Fast confession - Ballet dancer Pavlína Kopecká: Diseases do not exist in our world, we simply ignore them
She is only nineteen, but she already knows all about hard work. Pavlína Kopecká is a professional ballet dancer at the National Theater. What did this sport give her and what did it take away from her? And what can a girl with such a demanding job eat? The answers to these questions (and many more) can be found in the following interview for Luxury Prague Life.
Did you always want to be a ballet dancer?
Not a chance! When I was little, we used to visit my father in the hospital and I wanted to become a surgeon. I wanted to be like my dad, but somehow it happened that I was accepted to the conservatory after being recommended by my ballet teacher Ms Kymplová from Chrudim.
So you used to go to art school when you were a child? Was it your parent’s idea?
No, my teacher’s. My parents actually weren’t all that excited about it. They thought I would lose interest and quit. And then I'd choose a more meaningful occupation. So it's kind of a mistake. (laughs)
Your teacher recommended you to the conservatory?
Yes, I passed the exams, was admitted and then I studied there for eight years.
Since it wasn’t entirely your parents’ wish, something must have preceded it...
I started doing gymnastics at the age of six, taking ballet classes at seven and passed the conservatory admissions at eleven.
What did your parents think about your applying for the conservatory, when your teacher thought you were pretty good?
They told me to try it because they didn't want to traumatize me by forbidding it. They were waiting for me to stop enjoying it, but somehow that never happened. And so I’ve been studying there for eight years, until my recent graduation, after which I was accepted to the National Theater.
Before we get to the National Theater, I would like to hear about your impressions. After all, there is a huge difference between a little girl’s dream of ballet or gymnastics, and the harsh reality of daily training, which isn’t just fun anymore. It's much more about self-discipline, diligence, hard work. How did you feel about it as a child? Was it still fun, or did the teachers keep pushing you into working hard in order to make something out of yourselves?
It’s always been like that. But because we were used to it since early childhood, we didn't find it strange - we didn’t know anything else. We always had to work, stand by the bar every day, shuffle a hundred tendu (a dance element in which the foot moves forward, to the side and back, ed. note). And that was repeated many times, because there was always something wrong. So we had to try again, and then we moved to the next element. In this way, we "shuffled our feet" for eight years at school, knowing that there might be some improvement, but it will never be perfect.
Really? Even after eight years of practising one element, it isn’t perfect?
No. There are a lot of elements and it’s impossible to perform them perfectly. There's always something that can be improved. That’s the beauty of it, because it drives us forward. We are striving to reach the goal of perfection, which can never be achieved.
I suppose you weren't allowed to go on school trips, ski courses and so on...
For the first five years, I had been going to a regular basic school, so I did manage to take part in two ski courses or so. But once I was accepted to the conservatory, it wasn't an option. We were forbidden from going to the mountains, although we occasionally did go... Secretely.
What if you had broken a bone?
Then I would have been in trouble.
How did your peers, your friends feel about it? I assume that at the conservatory, you were in touch only with the people from your classes.
That's true, because I'm not from Prague. I left my old friends back at home and I only ever saw them during the holidays. But at school, our class became one big family because we were spending most of our days there. We would arrive at eight in the morning and didn’t get out until seven in the evening.
So you moved from Chrudim to Prague in order to attend the conservatory. How old were you?
I moved at eleven.
That's a pretty young age. Where did you live?
In the dormitory.
As early as eleven years of age?
You were just a child! How come your parents let you go? I don't understand that myself. (laughs) Who looked after you, who cooked for you?
We had lunch at school; breakfast and dinner were provided at the dormitory. We lived on Náměstí Míru at St. Ludmila’s. They took good care of us there, raised us well, taught us to clean up.
So you were brought up by nuns?
You can say that.
Girls reach puberty at about thirteen, some earlier, some later. And now you are in Prague, Náměstí Míru is pretty much in the centre of the town… When did the going out, drinking phase hit you? Does that even happen to ballet dancers?
It usually happens after the show, but quite often we're so tired that we just go back home and fall asleep.
What did your graduation exam entail?
The graduation exam consisted of Czech, English, history of dance and ballet. We also had a practical demonstration, which meant precisely the technique, the "feet shuffling". Next was a scenic practice where we had to show different variations from ballets, or pas de deux, dance in pairs. We also had partnering.
So there were guys there, too?
And did they also live with those nuns?
No, they had their own dormitory on the opposite side of the square. But a lot of my classmates were from Prague so they didn't have to solve that problem. It was a little easier for them.
I believe that regular children, in your case young adults, can't even imagine that.
I guess not. We had to grow up quickly, there was no other choice.
When you went home on weekends during your studies, did your parents realize that you were turning into a grown up at eleven, twelve years old?
My parents probably noticed, but for me it was very natural. I was telling myself I was a big girl. At eleven, I felt terribly mature, capable of handling anything. I didn’t see it as a problem, I rather think my parents must have been scared.
You have four siblings, are you the youngest of them?
Yes, I'm the youngest.
And what were their reactions? Weren’t they worried about you and didn’t they have the tendency to protect you in Prague, or at least from a distance?
I wasn't really aware of that. Although one of my brothers was already living in Prague, so I was in contact with him, which was certainly beneficial because he would bring me food. Or when I left something at home. But otherwise, I don't think they were too worried, because I used to call home every day to let them know that I'm fine. So my parents and siblings knew I was alive.
And how did you get to the National Theater?
In the eighth year, after the New Year’s Eve, a horrible part of life begins, when we have to study for the graduation exam as well as the absolutorium, and on top of that we’re doing auditions. That means that almost all of our free weekends are spent in different theaters, where massive auditions are being held, often attended by hundreds of people, and we hope the ballet masters or managers will notice us. And that we will get an engagement. I think there must have been a hundred and fifty of us at the National Theater - and in the end it worked out for me.
How many people were chosen?
And you among them. How did that make you feel?
I was so excited about it, especially because I was the only Czech person to succeed. It had been my goal to be accepted to the National Theater because it's a great troupe and at the same time it's not far from home. I mean, I could have ended up somewhere in America.
Which wouldn’t have been bad either...
It wouldn't have, but I like it here more because I can stay at home and have my peace. That feels nice.
In which productions can we see you?
Right now in the Timeless production, which is shown in January and February. I dance there in the Serenade by George Balanchin.
How often do you perform and how often do you have to train? Do you have some free time, which you didn’t have at the conservatory?
I have to say my schedule has loosened up. At the conservatory we were stuck inside from eight to seven, while here we have training starting at ten in the morning, after which rehearsals are scheduled until six. If your presence isn’t required at the rehearsal, then you're free. Sometimes it happens that you only have training in the morning and then you get the rest of the day off. But it also happens that you have a full day of rehearsals, come home completely drained, go to bed and fall asleep, only to do it all over again the following day.
Can you make a living out of it, or do you need to have a side job?
You can make a living out of it.
And you no longer live with the nuns, I assume...
I don't, I'm staying in a small apartment. I can pay my rent and I’m not suffering from hunger. The income leaves much to be desired, but one can get by.
You need to stay fit and healthy at all costs. How do you deal with diseases?
We usually try to ignore them.
That’s not healthy.
It's not healthy at all, but we don’t really have the option to call in sick due to a fever.
So you attend training with a fever? Or even performances?
That must show in your performance though.
I guess it does show, but we grit our teeth and keep going anyway.
And you are currently suffering from what kind of injury?
I have a broken ligament. I have to have my leg in a cast. It needs about five weeks of rest and then rehabilitation. This is not my first injury, of course, I broke the tarsal bone on my foot during my first year, and for two years I’ve had problems with my knee, which I managed to solve by rehabilitation and strengthening. In order to get back to the exercise room and on stage, we must wait patiently for the injury to heal properly. This can sometimes be very frustrating, since we are used to moving so many hours a day. After rehabilitation, you have a week of workouts in the theater and then you return to the regular work regime.
Is there much rivalry between dancers? I imagine it a bit like in the modeling world, where, for instance, one girl cuts off another girl’s heel, so that the other would fall down and clear her path to victory. Or so that she’d be hired for another job.
I haven’t noticed anything like that at the National Theater. It seems to me that we all stick together there and try to support each other. It's a pleasant environment. But I heard some stories about things that happened in Russia, probably credible ones. The dancers were putting glass shards into each other’s pointe shoes.
So it doesn’t happen here in the Czech Republic?
Not that I know of. There will always be some rivalry, we will be envious of each other, but that is the healthy competitive spirit that drives us on.
You must be one of the youngest there.
There’s also an eighteen year old girl in the troupe.
But you look fifteen!
Thank you. (laughs)
How do your colleagues perceive it? Do they tend to scold you, or do they share their experience with you in a motherly way?
Yeah, every now and then. It’s obvious that they still see us as babies compared to others that have been there for a longer time. But they know we're all adults.
What about injuries?
Injuries do happen and every day, something hurts.
You must be living in permanent pain then.
In the ballet world, we say that when you wake up feeling no pain, you’re dead. We continually have pulled muscles, which we stretch before training, then start exercising again. And the next day it begins anew. We can also have a pulled groin, which is a terrible kind of pain. It then hurts to lift your legs even a little, but we have to pull through.
Do you find it useful that your dad is a doctor?
For sure. It's a great thing. He has saved my health many times.
For example, how?
When I had a problem with my knee and they threatened me with surgery, that would have been about three months without practice. But I received various injections, natural ones, with collagen and so on. After a month I was able to start practising, which was actually quite hasty, but in the end it was without any consequences, so I could keep working.
Ballet dancers retire somewhat earlier than ordinary people. What retirement age do you envision for yourself?
Unfortunately, our early retirement was canceled. So I hope I can last as long as possible.
At least thirty-six, thirty-eight. I don’t think I can make it till forty, and I definitely won’t be able to keep going into my forties.
What do ballet dancers do after that? What are you going to do? In the fast confession, you mentioned that you would be looking for some work. Wouldn’t it be a good idea to start thinking about the back door now?
We have a higher professional education so we can teach ballet. Or we can stay in the theater and become ballet masters, choreographers. Or find a job outside the field, retrain.
You haven't thought about it yet?
It occurred to me that I could, for instance, look into physiotherapy. I would enjoy it, because I am already familiar with how the body moves. It would definitely be good for ballet dancers, if the physiotherapist had his/her own experience with ballet in order to understand where we’re hurting.
Since you decided to devote yourself to such a hard work as a little girl, are you already aware of something that ballet took away from you?
It took away my childhood.
Don't you regret it?
Yeah, a little, but since I don’t really know anything else, I don't miss it much.
And what did ballet give you?
If you have a daughter one day, she might come to you and say, "Mom, I want to be like you, I want to do ballet." What are you going to tell her?
I definitely wouldn’t forbid it to her, but I would probably try to talk her out of it.
You said dancers might be good lovers on stage. I suppose that you dancers really only hang out with each other, because meeting an ordinary person who would understand your dedication to work and discipline must be challenging. But correct me if I’m wrong...
That depends on the extent to which a person is extroverted and enjoys various non-dance social events.
How is it in your case?
I'm rather introverted. I don't really like going to parties, I'm usually tired and want to leave early anyway. So it's true that most people I know are dancers. Of course, it is harder to choose a partner among them, because a lot of male dancers are already dating other guys.
So the rumors about them must be at least fifty percent true... And do you have a partner?
I don’t have a partner.
I assume you would like to have a family one day?
Definitely. Family is more important than career for me.
If by any chance an offer to work abroad came, hopefully not from Russia, once you are older, because I understand that now, at 19, you want to be as close to your family as possible... But some time in the future, would you consider going?
I certainly wouldn’t hold myself back. If such an offer comes, even from Russia, I will take it. After all, the Russian ballet is on an exceptionally high niveau. The USA, England, France and Russia belong among the best countries when it comes to culture and ballet. Any of those place, I would go to without hesitation. But I don't know how long I would be able to stay there.
Is there a dancer you wish to meet on stage?
Yes, certainly with Marianella Núñez, who is a prima ballerina in the English Royal Ballet, absolutely incredible. It would be a great honor for me to share the stage with her.
Any Czech dancers?
Czech dancers… Well, these wishes are already coming true for me. It is true that nobody talks about Czech ballet much.
Not at all! I don't know anyone, except for Vlastimil Harapes.
That's the problem. You might also know Daria Klimentová, but that's it really. We have incredible dancers, we have Alina Nana, Nikola Márová, Miho Ogimoto, Magda Matějková, Míša Wenzelová. These are amazing dancers, and the fact that I can be on stage with them is a honor for me because I used to go see them on stage when I was a student. All of them were stars and a great source of inspiration for us. Now I'm with them at the bar every day and we shuffle tendu together. (laughs)
When can the theatre goers see you next?
We are preparing a new production of Swan Lake in the choreography of John Cranko. The premiere will be on March 28th and I will be dancing a swan there.