Two figures suspended in the air, one upright, one upside down, balancing on long rods also suspended from the ceiling, in a geometrical but asymmetrical formation. The tone is grey, and behing they their grey shadows are cast against the wall


An angle on Czech Dance Platform 2023

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Thin Skin by Eliška Brtnická at Czech Dance Platform 2023. Photo © 
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Emily May found herself watching Czech Dance Platform through a postmodern-ish American lens (just don’t tell her teenage self)

The day I arrived in Prague for Czech Dance Platform (CDP), I visited the city’s new visual art space Kunsthalle Praha. There, as part of an exhibition exploring the concept of Bohemia as a cultural movement, I saw a black-and-white photograph by Babette Mangolte of Trisha Brown’s Roof Piece (1973), in which dancers spread across New York rooftops signal to each other using their bodies. Somehow, this image imprinted on my brain. As a result, Brown’s work, and the dichotomy between theatricality and postmodernism became the lens through which I found connections between the four performances I saw at CDP 2023.

While training at Laban, London, I was unconvinced by the everyday minimalism revered by the American postmodernists of the 60s and 70s. I was a devout believer in overt emotion and theatricality – preferably used to make a socio-political point – and dubious about Yvonne Rainer’s No Manifesto’s rejection of magic, make-believe, glamour and eccentricity. So Boom Vol. 2, by Prague-based new circus company Cirk La Putyka should have hit my 18-year-old self’s sweet spot. Choreographed by Rotislav Novák, the piece is billed as a bombastic exploration of Generation Z and their obsession with social media. This said, the majority of the work focuses on the effect of the Russian invasion of Ukraine on the students of Kyiv Municipal Academy of Variety and Circus Arts, who Cirk La Putyka invited to Prague and collaborated with on Boom Vol. 2. Cocooned in warm layers as if arriving from a long journey, the Ukrainian students emerge from the side of the stage, tentatively edging towards the Czech artists. Eventually, two boys extend their arms towards each other, one placing his hand on the other’s heart. Moments such as this, as well as weight sharing-duets and spoken accounts of how, for want of a common language, the artists communicate through the medium of circus, are tender and thought-provoking.

Cirk La Putyka: Boom Vol. 2

They are, however, starkly contrasted by the overwhelming mixture of elements squeezed into the 70-minute work. To the sound of a pulsing electronic score mixed live on stage, the audience are bombarded with a melange of diablo throwing, baton juggling, and pole dancing, which often take place concurrently. One performer backflips across an elevated bamboo pole while others spin incessantly on ropes and inside gigantic hula hoops, and speak earnestly into microphones about their perceptions of the world. They’re bursting with thoughts and ideas, and extremely skilful. Yet saying and doing everything, everywhere, all at once (to quote the Oscar winning film) means that little gets communicated. Seeking simplicity (18-year-old Emily wouldn’t recognise herself), I find myself watching the repetitive swinging lamps on the lighting rig to find respite from the manic onstage activity.

Trailer for Thin Skin by Eliška Brtnická

My craving for clarity was alleviated by Czech choreographer and trapeze artist Eliška Brtnická’s Thin Skin, which brought me back to Trisha Brown in a myriad of ways. Set in a clean, white cube gallery space – reminiscent of the postmodernists’ close affiliation with the visual arts – the piece sees three performers manipulate long metal rods. At first, their interactions with the rods are relatively simple: they stand them vertically – they look like they’re playing theremins, as their hands twitch and tap the rods delicately to keep them upright – push them like ploughs in mathematical patterns, and swivel them in the gaps between their limbs, casting shadows on the walls in the process. They also use them to build structures which they hang off and headstand inside. Suddenly, as if by magic, the dancers start to bend and sculpt the formerly rigid poles into asymmetrical shapes with their bodies. Attaching them to ropes and harnesses that fall from the ceiling, at times they allow their creations to hang alone to be observed as art works in their own right. At others, they mount them and morph their limbs around them.

The performer’s simple mission to explore the possibilities of the materials in front of them, and the matter-of-fact style in which they execute it, is reminiscent of Brown’s rejection of spectacle and her task-based approach. Her equipment pieces, which played with gravity and space, and similarly used harnesses to enable the dancers to walk sideways along the walls of galleries and building exteriors, come to mind. As a teenager I viewed these preoccupations as inhuman and perfunctory. Since watching Rambert perform Brown’s Set and Reset at London’s Tate Modern last year, the dancers catching each other’s eyes and breaking into joyful smiles as their bodies rolled through the nonchalant, sequential choreography, I’ve become increasingly aware of how humanity, and even humour, can emerge from impersonal choreographic questions.

Felix Baumann and Marie Gourdain: Seismic

Seismic, by Berlin and Prague-based dance and theatre maker Felix Baumann and French choreographer, scenographer and visual artist Marie Gourdain, was a perfect example of this. Like Thin Skin, it also centres around scenographic elements (over my 4 years of involvement at CDP, I’ve learnt that this is a key feature of the Czech scene) and the performer’s relationship with them: on the stage stands a hotch-potch framework of wooden boards, raised from the floor by a combination of metal springs and piles of small cardboard cubes. Entering the stage, four dancers playfully throw, toss, and kick a loose cube between them, before hopping onto the construction. And the games begin.

Seemingly, the cast’s task is to find as many cardboard cubes hidden around the theatre as they can, and build jenga-style towers without falling off the wooden structure – the game ‘the floor is lava’ comes to mind. It produces hilarious results. By stealing the boxes that hold up the structure they stand on, the performers cause it to collapse underneath them. Consequently, they are sent staggering onto the spring-mounted platforms, their bodies shaking and vibrating uncontrollably as they try to regain balance. While they could have overplayed their reactions with hammy facial expressions, humour is in fact derived from their earnestness, and the physical comedy of their convulsing limbs. At times they are competitive, childishly trying to snatch boxes out of each other’s hands, while at others, they work collaboratively. At the end of the show, for example, they create a human tower which one dancer climbs up to find a box cheekily hidden behind a lamp on the lighting rig.

Peter Šavel: TETSU – The Energy That Shapes Us

I thought I’d scored a hat-trick of postmodern-ish performances when I entered Slovak creator Peter Šavel’s TETSU – The Energy That Shapes Us to find a quintet of trainer-wearing dancers already hopping, skipping, and stepping in the centre of an in-the-round stage setup. To white noise, they orbit each other and catch each other’s eyes with characteristic Brown nonchalance. Before long, however, the mood changes completely: the soundtrack becomes increasingly techno, with disparate interjections of experimental jazz and rocky electric guitars as the dancers descend into a more frantic, high-energy performance style. They run, sweat profusely, position neon lights around the circumference of the performance space and tumble towards the front row of the audience, who jolt backwards in their seats to avoid collisions. The dynamic shift certainly helps to create the desired fire and energy described in the programme note, even if it thwarts the frame I’ve tried to place around my experience of CDP.

Blue Quote Mark

Drawing, automatic writing, postcards and letters are alternative critical responses to dance works

Blue Quote Mark

When my postmodernist musings first emerged during CDP, I worried they were too tenuous – and too personal – to warrant basing an entire review around them. However, discussions I had as part of a series of dance writing workshops run by Czech Dance News alongside the festival, convinced me otherwise. A workshop on new formats in dance criticism by Norwegian critic Anette Therese Pettersen, inspiringly proposed drawing, automatic writing, postcards and letters including the writer’s experiences before and after the performance as alternative critical responses to dance works. In my own session about the review writing process itself, the group also talked extensively about the inherent subjectivity of criticism, and how it’s natural for critics to bring their own associations to dance works. This discussion reminded me of how Sanjoy Roy and I both brought our own references to last year’s CDP, and how our podcast discussion about the festival resulted in musings on everything from Pink Floyd to Oskar Schlemmer, Doctor Who, and the 1971 horror/comedy The Abominable Dr Phibes.

Dance doesn’t exist in a vacuum, and audiences are always going to come to the theatre having just watched a television programme, listened to a piece of music, or, in my case, visited a gallery. All of these activities may impact their readings of a dance work, and why shouldn’t they? If we’re to follow postmodern dance’s way of thinking, dance should be in tune with life, mirror everyday motion, and burst off theatre stages into galleries, onto the streets, and even – as in that Trisha Brown photograph – across rooftops. 

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30.03.23–02.04.23, Prague, Czech Republic
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Part 2 of this coverage of Czech Dance Platform 2023, by Lena Megyeri, is published here:

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