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BDT's Meško still fighting for audiences and sponsors

After clearing what he described as "a series of hurdles" in being selected for the Edinburgh art festival last month, Slovak-American dance impresario Bob Meško was then faced with a more immediate challenge. With his company's small stage unfinished and unsafe, he was forced to cancel the opening performance. But the line waiting outside included two important Scottish critics, busy professionals unlikely to return the following day. No critics, no reviews. No reviews, no chance of drawing an audience in a festival with over 1,500 performances a day.
So Meško ushered in the crowd - including the critics - offered them programmes, told them their tickets would be good for any other performance that week, and gave an impromptu half-hour talk - on modern dance, on BDT, on Slovakia.


Meško was born in Slovakia, then moved to Germany and the US.
photo: Courtesy BDT

After clearing what he described as "a series of hurdles" in being selected for the Edinburgh art festival last month, Slovak-American dance impresario Bob Meško was then faced with a more immediate challenge. With his company's small stage unfinished and unsafe, he was forced to cancel the opening performance. But the line waiting outside included two important Scottish critics, busy professionals unlikely to return the following day. No critics, no reviews. No reviews, no chance of drawing an audience in a festival with over 1,500 performances a day.

So Meško ushered in the crowd - including the critics - offered them programmes, told them their tickets would be good for any other performance that week, and gave an impromptu half-hour talk - on modern dance, on BDT, on Slovakia. The critics came back, wrote good reviews, and the following weekend each performance was a sell-out. "They say you have to fight for your audience," says Meško. "And I did just that."

For the last three years, he has been fighting for more than an audience. Founder of Slovakia's first independent dance company, Bratislava Dance Theatre [BDT], Meško has been a tireless (and imaginative) fund-raiser and promoter. In Slovakia, where the government has little money to sponsor art and there are no favourable tax laws or traditions to encourage corporate sponsorship, survival is a struggle. BDT needs millions of crowns a year just to operate, 80-90% of which comes from private companies.

"I like that challenge," says Meško, reclining in a chair in his modest offfice in Dúbravka. Two floors below, somewhere in the building's labyrinth of functional communist architecture, BDT's limber dancers sweat and grind in preparation for another season. "The business side is actually a lot like choreography. You start with a vision, then you come to one point and have to decide where to go from there. And then from the next point you have to decide again, based not on where you were originally but the point you are at now."

Since its first season in 1997, BDT has been moving step by step toward its goal of being one of the finest modern dance companies in the world. In the past, Slovak dancers interested in modern dance were working either abroad, at home performing in more traditional forms, or on small, temporary projects. "I was always inclined towards modern dance, but before BDT there was no modern dance company in Slovakia," said Eva Lacková, a 24-year old dancer who left The Slovak National Theatre Dance Company, which performs mostly ballet, to join BDT this fall. "So far I have enjoyed working here very much."

In three short years, BDT, with its scaled-down productions mixing pure dance and narrative forms, has begun to be noticed internationally, drawing praise from critics last fall in New York and last month in Edinburgh.


When Meško saw a New York dance performance by SĽUK, it "made an emotional connection with me."
photo: Peter Brenkus

If it wasn't for Meško's quick thinking, the company would never have been invited to Edinburh in the first place. At a reception last year in Bratislava for Richard Demarco, the festival's organizer, Meško waited patiently while hordes of Slovak artists, hoping for an invitation to the festival, crowded around him. When Demarco's pen ran out of ink, Meško moved in and offered him an expensive Waterman pen, telling him that he could return it in six months when the two met at the Edinburgh festival.

"My New York upbringing got the best of me," said Meško of his bold move.

While an able improviser, Meško seems to thrive on preparedness and persistence. "Bob Meško is very thorough, very hard working, and very professional," said Chuck Vernon, attorney at Squire, Sanders and Dempsey in Bratislava, a legal firm which sponsors BDT. "He has always thought out how to approach companies beforehand, and is very creative in working with them. It's actually impressive to watch."

Vernon was so impressed that he decided to become a personal sponsor. "He was able to con me out of some money," he said, laughing over the phone. "I'm not terribly tight with money, but not that loose with it either."

Born in Bratislava in 1963, Meško and his family left Czechoslovakia five years later when Warsaw Pact troops invaded to end the Prague Spring. He lived a year in Germany, four in Boston, and finally settled in New York city. At age 21, with no interest or experience in dance, Meško saw the Slovak dance group SĽUK perform in New York and was enthralled. "The only other dance performance I had ever seen was the Nutcracker in Boston, where I fell asleep," says Meško of the chance event that changed his life. "SĽUK made an emotional connection with me. The kind of inexplicable connection any artist strives for."

From there, Meško joined an amatuer Slovak dance troupe in New York City, came to Slovakia in 1987 as a member, and returned in 1990 to dance and do post-graduate work. Unsatisfied with the educational system in Slovakia, Meško began teaching English full time at a Slovak dance conservatory, where he eventually became publisher of the Slovak magazine Tanec (Dance) and founder of The Steps Foundation.

"At the time [through The Steps Foundation] I was basically using foreign sponsors to bring foreign dance groups to Slovakia. Then one sponsor asked me why I wasn't doing something for Slovakia," said Meško. "I saw the programmes from New York dance companies with all the sponsors on the back and thought, 'I can do that'. I was really naive... but thank God, or I never would have started."

Meško, who describes himself as a "very good amateur dancer", says that his personal goals are part of what drives him. "I got an idea, and I fell in love with it. I'm still in love with it. You're a hit in New York and Edinburgh, you want to be a hit in Tokyo and Sydney," says Meško. "And I have learned to like the business side of it. I actually had to change my personality. Not many impresarios are introverts."

The word 'introverted' seems ludicrious when watching Meško work a crowd at a function or reception, zealously expounding to anyone and everyone on BDT's accomplishments and needs. With the special charisma of a New Yorker, Meško always seems to be working on something (or someone) yet never seems hurried, never loses his poise.

This tenacity remains a necessity for BDT's survival. Despite the group's artistic successes, funding has not become any easier. While local mobile phone company EuroTel footed much of the bill for BDT's first two seasons, and Ericsson had that same role last year, the fourth season opens for BDT without a main sponsor. "As a fund-raiser you have to walk a fine line between demonstrating a need and appearing non-viable," said Meško with a wry laugh. "Right now there is a huge opportunity for new sponsors."

BDT next performs the XY Files September 27 and 28 at 19:00 at Zrkadlovy haj at the Dúbravka Kultury Dom. The company's forthcoming original performance, Faust, premiers November 23 and 24, same time, same place.

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