Czech woman marks arrival of spring with ritual dance

Antonie Svobodová, archive of Antonie Svobodová

Easter celebrations in the Czech Republic, which combine both Christian traditions and ancient pagan customs, are today mostly associated with painting eggs, whipping girls as well as eating loads of chocolates. But for dancer Antonie Svobodová, this time of year symbolizes a deep connection with the Earth. For more than 20 years, she has been marking the return of Spring by a ritual dance, based on age-old pagan rituals:

Antonie Svobodová, archive of Antonie Svobodová
Every year on Palm Sunday, which falls on the Sunday before Easter, Antonie Svobodová performs a ritual dance at Levý Hradec, an early medieval fortress overlooking the Vltava River. Through her performance, which is inspired by age-old pagan rituals, she celebrates the arrival of Spring and a symbolic restart of her life.

She says that unlike today, similar rituals and customs had a huge significance in people’s lives in the past. Those marking the arrival of spring were often connected with fertility and harvest.

“In the past, people didn’t know for sure whether the Sun would return again after winter, whether the cycle would really start all over again or whether there will be enough rain. So they performed all sorts of rituals to ensure that this would really happen.

“It was about survival, about new life and about rebirth. And that hasn’t changed. But today we tend to take everything for granted and we don’t question whether the world will keep on turning. We don’t have the fear our ancestors had.”

Antonie Svobodová says she was originally inspired by one of the old pagan rituals celebrating the advent of spring, in which a young girl is chosen as a sacrificial victim and dances herself to death. The same rituals inspired composer Igor Stravinsky to write his ballet composition the Rite of Spring.

At the same time, Ms Svobodová stresses that her dance is pure improvisation and a deeply personal experience, based on her own emotions.

“For me, winter is a critical time of year and the spring dance symbolizes purification and a new beginning. I think it is important that we don’t let the time just flow, that we have a chance to stop for a minute and start all over again.”

Antonie Svobodová says all rituals are closely tied to a specific time and place. She has chosen to perform her ritual dance at the early medieval fortress of Levý hradec, the former site of the first Premsylid king Bořivoj, which is located about three kilometers northwest of Prague.

“There are many magical places in the Czech Republic and this is one of them. I have worked here before and I know the place really well. It is a place with long history and unlike many other locations, it hasn’t been built over by new buildings. You can see the river meandering below. It is an open space where you can see the Earth and the sky above.”

View from Levý Hradec, photo: Miaow Miaow, Public Domain
Although the weather this Palm Sunday did not indicate that winter had departed for good, Antonie Svobodová returned to Levý hradec to repeat her annual performance already for the 21st time.

“The dance takes place at sunset and we wait for the moment when day turns into night. It is that magical time when everything changes.

“I perform it at the same place each year and I always wear the same dress: a silk dress of yellow color which symbolizes the advent of spring.

“Various musicians have accompanied me over the years. This time it was the singer Nami Halingten and violinist Helén Rockhousle.”

Ms Svobodová says most of her dances are somehow linked to the time of year when she performs them, but none of them has such deep symbolism as her Greeting of Spring. As with every ritual, she says it has become a significant part of her life and she is ready to welcome the Sun again next year.