Principal Dancer, Dresden Semperoper Ballet
About 20 dancers rambled disjointedly around a wide wooden panel set upright in the center of the Semperoper stage. They were the two casts of Semperoper Ballet dancers learning the choreography to Johan Inger’s Walking Mad, a piece to be performed in four weeks. One of the dancers seemed much more experienced, and I would’ve said that he nailed the steps on the first try, but he kept repeating them, not only to commit them to memory, but with each repetition and subtle modification, either by adjusting the speed, the way he connected the steps or the degree of softness and force, he brought out a range of expression in those moves. Watching him rehearse was a performance in itself. Then, with that confidence and magnetism that all performers seem to posses, he walked downstage towards me and courteously reached out his hand to say hello. The charming approach was wholly interrupted when I asked him his name. Few visitors to the Semperoper Ballet would not have known Jiří Bubeníček.
We went for a bite at the canteen inside the Semperoper theater. Bubeníček recently became a vegetarian; “it’s too bad they don’t have a lot of vegetarian options here,” he said of the typical German fare and picked up a small dish of salad. “So, what is your position in the company?” I asked naively when we sat down. He paused, as if in doubt of the question, and replied confidently, “Principal,” then teasingly added, “I’m always principal.” He sat back in his chair and looked curiously across the table at me, with amused anticipation of what I might ask next. I think he finally believed my ignorance when I asked him to write his name in my notebook, to make sure I had the right spelling. As if I needed more assurance, one of the dancers walked by in a T-shirt bearing his name, which commemorated the ‘Bubeníček New Year Gala’, a performance held in Japan.
Indeed, Bubeníček has been principal dancer with the Semperoper Ballet since 2006. Before that, he was a principal dancer at Hamburg Ballet where his identical twin brother, Otto, is still dancing as, of course, principal. Jiří and Otto are known as ‘The Twins’, and their physical traits once came to practical use. In one performance of La Bayadère at the Hamburg Ballet, Jiří played the lead opposite Bolshoi prima Svetlana Zakharova. He got progressively ill during the performance – he suspected it was from bad sandwich meat earlier that day – until he was too ill to continue. Readily, Otto stepped in for the last number. While it surprised Zakharova, it’s quite certain that the audience didn’t notice, since the director of the Hamburg Ballet hadn’t either.
Not just their looks, Jiří and Otto are even better known for their artistry through Les Ballets Bubeníček, the company they’ve formed together. While artistic vision is shared, Jiří creates the choreography and Otto creates the music and designs the staging and costumes. They’ve collaborated with dancers from companies such as the Paris Opera Ballet, Mariinsky Ballet and Semperoper Ballet, and their creations have won accolades globally. Their fans won’t be disappointed; Jiří and Otto perform in their creations too. The Picture of Dorian Grey, based on the Oscar Wilde story, is a duet with Otto in the role of Dorian and Jiří as the painting of Dorian that comes to life.
“Each creation,” asserted Bubeníček, “must be inspired by a feeling, and it must say something.” In a piece he choreographed called Faun, inspired by the once controversial The Afternoon of a Faun, by the legendary Valsav Nijinsky, Bubeníček demonstrates temptation through the controversy of recent child sexual abuse crimes committed by Catholic priests. He received an angry letter from an audience member after the performance, blasting him for showing such offensive material onstage. To him, this was a mark of success that proved the affecting power of the piece. I asked him how he ensured that the prayer movements were performed accurately, in order portray an authentic setting. “Did you visit monasteries and observe how they prayed?” “No,” he said matter-of-factly, “I found clips on YouTube.”
With that same frankness, Bubeníček described his dizzying schedule of pursuits to improve his artistry. He is like any ambitious artist who feeds his hunger with his work and seems in complete disregard of the need for sleep. When not rehearsing for the Semperoper Ballet, I still found him in the studio working on his own pieces. “To improve myself as a choreographer,” he says, “I must keep practicing. I create minimum two pieces a year.” His advice to young choreographers, is to “simplify the message; stop and take a breath.” He said that he’d made the same mistake of putting too many steps into his early choreography, making it too busy. “The most important aspect of being a choreographer or a dancer,” he reflects, “is to understand that it is a collaboration from both sides.”
Despite his accomplishments, there is something that still eludes Bubeníček as a dancer. It’s achieving what he calls ‘the present moment’, through which a dancer can give his or her most authentic performance. “I get glimmers of it,” he says. Nerves and worries of mistakes can distract a dancer onstage, but in the state of the present moment, he describes, one feels completely connected with that performance and is only aware of the present execution of the steps. By the end of his career, he would love to have accomplished this. In the meantime, his creations which provoke and inspire us are the products of his pursuit.