Prague, 30 June 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Now beginning its second decade of existence, the annual Prague Dance (Tanec Praha) has become the most renowned modern dance festival in Central and Eastern Europe. Last week, its 1999, 10-day program began with the U.S.'s Martha Graham Dance Company and went on to offer performances by France's Maguy Marin Company, Karine Ponties of Belgium, Denmark's Dance Granhoj, and several Czech and Slovak dancers. Tanec Praha ends tomorrow (July 1) with a performance by Israel's Batsheva Ensemble
According to Yvona Kreuzmannova-Dankova, the festival's founder and director, last year the Informal Europe Theater Meeting (IETM) -- the biggest network of artistic performers in Europe, with more than 400 companies as members -- called Prague Dance the best festival of its kind. The IETM cited it as a first-rate example of successful East-West cultural relations.
There have been other similar festivals in Ljubljana, Warsaw, Budapest, and Sofia. But Mrs. Kreuzmannova-Dankova says that they are not as comprehensive as Prague's, and that some of them discontinued their activities because of financial constraints. Still, organizers in Budapest succeeded in establishing a permanent modern Dance Theater in their city, something which has yet to be accomplished in Prague.
In its first two years of existence (1989-90), Prague Dance was financed largely by the Czechoslovak Ministry of Culture and the City of Prague. It became independent in 1991, and has since supported itself through various fund-raising activities in the Czech Republic as well as in the U.S. and Western Europe.
From the outset, the Prague festival's main goal has been to overcome the formal partition between the "West" and the "East" through dance. Kreuzmannova-Dankova told RFE/RL this week:
"We saw that there was no dramaturgy, no clear definition -- what does it mean, what does it want really and we wanted to move the festival to that direction, to show the best contemporary dance from the world to the Czech audience, and through that to motivate Czech artists to do something new because they were too much influenced by classical and neo-classical dance, but they didn't know much about modern dance."
The director says Prague Dance has also tried to close the gap between the predominantly classical ballet training typical of the performers in Central and Eastern Europe and the more free spirited, experimental dance explorations of their counterparts in Western Europe, the U.S. and Asia:
"Some of Eastern European dancers are having very strong technique but still very much influenced by classical ballet school, especially the Russian school. They need some time to go through that and to find their freedom of expression...[The] best [Western] European dancers are having sometimes not such a great technique, but they are more open in their expression, in their way of dancing."
As is true of many non-profit organizations, a neverending quest for funding takes up most of time of the director and her three assistants. Prague Dance's fundraising strategy could serve as a good example for similar institutions elsewhere in Central and Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, where state budgets for arts were drastically cut after the demise of the communism and many cultural establishments are struggling to survive.
Inside the Czech Republic, the Prague festival receives financial support in two forms: direct funding -- grants, donations and the like -- and so-called "in-kind" donations in the form of free advertising, services, and the provision of space. Kreuzmannova-Dankova says that, over the years, she was also able to secure significant support from sources outside of the Czech Republic, particularly from Western Europe and the U.S.
The foreign funds, she says, goes directly to participating artists from abroad. They have included some of the brightest stars of modern dance -- the U.S.'s Trisha Brown, Merce Cunningham, Twyla Tharp and American Jazz Tap dance companies, the London Contemporary Dance Theater, the Ballet du Grand Theatre de Geneve (Switzerland), the French Maguy Marin Company, Dance Theatre Frankfurt, and the Taipei Dance Circle. According to Kreuzmannova-Dankova:
"In the context of Central and Eastern Europe we are very avant-garde. But if you compare it with other festivals in [Western] Europe you can see that dramaturgy is very balanced and it's showing both,... It's showing the dance of the 40's and 50's, but it's showing also the latest work of contemporary artists."
The inauguration of this year's Prague Dance by the Martha Graham Dance Company was an accomplishment for the relatively young festival. Martha Graham (1894-1991) is considered as a primal 20th century artistic force alongside the likes of Pablo Picasso, Igor Stravinsky, James Joyce and Frank Lloyd Wright. Last year, the U.S,. weekly "Time" magazine named Martha Graham as the "Dancer of the Century."
Martha Graham's tour of Eastern Europe in the 1960s was one of the most moving of her entire career. Her only sorrow, she said at the time, was that she was not able to bring her company to a then-closed communist Czechoslovakia.
Later, the U.S. offered the Martha Graham company as part of the first cultural exchange program between Washington and Moscow. Russia refused, saying that Graham's works were "a disturbing influence on the young."
Ron Protas, the current artistic director of the company and a close associate of Graham, says she took this refusal as one of the great compliments of her career. Graham finally visited Czechoslovakia with her company in 1988, and their performances in Prague are still remembered in the city's artistic circles.
Janet Eilber -- the Graham company's newly appointed artistic director -- told RFE/RL:
"Martha took organic, naturalistic gestures and she expanded them to make theatrical. She was able to present the human condition on the stage in the early part of the century -- in the 20s and 30s -- that was quite different than the usual butterflies and flowers and princesses that were being presented on the stage. She really wanted to make strong statements about the human condition. And I think that's the essence of why her legacy is so profound."
Graham was extremely demanding, but equally devoted to her students and insisted that while 50 percent of the dance performance relies on physical technique, the other 50 percent is the emotional content. Eilber says: "Martha used to say that there's only two kinds of dance -- good and bad. She admired great ballet dancers very much, and that one technique [classical] does not cancel out the other [modern]...Her technique is much more grounded than ballet technique, which wishes to be in the air so much. We are much more connected to the ground and ground technique."
Although arrangements are not yet completed, the chances are that Prague Dance will have a permanent home in one of Prague's central neighborhoods. As for the future of the festival, Kreuzmannova-Dankova dreams to have the time, money and space for long-term residencies of foreign artists working with domestic performers in Prague. She envisions the collaboration of dance with other arts as a natural development for the festival she founded.