Poets of the City was a one-off performance, last Friday, at the Oxford House theatre in Bethnal Green – a triple bill of dances performed by the excellent ProART group, a diverse theatre company established in Brno in the Czech Republic since 2004. Their philosophy is to combine traditionally separate media into a multi-genre mode of performance which they describe as dance-body-movement, and their show reimagines the stories of three cultural and political figures in Czechoslovakia in the twentieth century – composer and conductor Vítĕzslava Kaprálová (1915―40); Ivan Blatný (1919―1990), an exiled Czech poet from Brno and the student Jan Palach, who set fire to himself in protest at the 1968 Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, and died a few days later. Each piece is dedicated to one figure: Irene Bauer performed Vitka, a 10-minute solo set to Kaprálová’s best-known piano compositions April Preludes; Martin Dvořák gave us Blatný – again a solo, but set to music and audio recordings of Blatný reading his work – while the final piece, Jan, was danced by Dvořák, Bauer and Alena Jajasová.
Both Kaprálová and Blatný were originally from Brno and their respective anniversaries in 2015 – 100 years since Kaprálová’s birth and 25 since Blatný’s death – prompted ProART to create their Poets of the City project, which debuted at the ProART festival last year. Kaprálová died in exile in France at the age of twenty-five yet was a trailblazer in her short life and on the threshold of an international career as composer and conductor. She wrote no fewer than fifty works, was the first woman to graduate as composer from the Brno Conservatory, the first woman to be given the prestigious Smetana award for composition and the first to conduct the Czech Philharmonic.
Like Kaprálová, Blatný died in exile but – unlike her – he lived to see the fall of communism in his homeland. Blatný, known as the ‘Czech Rimbaud’, is one of the most interesting and neglected Czech poets of the 20th century: he published poems before his exile and continued to write while in England – still writing poetry on the day he died.
The London performance of Poets of the City was turned into a triple bill, Jan Palach’s story joining those of Blatný and Kaprálová. The final piece, Jan, was a powerful 40-minute composition: the music and dance beating inexorably towards the story’s conclusion. Palach, a student at Charles University in Prague, committed self-immolation in Wenceslas Square, 16 January 1969 in a desperate attempt to rouse the Czech public from their lethargy following the Soviet occupation of the country the previous year. The soundtrack of human voices, organ music and three human bodies moving in synchronicity created a mesmerising and almost transcendental performance. While undeniably tragic, the whole piece – music, dance, and sound – was nonetheless hopeful and uplifting: ultimately Palach’s actions, celebrated openly and defiantly 20 years later, played a part in the Velvet Revolution of 1989. Palach is today remembered for his contribution to democracy and human rights, and a monument to him and fellow student Jan Zajic stands in front of the National Museum in Prague.
The stand-out piece of the evening was Blatný: Dvořák, both choreographer and dancer, has tremendous physicality and the intimate setting at the Oxford House theatre puts the audience almost onstage with the performers. Blatný, a poet and member of Group 42 (an association of Czech modern artists) left his homeland of Czechoslovakia in March 1948 after the communist seizure of power. Like many émigrés living in exile he found life hard to adjust to in Britain – Blatný was blighted by mental health problems throughout his life and spent many periods in and out of then-primitive mental hospitals in England. Dvořák’s performance was accordingly febrile and visceral: he used the floors, walls – the absolute extremities of the performance space, at one point clawing himself along the floor as if trying not to fall off – to convey what seemed to be the state of Blatný’s mind: not so much tormented, rather resigned to inhabiting its mental state.
In Poets of the City, ProART has created a poetic and powerful piece full of drama, physicality and emotion. It’s a shame London could only see it for one night.
ProArt’s Poets of the City (Vitka – Blatný – Jan) showed at Oxford House Theatre, Bethnal Green on 29th January 2016, and was supported by the Czech Centre, London.