When I meet Filip Barankiewicz, artistic director of the Czech National Ballet, in his airy office at the rehearsal studios in Prague, I am immediately struck by his authoritative presence – and his fervent commitment to doing the best he can for his company of 80 dancers. As a former principal with Stuttgart Ballet, we begin by talking about Johan Kobborg’s La Sylphide, which I had seen the previous day. Barankiewicz is adamant about technique: “There is an absolute need for the dancers to have the August Bournonville method in the repertoire,” he says. “It’s crucial.” We agree that the technique is like no other.

Filip Barankiewicz, artistic director, Czech National Ballet
© Anna Bauer

“I have known the Czech National Ballet for a long time and have guested here since 2003,” he says. “What’s attractive to me about them is their energy – the atmosphere and a vibe that has always been here. But it’s imperative for me to focus on maintaining standards: the A, B and C of education in classical ballet. The most important thing is the quality. That’s what I’ve tried to do; bring in ballets like Ashton’s La Fille mal gardée and a good Swan Lake. I received permission to use John Cranko’s choreography, but also to get new set and costume designs. From the beginning it’s always been about making sure we understand what we mean by good classical ballet. It’s our responsibility if we want to carry on the tradition”.

Barankiewicz officially took up his position during the 2016–17 season, but he had been planning ahead since 2014. He says he must plan up to five seasons in advance. I ask how he chooses repertoire, including new works? “I’m fortunate to know a lot of choreographers – after having worked in Stuttgart, I’m very connected. Stuttgart’s repertoire is phenomenal. I would say that most choreographers, when they haven’t worked with the company before, want to do something that already exists before creating something new. Then over a couple of years they might do a piece that’s a little bit bigger, and then the third time we can commission something new. But you do not want to repeat yourself with the same name, especially if you have a limitation of three to four premieres per season. The logistics of planning aren’t easy.”

Filip Barankiewicz in the studio
© Roman Novitsky

“The company is very open to commissions,” he continues, “but there are many other things that we have to do in order to progress the company. I have so many possibilities here that there is almost not enough life to fit in all we could do. It’s exciting and I have full freedom. Last year we worked with a street dancer who had done something with Kanye West and I really thought somebody would say, ‘does he really belong in this theatre?’ I broke the rules and brought that to the Opera House! Yemi A.D. is so famous in Czech Republic, we had queues outside the theatre. Some of them had never been to the National Theatre. I think these audiences are now coming to see all our other productions. Of course we have our Swan Lake audiences, but we also have teenagers coming out of performances and they’re crying!”

Stuttgart has always had a special relationship with the John Cranko repertoire which he clearly wants to bring to Prague. “I never met with John Cranko myself, but the way Stuttgart has cared for and protected all of his work is incredible: all the people who are still passing on his work or knew him or were his muses. It’s being passed on first hand. Marcia Haydée was always around with John Neumeier and Richard Cragun. Reid Anderson was my director, but I first danced Petruchio in The Taming of the Shrew in Brazil. Ricky Cragun was directing there and Marcia was coaching so I learnt it from them. Giving all the caring and sharing and the know-how to the next generation is very educative.”  

He tells me a story about the origins of Stuttgart Ballet. “When John Cranko first became a director, he called an open audition and he gave jobs to dancers who never got jobs anywhere else. It’s an extraordinary story, because what he made was a company who truly understood what it is all about. When you watch a Cranko ballet you don’t need to read the programme, because it’s clear what’s happening. Even if you’ve never seen Shakespeare before, you will go and see Taming of the Shrew and understand absolutely everything. It’s the same with Romeo and Juliet. Cranko made dancers into people. This is why his works will always survive. As we move through time, we’re questioning if classical ballet should still be there. But story ballets must be, because people can connect with them.”   

Filip Barankiewicz, Marcia Haydée and John Neumeier
© Martin Divíšek

I ask about bringing a short Cranko ballet such as Card Game to Prague? He answers firmly: “No and not because it’s a bad ballet, but I need to understand what the ballet would bring to my dancers and to audiences. It’s difficult if the choreographer is no longer alive and they are not there to adapt it for today’s audiences. There are many Cranko ballets that no one knows because they aren’t done anywhere except Stuttgart Ballet. And I think that’s quite right, because Stuttgart Ballet should be the company that retains the signature of John Cranko.”

But Cranko is not his only focus. “I do think that when you want to educate the audience, not just the dancers, it’s good to bring in something that perhaps they were not expecting. Prague had never seen a ballet by John Neumeier, so in December we brought in his A Streetcar Named Desire. Questions were asked. Why bring it when people are decorating their Christmas trees? With a big company, we were able to do Nutcracker for those that wanted it, but I think it’s also good to open the dialogue about what is happening in today’s world, about sexual harassment, horrible things. There is a trend at the moment to say we shouldn’t be doing La Bayadère or about the colour of the swans’ skin in Swan Lake because they have to wear body paint. It’s not about skin colour, it’s about what you are portraying. Have they ever thought that the swans are white because they are reflecting the moon on the lake? What is political correctness today? What is the purpose of the theatre? The theatre is a world of transformation and we need to see stories. It is illusion. It’s not happening in real time. It’s art.” He reiterates, “You know, you need to be able to do all sorts of different roles. Your performance, your body, the instrument should be timeless. You need to be able to transform yourself. The choreographer has a frame, this is what he or she wanted. You can put your signature on it by way of expression, but not because of the colour of your hair.”

Filip Barankiewicz and Adam Zvonař in the studio
© Martin Divíšek

And will he choreograph anything himself? He grins and says: “No! I am not a choreographer and I have no intention of being one!”

As a renowned international coach and teacher, I wonder how he juggles this with running his own company. “The team has been set up so that they can function without me. It’s not in my contract, but I do try to see all the performances that the company does. I have a nice office here but I want to escape it in order to spend time with the dancers. I don’t always have time to teach classes, but it’s crucial for me to be coaching. When I stopped dancing I felt that I’d had a wonderful career. Reid was so generous. I was offered the chance to teach students at the John Cranko School but I wanted to share my experience with professionals. I think when you teach students you need to have studied psychology. I grew up in Poland with the Vaganova method. It was tough. I try to teach what I’ve learnt and I also love being in the studio. My luck is that my wife is also my personal assistant. She coordinates my agenda and makes it possible to have as much time as possible in the studio. Without that, I don’t think the company would function. Coaching is the best part, allowing them the freedom to find their own character.”

Filip Barankiewicz and Jiří Kylián backstage
© Sergej Gherciu

Barankiewicz is a father of two and he proudly declares there are no dancers in the family. I ask if his wife is a former dancer. “No”, he quips, “she is normal!” Laughing out loud, I question why we always say that. “Because dancers are not normal!”

I point to the keyboard by his desk. I ask if he plays in his “downtime”. “I don’t have downtime! I bought it for my daughter and son. If they’re going to play, they need to like it. I grew up on the piano. I have perfect pitch, so I don’t know how to read Benesh Notation but I can follow the orchestral score. I’m not a musician, but I can teach the choreography from following the score. I can hear the choreography in the music. I cannot live without music.” And with that, he waltzes back to the studio.

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This article was sponsored by Czech National Ballet.