The boy from Partizánske

He danced during the 1990s with the Nederlands Dans Theater, and then joined Les Grands Ballets Canadiens in Montreal as a principal dancer. He has been choreographing ballet since 2002, his work presented across Canada and Europe. His life partner, Anik Bissonnette of Les Grands, retired from the ballet last year after 18 years, but he has danced on as the director of the SND Ballet in Bratislava since September 2006, a role he was offered “like a bolt from the blue”. Mário Radačovský.

He danced during the 1990s with the Nederlands Dans Theater, and then joined Les Grands Ballets Canadiens in Montreal as a principal dancer. He has been choreographing ballet since 2002, his work presented across Canada and Europe. His life partner, Anik Bissonnette of Les Grands, retired from the ballet last year after 18 years, but he has danced on as the director of the SND Ballet in Bratislava since September 2006, a role he was offered “like a bolt from the blue”. Mário Radačovský.

Spex: What kind of family do you come from?

Mário Radačovský (MR): I hope I don’t offend my parents, but I come from a completely ordinary family. My mother worked for years in the Prior [department store], now I guess it would be Tesco, as the head of the glass and porcelain department, and my father is a carpenter. It was an ordinary Slovak family, and I was a boy from the little town of Partizanské [pop. 24,000], somewhat to the north of Bratislava and on the border of central Slovakia.

Spex: How did the boy from Partizanske become a ballet dancer?

MR: My aunt Gabriela, my mother’s younger sister. I always loved music, but my aunt noticed that I had a talent for movement. Maybe she initially intended me more for the theater than dance, but it was she who found an ad for a ballet competition in the Slovenká magazine. We went, and they took me, to everyone’s surprise. That’s where it all began, almost by accident.

Spex: Sounds like the plot to the film Billy…

MR: Billy Elliott! That’s it! Yeah, it’s very similar. My wife, my life partner keeps reminding me of it. The difference is perhaps that my father wasn’t so against the idea [as the character in the 2000 film set in a coalmining town in England – ed. note].

Spex: What about the locals? Did they make fun of you for wearing tights?

MR: No, Partizanske was a pretty normal town back then in 1981. Still is. But it’s a fact that the position of ballet dancers and artists isn’t what it should be, and there’s still a lot of work to be done to get Slovak people to understand that ballet dancing is a very important art form that deserves the same respect as the opera or the theater. Many of those who are even aware that ballet exists still think of a bunch of people jumping around, or believe that all ballet dancers are homosexual. If I tell people I’m a dancer, they often say ‘fine, but what do you do for a living?’ Well, I’m a dancer. Some people still can’t understand that.

But it’s better than it was, even though dance is still on the fringes of the world of art. At the same time, it has a lot more to say and a much brighter future than the dramatic arts or the opera. I don’t want to offend my colleagues, but dance has more room to develop with new creations and more modern, neo-classic forms. With opera, no one will ever write another Tosca. Of course there will be new operas, but the Golden Age is behind us, and opera draws from it to this day. The same goes for theater, which has the additional barrier of language. You have to understand what is being said. With ballet, on the other hand, whether you are in Australia or Slovakia, everyone understands. Dance is a universal language.

Spex: Was there less censorship of dance during Communism than of other art forms?

MR: Censorship certainly existed, but the larger problem was that ballet didn’t receive enough attention. It’s the same today – news broadcasts will tell you who was wearing what at this or that party, and will cover all the political squabbles, but will say very little if anything about culture. In the Czech Republic it’s different, but here culture is on the fringes, it’s all about cars and houses and money. The spiritual side of things is in retreat, although that’s not just a problem in Slovakia but across Europe. Funding for culture is declining, and is always the first thing to be cut.

In a way it’s the end of culture, because the concept of culture has been reduced to those forms that can earn money and be self-supporting. This is just something someone thought up, but everyone seems to be acting in accordance with it. The truth is that you can have something beautiful being performed, but only 200 people in the audience. Not everything that is culturally valuable is commercially successful, and vice versa. But you can’t get away from it. As ballet director I try to make sure that everything we do has artistic integrity, but I also have to ensure that it has enough commercial elements to keep the seats full. That goes against the grain, and it’s dangerous as well – musicals are all well and good, but they push other forms of culture off the television, and they mean that other forms are not as appealing. Competition between art forms is fine, but we have to abandon the idea that culture has to generate money, and simply invest in things that are culturally valuable. We’re not making cars here, or tanks or airplanes for that matter. We’re trying to enrich people.

Spex: Is money really the cure-all, or is it a life-support system for inferior works of art?If artists produce something of universal truth and beauty, won’t people come to see it anyway?

MR: I agree that money isn’t everything. But I also think that we shouldn’t be forced to do so much. Why are we expected to do 20 premieres a year? Why? Other world-class ensembles don’t, so why do we? When you’re putting put at least one premiere a month and promoting it, it’s like being in a factory, on a production line. You lose any sense of excitement that you are putting on a premiere. Of course, by comparison, when you have one or two musicals a year, they become real cultural events. It’s a question of strategy.

No, money isn’t everything, but it’s important if we want to attract world-class artists, choreographers, tenors or sopranos to Slovakia. I’m lucky to have a lot of contacts, and to have worked with the top three or five world choreographers. The first time they tend to be willing to come here and to overlook the fact they don’t get paid the same rate as by global ensembles. But on the second or third occasion, I don’t want to be in the position of a freeloader, holding my hand out as a beggar, telling them ‘I know you normally get a fee of 100,000 euros, but we can only pay you 25,000.’ Even though they are my friends, I don’t feel good. Of course, not everything that comes from abroad with a price tag of 100,000 euros is worth it. The truth is somewhere in the middle.

Spex: What made you decide to leave Slovakia in 1992?

MR: I had joined the national theater, but I had always wanted to see the world. I guess I still was in many ways the boy from Partizanske, and at the same time I had greater ambitions as a dancer. I wanted to try dancing at an international level and to work with international talents, and I was fortunate enough to succeed in this.

Spex: You spent almost 15 years abroad in Holland and Canada. Did you follow events in Slovakia during that time?

MR: Of course. I’m a proud Slovak. I confess, I wasn’t all that enthusiastic about the separation of Czechoslovakia, but on the other hand I’m proud at what Slovakia has accomplished. I was skeptical, but Slovakia has come a long way, and things have improved sometimes to an incredible extent. There were problems, to be sure, and the Mečiar government [1994-1998] brought us into international isolation. But all young countries have to go through these phases before they find themselves. The two Dzurinda governments that followed brought an economic shock and then improvements, but you see again what has happened to us. We now have a bit more populism than we have been used to.

But everywhere in the world, one government follows another. Is the Canadian government better than the Slovak government? I can’t tell. Every nation deserves the government it elects, and our people chose this government. Mind you, Slovakia still has some growing to do, especially in terms of democracy, which some people interpret to mean they can do anything. Democracy is fine, but it requires a certain level of intelligence, and if the intelligence is lacking, then you get a kind of jungle form of democracy, in which everyone interprets the rules in their own way, there is no discipline, and there is no respect for anything. I see that in the younger generation.

The wind that is blowing in Slovakia is coming from all directions, and unfortunately we are forgetting a lot about what we were. Under Communism, sure, people couldn’t voice their opinions, their rights were restricted, but in many other ways they were stronger. Especially in terms of what they felt inside. Today people are a lot more superficial.

Spex: What was exceptional about what people felt inside during Communism?

MR: Evidently people wanted a country of their own. In this I think the wartime Slovak state had an element of sense. But we’re a very timid nation, compared to the Czechs for example. We are capable of unbelievable things, but then we are unable to confirm our accomplishments with more results of the same caliber. We’re all over the map as a nation, and then we blame everyone around us – the Hungarians or the Czechs or the Russians are to blame. We have to be more honest with ourselves.

Take sports for example. We lose 9 out of 10 matches that are crucial because we choke, even though at the time we often deserve to win on paper. It’s as if our knees begin to shake and we can’t handle the pressure.

Of course, there are exceptions, Slovaks who achieve great things on a regular basis, whether in sport, culture or politics. These are people whose knees don’t shake, and if our young people can be encouraged to follow them and learn from them, Slovakia will be in a totally different place 20 or 30 years from now.

Spex: Has your time spent abroad given you a different perspective on Slovakia?

MR: Definitely. I really respect my parents and everyone else who lived through the transformation from Communism, because that kind of sudden and drastic change is something that people in the West can’t imagine. The Slavic nations have suffering in their blood and in their history.

But now that we have Schengen and democracy and whatnot, we don’t know what to do with our freedom. We’re like birds who have lived for years in a cage – if you let us go, we want to return to our cage. It will take generations, and we have to return to the basics: discipline and respect. Education is the key. At the moment we are the factory of Europe, but soon it will be over, these companies will be moving on, and we will have to decide whether we just want to be assemblers of other people’s goods, or creators of something of our own. We need visionaries, we need people who can make politics exciting again, and we have to find a way to keep them in Slovakia. For that we need to create opportunities for young people.

Spex: In a previous interview you said that one of the good things to come out of Communism was personal ties and relationships. Now it seems that these networks, whether between old schoolmates or people from the same town, are the source of a lot of corruption.

MR: But that’s the same everywhere in the world. In the West as well, it’s all about personal contacts, whom you know, as well as about good luck. If you’re good at something but you have problems with your boss, not even democracy can ensure that you will get a promotion or a raise. I’ve experienced it myself several times. So much depends on the human factor.

In Communism, if you opened your mouth, you could go to jail. Now, if you open your mouth you could be sued or lose your job. Back then, everyone had a chance at a relatively good education, and the differences in income were relatively small. Now, in the past 10 years, a class of super-rich people has emerged, a process that took 50 or 100 years in the West. Back then we couldn’t travel, there were a lot of things we couldn’t have or get. Now everything is possible, but you have these huge gaps in wealth, which leads to envy. We are an envious nation, we envy money and success, it’s our national weakness. It’s part of being a small nation in the international mosaic. We haven’t had it easy.

Spex: Do Slovaks tend to be too critical of themselves?

MR: Absolutely. I’m a pretty impatient person, and for example with the ballet I would love to be further ahead than we are, to leapfrog several stages of development. But we can’t, and countries can’t either. We can do things to speed up our development, but we still have to go through all the phases. We also have to remember that not everything that comes glistening from the West is golden.

Spex: Having spent time in the West, how do you feel when Western politicians criticize Slovakia, such as the late Congressman Tom Lantos, who was very critical of the current Slovak government over the issue of nationalism in late 2006?

MR: Those that criticize Slovakia should first look at themselves. I could be critical about what they do in Iraq, what they did in Vietnam. I’m not jumping for joy at the government we have, but it was elected legitimately, and people got what they wanted.

At the same time, if anyone here says anything negative about America, people say they’ve got a lot of nerve. Criticize the United States of America – how can you permit yourself to do something like that?! Come on, let’s be fair – everyone has the right to an opinion. Maybe in this I’m a bit of a nationalist.

On the other hand, I see how nationalist politicians in the country keep playing the Hungarian card because they see it works – people have some kind of unconscious fear that one day we could end up under Hungarian domination again. As a European Slovak, I know there’s no danger of such nonsense. We’re a small nation, but we’re a part of Europe. We should be focusing our energy on areas where we know we are strong. We see flashes in hockey or in the auto industry, but we should also be concentrating on art and tourism. We have so much to offer, but we’re not using it. The focus is wrong, and we’re always afraid of something. The truth is that we are doing just fine. We just have to realize it.

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