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Photo: Tanecni Aktuality
Dance master Curtis Foley left Canada for a gig in the Czech Republic. Then Covid-19 struck.

Lockdown in the pandemic has kept a lot of people from going home, sometimes stranding them in surprising places. Today’s story is about camping out for four months in the Czech Republic’s ornate national theater.

Jennifer Stahl writes at Dance Magazine, “When Canadian ballet master Curtis Foley arrived in Ostrava, Czech Republic, in early March, he planned to spend five weeks with the National Moravian-Silesian Ballet, serving as a part-time ballet master. The former Royal Winnipeg Ballet and Les Ballet Grandiva dancer had spent the previous four years as a ballet master at the Polish National Ballet, and had recently gone mostly freelance.

“But five days after he landed in the Czech Republic, COVID-19 sent that country into a state of emergency, with one of the strictest lockdowns in Europe. Most of the foreign artists working with the company swiftly left before the borders closed. But Foley felt a sense of duty to stay. ‘I was supposed to be here to help these dancers for five weeks, and if I were to leave, coming back could be difficult since I don’t have Czech residency and I’m not an EU national,’ he says. So he remained, hunkering down alone inside an apartment on the third floor of the theater.

“With travel remaining complicated, his original five-week stay has ended up lasting for four months.

‘The joke I started with my friends is that I’m the phantom of the opera,’ says Foley. ‘There’s no one else here but me in this massive labyrinth.’

“Although a skeleton crew of administrative and janitorial staff have come in to work during the weekdays, Foley says that starting at 4 pm every Friday, he knows he’ll be on his own until Monday morning.

” ‘It was a novelty at first,’ he says. … ‘Now it just feels like home.’

“Being the only person in the building most of the time has raised logistical questions. ‘During the first few weeks, the company and I were having discussions like, Is it okay to turn off the heat to save money?’ (He said it was.)

“But there’s been more to do than wander the hallways. The dancers took just one week off after the lockdown, then Foley started teaching company class on Zoom. Soon, as the Czech Republic got the virus under control, five people at a time were allowed in the studio (including Foley and an accompanist). Throughout all of June, he’s been able to teach the entire company at once in person again. …

“It’s now been 16 weeks, and with the European Union opening its internal borders, Foley is finally returning to Warsaw, where his boyfriend lives. He admits that he’s a bit anxious to leave.

” ‘This has become my new normal,’ he says. ‘Being there for the dancers has given me the motivation to get through the pandemic, to get out of bed every day and think this isn’t weird.’

“He’s grateful for the intimate relationship he’s built with the dancers while going through this crisis. ‘It typically takes years to create this kind of relationship, but we got to do it really fast,’ he says. Soon enough, he’ll be back — though hopefully not haunting the theater at night all on his own again.” More here.

Did you ever stay overnight in an unlikely place? I did once. I was working for a newspaper chain and there was a blizzard that everyone knew was going to be bad. The other staff left early, but I had decided to bring my sleeping bag and stay over as I had to work in the morning and really dreaded the drive home and back again. It was a little weird, with machines making noises all night, but it was way better than driving.

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Photo: PjrTravel/Alamy
The act of building puppets has long been a form of protest for the Czech people.

Never underestimate the power of the arts to affect the course of nations. In this story, puppets kept the Czech language alive during a period of repression by German speakers.

Jacklyn Janeksela writes at the BBC, “It was thanks to the humble puppet that the Czech nation – and its language – was inadvertently saved.

“In the 17th Century, when the kingdom of Bohemia was under Habsburg rule, the Czech language almost disappeared. …

“When the Protestant court left Prague in the early 1600s, the city fell into decline for almost two centuries. The new ruler, Ferdinand II, did not tolerate non-Catholics, viewing Protestants as a threat to his faith. Czech locals, mostly peasants and working class people, were forced to speak the German language of their invaders. Soon after, intellectuals, who had initially resisted the German language, followed suit. Even Czech actors began to perform in German as an official mandate. Czech became a mere dialect, and would have slipped into oblivion had it not been for some unassuming pieces of wood.

“The act of building puppets has long been a form of protest for the Czech people. Seventeenth-Century wood-carvers, who were more versed in sculpting Baroque seats for churches than human facsimiles, started making puppets for the actors of Bohemia soon after Ferdinand II came to power, as puppets were the only remaining entities that had the right to speak Czech in public places. While the rest of the country and its people adhered to the newly imposed German language, wandering actors and puppet-masters spoke through the puppets in their native Slavic tongue.

“It might seem unlikely that a few hundred puppets and puppet-masters could safeguard a language, especially through a loophole, but the people’s last remaining legacy to their past was tied to the puppet’s strings.

“It’s easy to see why these marionettes have found a home in Czech hearts, and why the magic of puppets continues to permeate the city. …

“In the streets, puppeteers make magic happen. I watched a puppet show in a charming cobblestoned square, where the puppet-master wore the velvety cap of a pageboy, pierced by a single plume that swayed along with the puppet’s movements. He used his puppets to beckon bystanders. Melodic medieval music accompanied the dance of a peasant male and young princess, a Czech love story with a plot twist that favours the underdog, the peasant who wins the heart of a far-fetched royal love.” Read more at the BBC, here.

With minority languages threatened around the world today, it’s worth remembering that a culture and way of life can be preserved through arts like puppet-making. See also my blog post on the historically important role of shadow puppets in Armenia, here.

Photo: Carol J Saunders/Alamy
Puppets have a special place in the hearts of the Czech people. For one thing, they saved the language in the early 1600s when German-speaking rulers prevented everyone but puppets from speaking Czech in public.

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