that is mediated and often full of stereotypes and preconceptions.[9]

Memory

‘Sight without memory is blind.’[10] At least twenty years of independent dance in the Czech Republic since 1989 is from today’s perspective now history – a history that needs close and unsparing reflection. And we engage in such reflection rarely, tamely. Dance in the Czech Republic[11] is the only professional publication[12] that attempts to engage in this kind of reflection on and documentation of dance (independent and otherwise). But that is just one perspective. We need multiple points of view – a discussion. We also however need extensive documentation. Because people leave the profession and, given the ephemeral nature of the dance arts, names vanish into oblivion. Twenty-something today do not even know the names of artists that we, thirty-somethings, not long ago regarded as key figures in the dance world.

A positive thing is that a wider discussion is now erupting on dance education, on issues related to its transformation after 1989, or to be more precise, how under democracy schools have not changed as much as we expected they would (and here I too am giving in to the danger of preconceptions ...) and as much as would be desirable. Most debates on the key conditions surrounding the contemporary dance scene in the Czech Republic wind up as a discussion of how desperately out-dated dance education is (with the exceptions confirming the rule). Even the social issues connected with the profession of dance and the problem of employment in the profession refer back to education (primarily at the secondary level) and the destructive authoritative conservatism of its ideology, system of teaching, and its everyday approach to children and young people. We devote too little critical attention to assessing how those who become the elites in the profession relate to graduates of dance schools and the possibilities they have or do not have for entering the dance world, establishing themselves, and obtaining financial support. We are not scrutinising the conditions of the grant systems (we’re glad we have them) in relation to changes in the dance world and the related need for changes (for example, we have failed to address the issue of independent funding for emerging artists and still unfairly compare them to established artists, and equally unfairly we compare established professionals with those who are just starting out; we remain unbothered by the fact that we do this is a world where it has become almost fashionable to support start-ups and cultivate an approach to innovation not just on the level of rhetoric but on the level of real action).

And this is just one fragment of our liabilities. In my view, there are four main reasons and again they are interrelated: 1) The protagonists in this tale are still active in the profession and from the perspective of the hierarchy of custom they are still important. 2) Theorists and critics associated with the dance profession in the Czech Republic can be counted in small numbers, so who is supposed to do all this work and on top of that provide a meta-reflection of the profession as a whole and inquire into its meaning and ‘social relevance’?[13] 3) So much time and labour is required to bring about any change on the professional, municipal and state level that a revision might be the equivalent of sawing out from under us the branch that it cost us so much effort to climb up on in the first place. 4) Those who reach a certain position in the profession are rarely interested in subjecting the profession to critical reflection, because they feel a direct threat to themselves in doing so. And in the Czech Republic, even leaving the profession is dealt with abnormally – it is perhaps symbolic that a play called Leaving was one of the last works by the foresightful Václav Havel.

References:

Václav Havel: Odcházení, vyd. Respekt Publishing, Praha 2007

Chip Heath & Dan Heath: Proměna. Jak věci změnit, když je změna zdánlivě nemožná, vyd. Jan Melvil Publishing, Brno 2011 (v originále vyšlo jako Switch: How to change things when change is hard)

Petr Hlaváček (ed.): Intelektuál ve veřejném prostoru, Vzdělanost, společnost, politika, vyd. Academia, Praha 2012

Ladislav Holý: Malý český člověk a skvělý český národ. Národní identita a postkomunistická transformace společnosti, vyd. Slon, Praha 2010 (v originále vyšlo jako The Little Czech and the Great Czech Nation. National identity and post-communist social trsnsformation)

Mikhail Iampolski: The Memory of Tiresias. Intertextuality and film, vyd. University of California Press, USA 1998

Jana Návratová, Roman Vašek a kol.: Tanec v České republice, vyd. Institut umění – Divadelní ústav, Praha 2010

John Whitmore: Koučování. Rozvoj osobnosti a zvyšování výkonnosti. Metoda transpersonálního koučování, vyd. Management Press, Praha 2011 (originally published in English as Coaching for Performance. GROWing Human Potential and Purpose. The Principles and Practice of Coaching and Leadership)


[1]   John Whitmore: Koučování. Rozvoj osobnosti a zvyšování výkonnosti. Metoda transpersonálního koučování, vyd. Management Press, Praha 2011, p. 38 (Coaching for Performance. GROWing Human Potential and Purpose. The Principles and Practice of Coaching and Leadership).

[2]   Ibid., p. 41.

[3]   Ibid., p. 43.

[4]   Ibid., p. 42.

[5]   The economics weekly Ekonom is published by Economia, Prague, in Czech.

[6]   Milena Bartlová: Alternativa k penězům je násilí. Rozhovor s Janem Sokolem o křesťanech v politice, systémové korupci a kulturních proměnách (The Alternative to Money is Violence. An Interview with Jan Sokol on Christians in Politics, Systemic Corruption, and Cultural Change), in: Petr Hlaváček (ed.): Intelektuál ve veřejném prostoru. Vzdělanost, společnost, politika, published by Academia, Praha 2012, p. 23.

[7]   According to a British study, there is a strong link between the arts and the individual sense of contentment, and the arts are also significantly tied to what we summarily refer to as well-being as a theme than resonates in advanced societies. That is, in those societies that understand that it is necessary to support other things besides just employment, competitiveness, and economic growth, and to focus not just on quantity but also on quality. ‘The research measured how engaging with different arts and culture activities affected happiness, in addition to everyday activities like travelling, cooking and shopping. We measured how happy we were when we are at theatre, dance, concert, an exhibition, museum, or a library and when we are listening to music, reading, doing hobbies, arts, or crafts, singing, or performing. These activities tended to score highly in terms of levels of happiness: out of 40 activities, these were all in the top 50% and three of them are in the top five things that make you happy. The research suggests there’s only one place where you can expect to feel happier than in a theatre or concert hall – and that’s the bedroom!’ See: http://blog.artscouncil.org.uk/blog/arts-council-england-blog/happy-new-year.

[8]   ‘Social equality was an important aspect of the ideology of all former socialist countries, but in Czechoslovakia it was realised in practice to a far more significant degree than anywhere else in Eastern Europe, Czechoslovakia eliminated the private sector to a much greater extent and had a more egalitarian income policy than the other states of the socialist bloc.’ In: Ladislav Holý: The Little Czech and the Great Czech Nation. National Identity and Post-communist Social Transformation, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 1996, p. 1.

[9]   Ibid., pp. 85 – 86.

[10] Mikhail Iampolski: The Memory of Tiresias. Intertextuality and film, published by University of California Press, USA 1998, p. 2.

[11] Jana Návratová, Roman Vašek et al.: Tanec v České republice (Dance in the Czech Republic), published by Institut umění – Divadelní ústav, Praha 2010.

[12] I’m pleased that I was able to be involved in the creation of this publication.

[13] ‘Naturally, this is an “old” problem and the task of “modern” scientists (male and female), the eternal reflection of one’s own profession and inquiry into its social relevance. Most of them, I hope, have asked and ask themselves this question, and regard it as their own personal problem. It was all the more surprising to me then when my querying […] was met with silence, an uncomprehending smile, or the banal observation that they “do” “their” profession simply because they “enjoy” it. Naturally, the researcher’s curious and inquisitive investigation is in itself entertaining and an adventure, there’s nothing wrong with that. However, sometimes I encountered a certain kind of reserve, or even wariness: The meaning of it? Social role? The public? The public space? Politics? Surely not!’ Petr Hlaváček: Intelektuál? Veřejný prostor?! (Intellectuals? The Public Space?!), in: Petr Hlaváček (ed.): Intelektuál ve veřejném prostoru, Vzdělanost, společnost, politika, published by Academia, Praha 2012, p. 11.

Translation: Robin Cassling