Miřenka Čechová: If my parents had known one percent they would have taken me out of ballet school

Miřenka Čechová, photo: Ian Willoughby

Miřenka Čechová is an internationally acclaimed performer, director and choreographer known for combining dance and physical theatre. In her recently published autobiographical novel Baletky (Ballet Dancers) Čechová draws on her years as a pre-teen and teenage student at Prague’s Dance Conservatory, detailing extreme physical demands and constant psychological pressure. Nevertheless, the 38-year-old says she did not intend the book – which also paints a vivid portrait of ‘90s Prague – as a “My Ballet Hell” style misery memoir. When we spoke, I first asked her about some of the extreme things she had been through as a young ballet student.

Miřenka Čechová,  photo: Ian Willoughby
“Ballet dance is a very specific discipline. It is like when you do sport at a very high level.

“You have to have a certain physical disposition, you have to have the mental disposition and you have to go through certain discipline that differs based on the school where you study.

“I think that in my case – I was studying at the Dance Conservatory in the ‘90s in Prague – it was still not too long after the fall of the Iron Curtain…”

Your school was based on the Russian system, is that right?

“Yes, it was.

“There were many Russian teachers and I would say that also the spirit of the school was very similar to what used to be before.

“At the same time, there were of course some more progressive teachers, but probably I was not too lucky for those ones.

“When you are a child, you don’t understand certain things that are happening to you as extreme – so you basically accept whatever is happening to you.

“The extreme becomes extreme much later, when you are maybe an adult and you see the situation from a distance.

“Now I think that probably the most challenging thing was these very strict rules on physical look – how dancers are supposed to look, their weight, their visage, even physical proportions.

“Before entering the school I had to go through special medical exams where all my fat was measured, my head was measured, my facial features were measured – if they are in the right proportion.

“I had to fill in a special questionnaire about the weight of my parents.”

Didn’t they lie about their weight to help you get accepted? Is that the case?

“[Laughs] You know, at the time my father was already at the age when men put some weight on, and we were basically afraid that this might be a reason that they will not accept me.

“So he put a little bit less weight for himself and my mother put a little bit less height.

“When you are a child, you don’t understand certain things that are happening to you as extreme – so you basically accept whatever is happening to you.”

“Ballet dancers should not be too tall, because when they stand on point they would be much higher than their partners.

“So it’s much better to be a little bit smaller.

“Then there is of course big pressure on how you look, even if you are in puberty.

“You should not have your body looking too feminine, I would say.

“Our weight was controlled, very regularly. Every Monday morning, or a few times a month.”

What was going through your mind when were standing in front of all your classmates being weighed and measured like that?

“Of course you felt ashamed.

“I was pretty tall for being a ballet dancer – I have 172 centimetres and was the tallest in the whole class.

“And because of that I had one of the highest weights.

“I didn’t want that, because I wanted to be accepted for certain classes like dance with a partner.

“But if we exceeded 50 kilos then they were telling us, No, you can’t attend because boys will not lift you.

“So this was very frustrating.

“But my weight was not very problematic. I was pretty thin all the time – also because I was scared of putting on some weight.”

But also you did things to keep your weight down. You smoked, you took laxatives.

Photo: Paseka publishing
“Yes, I think almost everyone in my class was controlling their weight in a certain way: not eating at all, or being on special diets, or also undergoing already some health issues, like anorexia or bulimia.

“It was pretty common in my time in this environment.”

I don’t know anything about ballet, but I was quite shocked reading your book. And I was wondering, why are parents sending their kids into this kind of system? Is it because some people have this kind of, to my mind, old-fashioned bourgeois idea of what a good, middle class girl should do?

“In my case, it definitely was not this way, because my parents didn’t want me to become a ballet dancer.

“I had very good grades and I had a talent for many other things – perhaps I would have become either a pianist or a doctor.

“But I had big pressure from my ballet teacher, who thought that I was a big talent.

“She was really pushing me to do this professionally.

“At the age of 10, I basically became almost obsessed with this idea.

“Of course you don’t know what it means actually – you only have this romantic vision of standing on the stage in Swan Lake and being the centre of attention and dancing this romantic dance with your partner.

“So despite the fact that my parents didn’t want me to go there, I really was fighting for my dream.

“They eventually decided, OK, we will try – and if you don’t feel well there, you can always return.

“Definitely they didn’t know anything from what was happening at school, because I knew if they would know one percent of that, they would definitely take me out of school, they would try to save me.”

But that must cause a lot of pressure, especially for a young teenager –to have to hide their real life from their parents?

“I was not living with my parents, because they had to send me Prague, to the capital, which was almost 300 kilometres from my own home.

“I was living in a dormitory with other small girls.

“My parents saw me only during weekends, sometimes twice a month, and for me it was a big adventure.

“I had to go through special medical exams where all my fat was measured, my head was measured, my facial features were measured – if they are in the right proportion.”

“At that time I didn’t see any danger, I didn’t see anything bad, in really going through very problematic and difficult situations.

“Because I was following my dream and it was a drug. Ballet was a drug.

“I was a very good student. I was super excited and I was able to everything in order to succeed.”

You write about the fact that almost all of your classmates didn’t stay in ballet. There was a very high turnover rate – people were thrown out and new people came. Given that the chances of success seem so small, and given that it can have a lasting effect on your body, is it a good “bet” to try to be a ballet dancer?

“Well, I can’t generalise this, because everyone probably has different reasons.

“I think if you have super great physical dispositions, which means a special way your legs look, what is the length of your limbs, how open are your hips – all of these things matter in ballet.

“If you have all of those physical features, plus you have the special mindset and big discipline in yourself, as well as some luck, this is a cocktail when you can succeed.

“But my personality was probably, for me, really forming a decision during my studies, in that I found it pretty problematic how we were mentally treated.

“And my craving for creativity, a good education, plus a certain freedom, were things that slowly led me to the decision that I probably should try another career.

“That came much later, but it was slowly forming during my studies as I was finding out that maybe being unified under this physical technique, full of rules, is not the way I want to succeed in my life.”

You’re quite few years younger than I am, but I think it’s very possible that we were in the same places in the 1990s. For example, you write about the club Roxy or the pub La Casa Blu. On top of everything else, the book is also a memoir of Prague in the ‘90s. What are your standout memories of that period?

“Actually this is why I decided to write the book.

“The ‘90s was for me the main topic, but of course ballet went hand in hand with this, because it was my path.

“But I remember the atmosphere as something that was in very strong opposition, almost in contradiction, to this discipline I was going through.

“They were moments [in clubs] when you could really release certain pressure in yourself, when you could dance without being judged all the time, you could dance without watching yourself in the mirror.”

“So it was very, very freeing.

“And for us it was a time when, for example, house music started, electronic music was taking over and with clubbing there was also drugs on that scene, there was a certain anarchy, there was a certain fight towards the authorities that were still, some of them, part of the previous system.

“So the spirit in Prague in the ’90s was this wild child in puberty – and that was really our age.

“In the book I’m using this almost as a mirror to the ballet discipline – this free spirit of the time, in contrast with the very unfree spirit in the school.”

I guess simply dancing in a club like Roxy or Radost must have been just a total release to you, because there were no rules?

“Yes, exactly.

“They were moments when you could really release certain pressure in yourself, when you could dance without being judged all the time, you could dance without watching yourself in the mirror.

“The parties were about like really losing your head and dancing because you want to dance, you want to release yourself in this collective feeling and you want to be who you are.

“So I think it was one of the ways that helped us to a little bit get back to our own feet.”

Also you must have all been incredible dancers?

“Well, probably not, in a way that house music would suggest.

“I think we were probably these weird girls dancing weird movements among other people.

“But no-one was actually judging us, though we were really enjoying doing something that was somehow against the rules.”

The second last line of the book includes the words “I received the award Best of Contemporary Dance from the Washington Post”. You’ve had fantastic success in your career, internationally. How much of that do you credit to your ballet upbringing?

“When I finished the conservatory I decided I’d never dance any more.

“Because there was a certain disillusion in general with the dance environment, because I didn’t know anything else except classical ballet.

“Plus I really wanted to study and to develop myself more in an intellectual way.

“I felt that the body was something that at a certain moment will stop having its value, because classical dancers have very short careers.

“Then there is this big gorge or gap of, like, unknown things.

“I had to really get rid of certain stereotypes and a certain tension in the body that took me many years to release.”

“But slowly while I was studying at two universities at the same time, which was the result of my crazy discipline [laughs], I was finding my way to dance again.

“It wasn’t ballet any more but it was physical theatre, it was dance theatre and also, in the end, contemporary dance.

“At that time it was for me in big contrast to what I was experiencing at school – a really creative environment full of people with strong creative potential discussing burning topics of our society.

“It was a very vivid community that was engaged socially and artistically and where I was finding my voice pretty strongly.

“I found out that I wanted to be a creator, not an interpreter.”

But would you be able to do those things if you didn’t have the ballet foundations?

“Probably, I would.

“But I would have to go through probably a different school – maybe a school of contemporary dance.

“What ballet gave me definitely was physical technique that allows me to do things physically pretty easily.

“But I had to really get rid of certain stereotypes and a certain tension in the body that took me many years to release.

“Everyone could see that I’m a ballet dancer: I was walking a certain way, I was carrying my body in a certain way.

“So to release all the tension, to release the tension in my spine and neck, it took me really some time.

“It was not so easy to do that immediately.

“But also what ballet gave me was a certain struggle that I consider to be very helpful for an artist, and that is something like a creative wound you have in your body, in your soul.

“And that I am not indifferent to certain things.

“I am super sensitive to my freedom. I am super sensitive to power.

“And it brought definitely an awareness of topics which, if I had not gone through them, I would not be able to understand.

“So I say this hyper-sensitivity that I have is on one hand very problematic.

“But on the other hand, I feel blessed, because it’s this creative potential that is within myself.”