Pavel Veselý

Meeting Dancer Pavel Veselý
“In its golden age, Laterna magika was unique and the only one”

On January 7, 2017, we made a video interview with dancer Pavel Veselý at his home and on the New Stage of the National Theatre.

Dancer, choreographer and former soloist of Laterna magika Pavel Veselý graduated from a conservatory in folklore dance. Between 1953 and 1959, he worked at the Czechoslovak State Folk and Dance Ensemble; during his military service, he was active in the Military Art Ensemble. In 1959, he was chosen as a dancer of Laterna magika in a two-round audition. His first work for Laterna magika included acts from the programme for Expo 1958. He spent 31 years in the ensemble and travelled the world on theatre tours.

As Pavel Veselý says, working at Laterna magika requires someone who has not only mastered the techniques and can dance in various styles but also who has a universal talent and is aware that the dancer is part of a whole which he must respect. The dancer also had to be expressive as he was in immediate contact with the viewers. To Pavel Veselý, it was an amazing experience as the new acts at Laterna magika brought in new directors and choreographers who came up with diverse requirements: “We wanted to be of universal use and have certain renown, have a sense of belonging and know that they are happy to have us.”

Director K. M. Walló saw a variety show with a steering wheel and back projection in Japan and he wanted to develop this principle in the act Breakneck Ride. He came up with the character of a photographer on roller skates riding across Prague. Wearing roller skates showed to be problematic for the dancer since they would move constantly. The dancer was supposed to do turns and jumps while moving within two to three metres as close to the screen as possible. For instance, there was a turn in Breakneck Ride which the dancer had to do in less than a second while the character on the stage turned into the character on the screen; otherwise the viewers would see through the trick. Pavel Veselý was racking his brains and finally came up with the idea that it is best when he imitates the movement of the roller skates without actually putting them on and is free “to do really anything.” The illusion of roller skates on his feet was achieved by means of wrestling shoes with a rubber strip glued to them on which there were white spots “so it would look as if it had wheels, as if something was there.” The trick worked and Breakneck Ride became an immensely successful act included in all revues.

Travel agencies offered Laterna magika’s performances as part of their package tours and tourists from both East and West came to see the shows. While Laterna magika was not covered in the press in Czechoslovakia, when abroad, Pavel Veselý received a warm welcome and was considered a big star. When on tour in South America, he wrote 3 letters that were to be printed in Mladá Fronta daily, however, that did not happen as they would have had to be completely rewritten according to period requirements.

According to Pavel Veselý, Laterna magika had no competitors around the world for a long time. It combined technical ideas, surprise for the viewers and primarily good content. It had the Czech spirit, “combining a Schweikian approach and typical Czech wisdom.” However, after abandoning its original principles, it lost its unique character and became ordinary. Today, so Veselý, technology prevails over the action on the stage. Director Alfréd Radok, on the other hand, wanted all the elements to be in balance: the music part, the visual part and the action on the stage.

An Excerpt from an Interview with Dancer Pavel Veselý

What did the engagement with Laterna magika mean for your career?
To answer the question whether I would dance again, I would have to say no, as it turned out to be a really hard job, very exhausting, terrible drudgery. Besides dancing, you can hardly do anything else and you have to give it quite a lot. I would love to do theatre, be an actor or mime. I just wouldn’t like to dance. However, after the experience I had, after it gave me what I wouldn’t have expected, after having the luck of getting into Laterna magika, I would do it again, I would. It sounds contradictory. It is a wonderful profession but a short-time one. It is very uncertain in terms of making a living. It’s even worse with boys than with girls. They, too, end early and know nothing else. There are plenty of teachers, there are many choreographers as well, so what to do then? Even now, the salary is not big enough to provide for you for the rest of your life. That is why I now think I would not do it again. It is a profession that is good for a certain period of time. Then you realize that you made a mistake.

Do you still perceive Laterna magika as something that enriched your career in a creative way?
Exactly, without a doubt. It was incredibly enriching and I am happy that I got there, since working there was completely different from working in a regular theatre. I know how things are in a theatre; there is training and rehearsals, too, but it’s the same all the time, nothing but ballet really. Here, it was not about ballet only, it had everything. What was most important though was that you also had to be a good actor, you had to be expressive and be able to “sell it.” It is hard to put it in words. It was something different and it was immensely enriching. Most importantly, I have worked with so many directors and choreographers; nobody can take that away from me.

I have this wonderful story to tell. We were performing in Berlin, in a huge palace where Hitler held his rallies. It is no longer there, it was torn down. We played two performances in one day and had an hour off between them. After the first performance, I would take my clothes off and only wear my dressing gown and lie down behind the stage. All the lights were turned off. The guys would even switch off the technical light so it was basically completely dark there. Suddenly I heard someone walking and groping around. I thought it was someone from the technical staff. So I got up and went to the switch to put the technical light on and there was a tall lean man, about sixty, half tangled up in one of the curtains. We looked at each other for a moment, then we said hello and he said: “I’ve seen the performance. It’s great. I had no clue how some of those things were done.” I told him: “Come and see.” Behind the first portal, there was a handle, a rope, it went down like this. I took it, unlocked it and it started rolling. He stared at it and was ecstatic. “Oh my God. Only Czechs can do that. That’s ingenious. I thought there was a control room there and knobs and stuff… And there’s a man doing it by his hand, like a winch pump.” (laughter) I looked at him, wondering how the heck he knows so much about it; then he introduced himself. His name was Piscator [German avant-garde theatre director Erwin Piscator].

Edited excerpt from an interview with Pavel Veselý made by Zuzana Černá on July 13, 2016. The original audio recording and its unedited transcription are available in the Collection of Sound Recordings at the NFA.