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A Czech "Billy Elliot"

He chose his job when he was seven: Jiří Bartovanec, born in 1983 in Mariánské Láznĕ, Czech Republic, has been dancing for 18 years now. Since 2003 he has been working with the world-famous choreographer Sasha Waltz and her international company in Berlin.

E&M: Was it hard to fit in here?

Photo: Torsten Seidel
Beyond Gravity

Jiří: At the beginning I didn't know what would happen in the future and I was terrified. Three years ago I really settled down in Berlin and I love Schöneberg, the area where I live. It's a special mix of young and old, Germans and foreigners and my friends have nothing to do with dancing or the company. Most of my colleagues live in the trendy quarter Prenzlauer Berg which is too artificial for my tastes. Berlin has its charm but it is quite different from cities like Prague or Paris. I feel better here because life feels authentic. But after all, I have to say that it was important for me to know that if anything happens, I can be in Prague within four hours.

E&M: Jiří, what do you remember from the beginning of your career in the Czech Republic?

Jiří: I always wanted to become a dancer but my father hoped I would get a job where I
could earn more money, like hotelier or manager. I had to fight hard, but in the end I applied for the Dunaca Conservatory in Prague when I was 14 and was invited for the audition. My father was against it: "Ok, you can go but don't think that they'll take you! Nobody is waiting for you, coming from such a small village". When they accepted me, everything changed. My father was really proud and told everyone that his son was going to Prague to study. A bit like in "Billy Elliot".

E&M: What was it that made you leave Prague and come to Berlin?

Jiří: When we left school in 2002, a friend told me that Sasha Waltz would be holding auditions the following month. I knew Sasha, not personally, but at the Conservatory we saw a video of her production "Körper". No one liked it! Except me. I was really impressed by it. When I asked the teacher for the video, all the others laughed at me saying "how can you like something like that?". Although I was only sixteen, the images, the dance, the technique, the characters meant something to me ... it had something natural. Two years later, when my friend told me about the audition, I didn't have any hopes of getting the job. To be a 19 year-old in a world-famous company ... I was too down-to-earth to hope for that. I just wanted to meet Sasha, to experience how she works. So I handed in my CV, handwritten! They had probably never been sent anything like that before, but they invited me for the audition and then they wanted me to work with them.

E&M: How did it feel to move your life so radically to another country?

Photo: Sebastian Bolesch
Jiří in "Medea" by Sasha Waltz

Jiří: For me it was wonderful, but for my family it was rather difficult. I wanted to be alone, to make my own decisions. When I first came to Prague, I cried for three months! But my parents told me:  "Jiří, either you stop crying and become strong or we'll take you back to Mariánské Láznĕ and you´ll study something here". They were so clear about it that when I got back that day I decided that dancing was what I wanted and that I had to be strong. In the second year they were the ones who were crying... Later, moving to Berlin, without any German, without friends was hard. And it was only for a single project with Sasha Waltz, there was no clear future. But for me it is important how you feel in a town and already after two weeks I had realised that it's a real liberation to live in Berlin. I am not constrained by anyone, not forced to move in the same direction as everyone else.

E&M: How did you overcome the language barrier?

Jiří: During the first year I only spoke English, even in the shops. I was just too young and too busy. But after that I started to study German on my own, with a book. The beginning was really hard but I never feel ashamed to speak because if the people around you are good people, they'll correct you and that's how you can make progress. I watched a lot of TV, all the silly stuff without intellectual conversations.  And until now I ask a lot. I like speaking German with Sasha. It is her language, so I prefer German. But normally we work in English.

E&M: There is an amazing mix of nationalities and characters in your company. What do you have in common?

Jiří: For all of us it is really important to have a good and inspiring atmosphere in the group. It is hard to bring so many people from so many different countries together and expect them to get along with one another. But Sasha really cares about that aspect because it makes work less problematic. For sure, everybody contributes something from his country and then you have the whole world in the studio. That's something really special!

E&M: So your job is pretty much a dream job, right? Any doubts?

Jiří: I don't doubt. I am really contented. But of course you worry, because ... (sighs) ... with artists it is always the same, you don't have any certainty that it will last for ten years. Do you want it to last? That's where I start to doubt. Whether I should work with another company for example ... but I really enjoy it here and I want to stay! What will happen in two years when my contract ends? What will I do with my flat? Will I have to leave Berlin? Where do I want to go? Is it important to work with someone even more famous? But apart from these questions which come when you have too much time ... everything that has happened so far seems like a dream to me.

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