September 4, 2016

Down-to-Earth Étoile Michal

One of the (many) fun parts of dancing for fun, and then blogging about it, is that you get to meet some pretty cool and inspiring people. Other ballet students, teachers - and professional dancers. Most of the time, we get to see performing artists only on stage... But what we see on stage, is merely the glittering tip of a dancer's life: the culmination of years and years of hard work, talent, and more work. What is it that drives a dancer to dedicate their life to dance, and what happens before and after the stage lights go on, and off again?

I first met Michal Krčmář on the Finnish National "Balletrain", June 2015, en route from Helsinki to Oulu. At the time, he was just short of turning twenty-five, already a Principal Dancer nominated as étoile. What struck me that he seemed just a regular guy, with a very amiable manner. He introduced himself (of course I already knew who he was), and we had a short but nice chat. I don't always make such an easy connection with professional dancers... Sometimes, they can be reserved or shy, or don't know what to make of a middle-aged ballet blogger. Sometimes, it's me who gets shy (more often than not). With Michal, there was no ice to be broken.

Dancers can do barre anywhere, even on the train. Photo by me. 

The first time I saw Michal Krčmář on stage was in La Bayadère. It was the retirement performance of Finnish prima ballerina Minna Tervamäki, and Michal was dancing the role of Solor to Tervamäki's Nikiya. I remember reading an amused comment from Tervamäki, regarding their age difference of twenty odd years… But, on stage, you couldn't tell. What I saw was artistry, experience and youthful exuberance. The outgoing generation meeting the next generation, at that junction were both are already/still in their prime. The standing ovations that followed were primarily for Tervamäki, of course, but it was clear that Krčmář was going places. Since that performance, I've seen him dance Basilio, the Beast (Beauty and the Beast), various princes, abstract ballets, contemporary works, even Onegin - which is a hefty role usually reserved for much older dancers.

A Dancing Summer

The last time we met (well, before this interview) was in June, at the Kuopio Dance Festival. I had signed up for a few courses, and Michal was there to perform at the Gala. We chatted over coffee, about dance, life and summer plans. A few weeks ago, we caught up - this time over a glass of champagne. Gotta love that Czech hospitality! The new season at Finnish National Ballet was already in full swing, but I wanted to know how he spent his two-month summer break. It may sound like a luxurious vacation, but no professional dancer can afford to get too relaxed over such a long period. Some time off is, of course, neccessary: to let the body rest and recover, to heal possible lingering injuries, to clear the head, and enjoy life outside of work and ballet. I've known dancers who take complete breaks, and ease back into exercise and class only weeks before the season starts. Everyone has their own style and method.

Michal Krčmář with Nela Mrazova in Spartacus

Ball-et. Michal likes to keep active: he plays soccer, ice-hockey, volleyball, does cross-country skiing, snow-boarding, swimming, cycling, break dancing (but no social dancing).

As for Michal... Well, let's just say that the man likes to keep active and busy: beginning of summer, he toured in Italy, dancing the title role of Spartacus, then flew back to Finland to dance excerpts of Bayadère and Onegin at the gala, then flew home to the Czech Republic to dance at a charity gala for the kids of the Prague State Opera School (Krčmář has been a patron since 2011), then finished the summer at the Fukuoka Ballet Festival in Japan, where he partnered four ballerinas in variations from Don Quixote, Romeo and Juliet, Esmeralda and Corsaire. He also gave classes at Fukuoka, and coached two FNB Youth Company dancers for their IBC competition variation (before leaving to rehearse Spartacus). Somewhere between guest-dancing, teaching and plane rides, he did have a two-week holiday including an annual soccer match, and does he ever rest? I wish I had even half of his energy...

With Salla Eerola, dancing an excerpt from Onegin, at the Kuopio Dance Festival (June 2016). Lower right corner: Michal with Salla, and Jorma Uotinen, Artistic Director of Kuopio Dance Festival. 

But Michal also made a point about not pushing yourself in the summer: there is no need to become better, it's enough to maintain form and to focus on just a few things. When I asked about classes, he told me that he used his balcony for barre - which is not that different from the chair I used during my summer break... PRO TIP: Yannick Boquin's master class on DVD.

The Split-Challenge and Dancing Smart

When he was a student at the ballet school, Michal did not posses the natural flexibility that allows for easy splits, and he had to put in a lot of hard work to improve. These days, he's one of the more flexible men in the company, and his grand jetés have reached full-split status long ago. But being a Principal Dancer doesn't mean you get to rest on your laurels. For any dancer, to progress and grow as an artist, means to be smart about your dancing. As Michal told me, you have to want to become better, set goals, not get comfortable. In practice, it can mean that you work more on your weak sides, or that you take class with guest teachers, or that you know which issues to focus on (as you cannot fix everything at once). It also helps to really like the work that you, as Michal does. In fact, he would love to dance even more.

"With great teacher Sandor Nemethy", after company class at the Finnish National Ballet. 


Michal Krčmář is certified to teach ballet students until the age of 15 (following a specific curriculum). He never wanted to be a teacher, but when he observed friends practicing in the studio, he saw ways to help them with their dancing - so he decided to study and take the exam at his school. While his main job is to dance, he likes to coach young(er) dancers when the schedule allows for it, and also enjoys teaching on breaks. Every year, he goes back to Prague to teach classes at the State Conservatory. Most recently, he taught at the Fukuoka Ballet Festival in Japan (where he also performed). Not just kids, but students ranging from 12 to 40 years, including ballet teachers. I've also had the pleasure of taking Michal's class on a few occasions, and it was a lot of fun. Also hard work, but in a positive way. I liked that it was not just a technical class, but that we really got to dance, and even experience what it would be like to practice and perform as a corps de ballet.

Teaching in Japan.

In Japan, étoiles really do get the star treatment :)

Zakharova and Other Favorite Partners

I asked Michal Krčmář about his dream partners, and being a perfect gentleman, he answered "all the girls at the Finnish National Ballet." So I asked what kind of qualities make someone a great partner. Obviously, they all have the technique to dance a pas de deux, but some partnerships are just more made-in-heaven than others. For Michal, it's especially rewarding to dance with someone "who is on the same wave length, where you can have a drink and a nice talk, and you have a good chemistry and connection.." As it is, dancers are not always paired according to chemistry, but to height.

Michal with Eun-Ji Ha, after the show in Seoul, during the Festival of Korean World Ballet Stars.

When Michal was dancing in Don Q, and his partner got injured shortly after the ballet had started, another principal (who just happened to be in the audience) was called on stage to save the show. Michal and Eun-Ji Ha had never danced together, and they had probably the shortest rehearsal in history, between Eun-Ji's quick change and make-up. But their impromptu pairing was magical, and a huge success with the audience. Still, it didn't result in a permanent or more regular pairing, as Michal tends to dance with the taller women, and Eun-Ji Ha with the less-taller men. They have, however, danced together at various charity/gala shows. And let's not forget about Svetlana Zakharova... When she guest-performed in FNB's production of La Bayadère (staged by Natalia Makarova), it was Michal who got to partner her. In my humble opinion, that is quite an honor for any dancer.

Svetlana Zakharova and Michal Krčmář, in La Bayadère. The Finnish National Ballet, January 2016.
Photography (c) Mirka Kleemola

Svetlana Zakharova and Michal Krčmář, in La Bayadère. The Finnish National Ballet, January 2016.
Photography (c) Mirka Kleemola

Svetlana Zakharova and Michal Krčmář, in La Bayadère. The Finnish National Ballet, January 2016.
Photography (c) Mirka Kleemola. 
After-show glow. With Svetlana Zakharova.  Photography (c) Mirka Kleemola

A Few More Questions...

What does your typical day look like, from morning until night?

I'll try to make it short: Waking up at 8:00 AM (without morning coffee I am useless). 10:00 - 11:15 morning class.  A little break, then rehearsal for an hour and half. Lunch break for 45 minutes. Another one and half hour rehearsal. 15 minutes break, and another one and half hour rehearsal. Finishing work at 17:00. I usually stay longer for stretching or sauna, and sometimes I’m helping the young ones a bit. After work, some relaxing with friends, playing games or watching a movie. Nothing special.

As a young boy, you practiced to become an ice-hockey player, but your mother introduced you to ballet lessons (at age… ). When did you decide to become a professional ballet dancer?

I was 8 years old when I tried my first ballet lesson and it was quite interesting for me. There were some ballet-specific exercises which I did not like, but the acrobatic and musicality tests were actually really cool.
When did I decide to become a professional dancer? I don't remember making that decision. This life basically chose me. As a child I had no idea what I want to do in the future and I did not have any dreams to follow. It came with age and wisdom... haha...

You were promoted to Principal Dancer at the age of 22 (and nominated to rank of étoile in 2015), and have danced all the big classical roles… What is it that keeps pushing you forward? What do you dream of dancing/achieving in your future, career-wise?

I was promoted to Principal dancer after last show of Don Quixote ( in 2011), when I danced Basilio. I think I was still 21... At that time, there were some injuries in the company which meant that I could show myself in many performances as Basilio. After 4 months in my new job, I started to get more "hungry"... Of course motivation is very important, but I think that in my case I am trying to find motivation in everything and work on myself in many ways. Simply to be a better dancer and person as well. I am trying to put my goals one by one in front of me and deal with them with patience and time. I was promoted to Étoile dancer last year in August (at the age of 25), after the first show of the season (Beauty and Beast), in front of a full auditorium and with my great colleagues on the stage beside me.

Backstage, during Don Quixote. Photography (c) Sakari Viika.

I remember during school years teachers were pushing us to work hard, but not so many of them were actually dancing leading roles almost every day... What I am trying to say: hard work is important, but it is not for stupid people. We as dancers must be very smart to achieve big roles and then to stay in condition to remain on top for many years. It requires smart way of thinking, taking good care of ourselves, "mental balance and peace" and PATIENCE!!!
My big dream is to help people, dancers, and be an example. Be the kind of person people will remember as someone who did good things, and left something nice in this place (when I will be not here anymore). I never forget where I am coming from, who I am - and I never want to become selfish and snobbish. I want to stay as I am... Be there for people who need me.

Are there any specific choreographers you hope to work with?

There has always been one thing in my heart. Work with Yuri Grigorovich and dance his Spartakus. If it would be possible, I would love to have a coffee with John Cranko and thank him for everything he has done. I would love to show him his huge influence on many choreographers and the ballet world as we know today... 

With Yuri Grigorovich

Any specific ballets you would like to dance in?

Armand Duval in Kameliendame by John Neumeier. 

Have you had any (funny) mishaps on stage?

During my graduation show in 2009 we had quite a funny moment. After the classical part where I danced Frondozo from Laurencia we performed the contemporary part. Right in the middle of the number, a small dog came running on the stage. The dog had just ran away from the costume department straight onto the stage. It was very funny, the audience liked it and nobody was angry. After the show everybody was laughing. It was not even bad for the show, because the dog actually fitted in that piece.... haha.

What has been your most challenging role/ballet so far?

It is so hard to say... I am sorry, I don't know. Almost every production is challenging in a different kind of way (now I feel that I answered like some politician).

Morning company class alone is not enough to stay in performing shape. How do you train outside of class?

I love to do sports. Any sport and to keep moving somehow, is best for me and my body. The worst is when I stop and do nothing. 

Who are (some of) your favorite dancers, or colleagues that you look up to?

Of course my biggest idol was and still is M. Baryshnikov. It will never change!

What inspires you?

Music!!! Mozart or Hans Zimmer. I am spending hours with them and many others as well. I cannot imagine my life without music. I used to say: Music is like the Sun and dance is like the Earth. Sun can be without Earth but Earth can't be without Sun. Same like music can exist without dance but dance without music is only movement. These two elements must be closely connected, then I love my job with all my heart.

Your brother Martin is following in your footsteps, and has joined FNB’s Youth Company this season… Do you give him any advice, or corrections?
With brother Martin, at his graduation ceremony.

Yes I do, but there are much better people for helping him here and now in the Finnish National Ballet than me. If he will start to do some soloist roles in future, then I think I can help him more than now.  

How did you adjust to working at FNB, and living in Finland? 
(this question is from Eeva, a big fan of yours :).

Very easily. I am very adaptable. I very much like the way of preparing shows which we perform usually for one month. It is very good in cases when you don't like a production which is in the repertoire in that moment, because you know that it will be soon over. It also gives you more experiences and more chances to work with interesting people. Thanks to FNB, I’ve been able to work with people like Natalia Makarova, Patrice Bart, Nacho Duato, Jorma Elo and many others...

Living in Finland for me is basically 90% work and focusing on that. When I have free time I travel to explore, meet new people and get new contacts.

You’ve talked about being a “smart dancer”, knowing when to push/pace yourself, and the importance about working outside your comfort zones. You’ve also taught kids, adults, and coached dancers from the Youth Company. As a dancer/teacher, what observations have you made? What kind of advice would you like to give adult ballet students?

In the first place you have to love it. And then, you should not forget to have joy from working on yourself. In many cases dancers are practicing things which they are good at. For example, people who are flexible like to stretch, or people who have natural turns like to practice pirouettes. I learnt that practicing my weak sides is making me a very adaptable dancer - and the things I am good at are actually becoming easier because. That’s what I mean when I say it’s important to get out of your comfort zone.

My biggest advice is to stay positive and be patient! Work smart and not always hard. We all have only one healthy body.

In your career so far, who has/have been your most important influences?

Definitely my teacher from school, Jury Slypych, former Principal Dancer in Kiev and Prague. When he started to teach me, he was 35 and I was 15. He taught me a lot about how to think about ballet, how to put sense into work, into the story, creating a role, acting and technical stuff as well. When he gave his retirement performance in Don Quixote, I got to share the stage with my former mentor, now both of us principal dancers. But, I must admit that I take advice from everybody. Everybody can give me something. Even if some person has nothing to give me, I can always take it in a good fashion. In that case: How to not do it.... 

With teacher Jury Slypych, after his last show of Don Quixote (2012). Slypych danced the role of Espada, Michal danced Basilio.

At FNB, you take company class with the Ballet Master and guest teachers… Do you have a trusted coach, someone you prepare roles with (when it’s not the choreographer)?

Ingrid Nemeckova, our first ballet mistress. She is a fantastic coach, always caring and keeping me in shape. Thank god. Sometimes, if the Director Kenneth Greve is not busy I work with him. It is also very important for a male dancer to get some tricks from a much more experienced dancer. I am happy to have people like them in the company.

What are your interests outside of ballet (in addition to your sports)?

My big hobby is going out with friends. Organize events or parties. Video games and of course traveling.  

What advice would you like to give young(er) dancers? 

Keep trying, keep working, stay patient, stay healthy, never give up, don't let anyone push you down, help others, communicate, don't hesitate asking for help, don't forget to have a life, love and family.

Michal can currently be seen on stage in Nataliá Horečná's new production of Romeo and Juliet (dancing the role of a "Spirit"). Between shows and classes, he is rehearsing for Jorma Elo's new ballet Alice in Wonderland (Liisa ihmemaassa), which will premiere in October 2016.

Interview by Johanna Aurava

September 3, 2016

Love Sprung from Hate: A New Romeo and Juliet

Review: Nataliá Horečná: Romeo and Juliet (Romeo ja Julia)
The Finnish National Ballet, August 26, 2016

Nataliá Horečná: Romeo and Juliet. Pictured Linda Haakana and Ilja Bolotov. Photography (c) Sakari Viika / Finnish National Ballet

Going to see the Finnish National Ballet's new Romeo & Juliet without any expectations is impossible. For one thing, there's the iconic play by William Shakespeare, penned over 400 years ago (with a story dating back even further). Second, the magnificent score by Sergei Prokofiev, composed in 1935 as a dramatic ballet - even before there were any choreographed steps. And should you have seen any of the celebrated ballets since, perhaps by Ashton, MacMillan, Cranko or Nurejev... Well, you might have a lasting impression of how the tragic love story translates into dance. Then again, it can be a wonderful thing, when you don't get what you expect.

I have to admit that I had some reservations. Last time I saw Nataliá Horečná's work on stage, I could make neither head or tails of her utopian vision. In hindsight, I should have have left the libretto unread and not attempted to make any sense of it. One does not always have to "understand" art: your reception and interpretation can be different from those of friends and contemporary critics, and still be just as valid. The dancing itself was quite extraordinary though, and there were many scenes and moments that made a lasting impression. But, with Horečná's Utopia of Another Continent in the back of my mind, I could not help but wonder: what would she make of R & J, and would I even be able to recognize it? Nor was I enamoured by the press photos: costumes austere and grey, and dancers wearing not pointe shoes or slippers, but socks. It's just a personal matter of taste, but I dislike socks on dancers. Bare feet, yes. Flesh-colored slippers, yes. Nude paws, too. But socks look like contemporary dance class to me, not what I would expect in a season-opening premiere of the National Ballet. Others will disagree, and I'm fine with that.

The ballet starts with a prologue: introducing characters and foreshadowing tragedy. Romeo is first seen off-stage, hanging around next to the exit, smoking cigarette in hand. He's dressed in loose trousers and hoodie, more hip-hop than medieval Verona, a teenaged rebel without cause. On stage, all the characters/dancers, like the dramatis personae on the first pages of a play. At the back of the stage, suspended at mid-height of the curtain, two bodies entangled behind a billowing white sheet. They are lighted from behind, and we cannot make out their faces, but it is an intimate and beautiful image of love in its most sensual form...

Nataliá Horečná: Romeo and Juliet. Pictured Tiina Myllymäki and Sergei Popov as the "Spirits". Photography (c) Sakari Viika / Finnish National Ballet.

The choreographer has made some interesting choices in regard to the music. I remember hearing that Horečná would have preferred commissioning an original score, but because of time restraints she opted to use Prokofiev's famous music instead. With a major difference though: she doesn't stick to the original structure, nor does she use all of the pieces the way Prokofiev had intended. With some scenes/dances it works wonders. For instance, the Dance of the Knights is used not in a courtly ball, but in a fight scene... For me, that particular theme has always had an ominous and foreboding quality. Reminiscent of Darth Vader, if you're familiar with Star Wars. Which is why it works. Towards the end of the ballet, the music becomes even darker and more violent, in tune with tragedy, despair and hate... Lest I forget to to write down my appreciation of the orchestra: it was phenomenal. Pietro Rizzo was the conductor in the premiere, and he lifted an already beautiful score to new heights. If I hadn't been there to see the ballet, I would have closed my eyes and let my ears have all the joy.

At other times, the union of choreography and music is less fortunate. The Balcony Scene, Romeo's Variation, and the Love Dance - it's not the climax I've come to expect from Romeo and Juliet. It is not the fault of the dancers, they're dancing their hearts out... In fact, it's not really a question of fault at all. But if you've seen Cranko's or MacMillan's versions, live, or on youtube (Bolle and Ferri!), then Horečná's interpretation falls short of ecstasy. These are not the Romeo and Juliet that elevate dancers into ballet stardom (or the roles most dancers dream of). However, if you have never seen R & J, or cleanse your memory plate beforehand, then it's quite wonderful in its own right. Horečná paints Romeo and Juliet as innocents, giddy in their newfound desire for each other. At times, I feel that their childlike expression (in movement) is almost too much of a contrast to their passionate entangles and secret marriage. Yes, they are innocents, barely past childhood - but they are not without upbringing. Juliet's defiance at her father looks like a much younger child having a tantrum. Still, you cannot help but feel for these two, wish things would turn out differently, but knowing tragedy is ahead...

Nataliá Horečná: Romeo and Juliet. Linda Haakana as Juliet. Photography (c) Sakari Viika / Finnish National Ballet.

Linda Haakana danced the role of Juliet in the premiere. I get the sense that she is a perfect embodiment of Horečná's vision. She does not act Juliet, she is Juliet. Sweet and spirited, with a free will that won't bend to patriarchal society. To think that women are still regarded in too many cultures as objects to be possessed... How sad that Shakespeare's play is still relevant in so many dark aspects. Pride, hate, fear of the other, violence. Is it all written into humanity's genetic code? Romeo and Juliet have to suffer their tragic fate because they cannot escape the mistakes and heavy burdens of previous generations. This is a story ballet that one cannot take lightly. Ilja Bolotov danced the role of Romeo, a perfect match to Haakana's Juliet. Their love and desire for each other was absolutely convincing. Bolotov is boyish in appearance, and has a beautifully buoyant quality in his dancing, light on his feet with elegant lines.

Horečná's choreography has a down-to-earth feeling. Centers of gravity are lower, and steps neither limited by classical nor contemporary conventions, if not particularly innovative. There has been talk about the portrayal of violence, the many fighting scenes between the Capulet and Montagues... But in my view, the choreography is more capoeira-esque than menacing. Until the first death, that is. The senseless tragedy of it, seeing Antti Keinänen's marvellous Mercutio lost for good. "It's only a scratch!" Horečná gives her dancers not only steps, but also a voice (which seems to be a trend in contemporary works of late). It certainly is a challenge, as some ballet dancers may be natural talents, but rarely are they trained voice actors... This time, it does work though - even when you cannot make out the lines because of the music. When Juliet cries over Romeo, we need not hear more than his name. Except, in the last big scene, when the Prince of Verona screams out in anger at the city's residents, I would have liked to understand the lines. Gabriel Davidsson (as the Prince) does have a strong presence and a voice that carries, but it's no match to the orchestral volume. To be heard above the music would have required the skills of a trained opera singer.

Nataliá Horečná: Romeo and Juliet. Artists of the Finnish National Ballet. Photography (c) Sakari Viika / Finnish National Ballet.

It is not a classical story ballet, but Horečná has not abandoned classical ballet entirely. Feet are as often pointed as they are flexed, legs lifted into arabesques and attitudes, and she makes ample use of the dancers' flexibility and high extensions. Horečná has also created new characters: two couples which embody the "Spirits" (of Romeo and Juliet?), a physical manifestation of a love that is pure and free. Why there are two couples, I don't know, but here the choreography dances into neoclassical territory. The dancers are dressed in very bare costumes: pale grey leotards/short shorts and socks in the same color. It is not to appear naked, but to be unencumbered by society, status and allegiance to any group. The casting is interesting. Three out of the four dancers are Principals with the additional rank of étoile - dancing what the film industry would deem as "guest-starring roles." I have no complaints though. Tiina Myllymäki, Sergei Popov, Michal Krčmář (the étoiles), and Anna Konkari make beautiful movement with their stage time. Myllymäki especially is absolutely exquisite with her luxurious lines and ethereal presence. As the spirits dance in and out of the story, they add an intriguing and evocative layer to the ballet.

At the Finnish National Ballet, dancers are usually required to audition for new works and visiting choreographers - and unless there are scheduling conflicts, choreographers are free to cast whichever dancers they prefer, regardless of company hierarchy. Horečná has chosen several corps members to dance featured roles, most notably Thibault Monnier as Friar Lawrence. Tall, long-limbed and with a sense of drama, Monnier cuts a striking presence on stage. But why the friar is dressed in an absurd yellow butterfly-print suit under his clerical robe is a bit of a mystery to me...

Nataliá Horečná: Romeo and Juliet. Thibault Monnier as Friar Lawrence, Linda Haakana as Juliet.
Photography (c) Sakari Viika / Finnish National Ballet.

Surprisingly, the most powerful scene is not the double suicide of Romeo and Juliet, but the moment when Lady Capulet discovers that her daughter is dead. Lady Capulet is danced by Ira Lindahl, a seasoned veteran of the corps de ballet. I have to admit that I've never noticed her before (which must also be due to the corps' function - working as a whole, not as soloists), but now I most definitely did. Lindahl expresses the mother's grief which such anguish and fierce abandon that I feel as if she is creating a vortex on stage, drawing in the sorrow of everyone who has ever lost a loved one. Brava!

Nataliá Horečná: Romeo and Juliet. Ira Lindahl as Lady Capulet. Photography (c) Sakari Viika / Finnish National Ballet.

In the end, after senseless tragedy, death and despair, there remains hope. Dancers/characters return, one by one, disrobing until all external symbols of social status are erased. Nataliá Horečná wants to tell us that underneath we are all the same creatures, wishing for happiness, wanting to love and be loved in return. Let go of hate. In these times of ours, more than ever.

Go see with an open mind, and take someone who has never been to the ballet. Balettikassi gives Nataliá Horečná's Romeo and Juliet three and a half stars ★★★✰☆

Choreography: Nataliá Horečná
Music: Sergei Prokofiev
Conductor: Pietro Rizzo
Scenery and costumes: Christiane Devos
Lighting design: Mario Ilsanker

Review written by Johanna Aurava

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