Czech performers have been stuck at home since 12 March 2020, which is particularly catastrophic for dancers and artists in the movement-based arts of physical theatre, contemporary circus and mime. Not only must their bodies, accustomed to daily physical (and emotional) performance and training, contend with new routines and excess energy; they also have to adapt psychologically and economically. The majority of dancers, across all genres and styles, train at home on just a few square metres. Many post their daily training on social media as a motivation for others, or as targeted lessons for their students. The pedagogical activities of dancers have literally flooded social media and other online platforms. The initial enthusiasm and solidarity expressed by sharing free lessons have gradually given rise to a new professional reality: the virtual. The internet cannot replace live teacher-student contact, but online lessons help to maintain both community ties and the participants’ conditioning and at least somewhat offset the economic difficulties affecting the entire arts sector.
For dancers in ballet companies, the situation is very complicated, however during this period, they are considered employees working from home, so they can be assured of receiving their full pay. A high percentage of dancers in Czech ballet companies are foreign nationals, who are able to travel to be with their families due to the government’s limitations on travel and moment. This psychological aspect is essential for the atmosphere in companies.
Everyone is trying to cope with the restrictions with positive energy. For example, at the start of the crisis, the National Theatre’s ballet ensemble filmed a video featuring dancers’ home rehearsals. It was a big success on social media and an online ballet Easter gala is now in the works.
The situation in the independent scene, in contemporary dance companies, nonverbal theatre and contemporary circus is critical, however. All projects, whether international or domestic, are suspended; only virtual spaces are left to the artists. They try to use these not only for online instruction, but also to promote their performances. The Ponec online project, for example, offers streamed performances and dance classes. “Even though the theatres are now closed to audiences, we and the artists are trying to find ways to stay in contact with spectators. The vast majority of artists stay home, but we also know how important it is to take care of the spiritual health of society, in all age groups,” explains Yvona Kreuzmannová, founder and director of Tanec Praha, continuing, “Ponec is leaving space for rehearsals and creation residencies for a limited number of people, as well as the possibility to film audiovisual messages to spectators.”
Government Measures to Assist the Live Arts
Minister of Culture Luboš Zaorálek is actively following the situation in the live arts and has declared that he will do the maximum possible to prevent the coronavirus crisis from decimating artists and organisations. The Ministry has launched the programme Záchrana kultury (Rescue Culture), which will allow festivals to access grant money to cover their preparation, even if the event does not take place and with relaxed terms and conditions. Zaorálek views the digitalisation of cultural products as one of the rescue programme’s priorities: it should temporarily replace live contact, with emphasis placed on streaming and other forms of digital transmission. Solutions are still being sought for ways to deal with the already allocated money in the Ministry of Culture’s budget and to direct more money to the bailout of the entire sector. For dancers and artists in related fields, the Ministry of Finance’s measures will now be decisive, including the compensation program Antiviru (Antivirus), offering partial support to both entrepreneurs and self-employed freelancers.
There has long been a discussion in the Czech Republic about the necessity of greater support for dance and movement genres, with a view to the high risk of these professions, the irregularity of income and the low rates of pay, which do not allow for the building of financial reserves. The coronavirus crisis has, of course, multiplied and compounded these handicaps across the entire field of independent theatre and dance.
Still, the sector isn’t giving up: it is entering the virtual space, trying to stream, to communicate with spectators on social media and looking for other ways to withstand the situation. Huge support has come from TV Mall, which is collaborating with crowdfunding platform Donio on the #kulturazije (#culturelives) project (https://www.donio.cz/KulturaZije). This allows spectators to view broadcasts and send their contributions directly to specific artists and companies. Participants from the field of dance include 420PEOPLE and Losers Cirque Company, a leading contemporary circus ensemble. In recent days, Prague’s Councillor for Culture Hana Třeštíková has launched a new initiative in collaboration with the web portal GoOut, which handles many theatres’ ticket sales. Their project is called Festival NIC 2020 (Festival of Nothing 2020) and uses the darkly humorous slogan: “Buy a ticket to nothing.”
Along with culture, the tourism industry is among the most affected sectors. Black theatre, found only in Prague and with an audience comprised entirely of tourists and foreign visitors to the city, finds itself at the intersection of this deadly combination. These private theatres have a long tradition and are unique in their own way. Dance artists, mimes, and physical theatre actors form an essential part of their artistic staff. These entities have never been subsidised by the state or the city; they are businesses, whose prospects appear quite gloomy today.
Dancers in the entertainment industry are in a similarly complicated situation. Their previous opportunities to perform in a wide range of corporate events and commercial shows have been reduced to zero and, given the financial impact of the crisis on all sectors, it’s unlikely that these professional opportunities will return in their previous numbers.
Thus, in many ways, the situation of dancers and choreographers in the Czech Republic is complicated and unclear. It is very likely that performances will not take place until the summer and the autumn season, to which the majority of events have been postponed, cannot make up the deficit of the spring pandemic months. This is a huge challenge for the entire arts sector and the coming weeks and months will be occupied with finding solutions.
Theatre on Screen
Already past their fourth week of closure, Czech theatre, like their counterparts elsewhere, made early inroads into the online world. They are delivering theatrical experiences to their spectators at least remotely, at first through live broadcasts of closed performances and, increasingly, through the form of archive recordings of past and current productions. Acclaimed contemporary circus ensemble Cirk La Putyka was among the first to move online, but a diverse range of theatres have gotten involved, from the independent scene to the large city theatres and the National Theatre to private productions. As a result, viewers have a wide selection of diverse experiences available to them. Foreign audiences might be interested, for example, in the recording of the celebrated production Posledního triku Georgese Mélièse (The Last Trick of Georges Méliès) by DRAK Theatre, a playful nonverbal show for the whole family, inspired by early film technology, or La Putyka’s production Hit, Tell the Difference.
Alongside access to full productions, some theatres are also offering improvised talk shows, messages from actors and serialised readings. Last but not least, as all schools are also closed to the public, theatres are producing educational videos focused on the classics of dramatic literature, such as the National Theatre’s “Tahák” series, as well as online workshops, such as those offered by the Cirqueon Centre for Contemporary Circus and other programmes for children and young people. Professional puppet theatres have been particularly active, including Pilsen’s Alfa Theatre which presents a daily programme of fairytales and songs. The Chrudim Puppetry Museum is offering tours in Czech and English, as is the National Museum which, in collaboration with the Arts and Theatre Institute, has offered access to the exhibition “Kindly Enter the Theatre.” This exhibition depicts theatrical life in the Czech lands from the 17th to mid-20th centuries and beyond through the phenomenon of theatre signs and posters.
Apart from creative activities, Czech theatre artists are highly involved with other volunteer activities. The spontaneous initiative of Zlín City Theatre inspired theatres across the country to engage their costume workshops in the sewing of masks required by hospitals, social services and individuals. On World Theatre Day (27 March 2020), Zlín City Theatre’s director Petr Michálek published this message:
“First of all, a short recap to the end of the week:
– As of today, 2,350 masks have been sewn
– Half of them have been donated to the Regional Hospital, half according to other needs (the majority to social services and frontline responders) and now they are also going to individuals
– The theatre’s reception is functioning as a community centre – fabric, masks, sewing machines are exchanged – all thanks to the Facebook group ROUŠKY PRO ZLÍNSKO (Masks for Zlín)
– We’ll keep going because there’s still demand…
Therefore, I’ve decided that at the kickoff gala evening of the new season in September, I will give the MDZ’s Director’s Prize to our seamstresses (including other helpers). They will stand alongside past laureates like Miroslav Plešák, Eva Matalová, Jana Kafkova and the Slovak National Theatre.
Spectators may also take part in these activities, but can also support theatres through donations or by refusing refunds for cancelled events.