A few days before the festival, we attended our first ever press conference, sponsored by Baumatic, a kitchen appliance manufacturer which recently released a line of red tango ovens. That’s right, the name of the line of ovens is “Tango!” We danced amongst the ovens and refrigerators, and the next day there was a long article with a photograph of us in one of the local Czech papers all about the Tango Alchemie festival! That night Pavel arranged a special treat for us on the Jazz Boat, literally a river boat which takes passengers on a leisurely route under the beautiful bridges of Prague, while they listen to local jazz groups play. As tourist attractions go, it was really quite lovely, and the views of Prague are beautiful and romantic from the water. We even danced one tango to the band’s rendition of “Moondance.”
The tango festival itself was one of the most charming and personal I have ever attended either as a dancer or as an instructor. The theme of alchemie matches perfectly the three aspects of tango experience: 1. Black for dissolving our boundaries and breaking down the layers of static that interfere with communication; 2. White for the purification of leading and following energies, two forces that all of us possess inside, and which are made manifest in the tango; 3. Red for union and connection, the ultimate experience which transforms technique into the magic of tango creation. The venues were also incredible, particularly the gala event Saturday night in one of Prague’s historic palaces, and the final milonga Sunday night in an outdoor pavilion on a hillside, alongside a vineyard and overlooking the city below.
On our last day in Prague, after the festival was over, I got lost twice, confirming the Czechs’ urban myth of the streets mysteriously changing positions. Unfortunately we didn’t have time to visit the pub whose basement is connected a system of tunnels which lead to Prague Castle; however, we did have a wonderful dinner with Jenne and Pavel, who (along with Radka) deserve huge congratulations for hosting such a beautiful weekend. They even had the brilliant idea of creating tango spirit awards for students, with prizes of discounts on next year’s festival! My favorite awards were the “Tango Angel” award and the “Tangoholic” award!
At dinner they told us an amazing story that has nothing to do with tango, but which is nevertheless worth repeating! Back in 2000, there was a great television strike in the Czech Republic – in protest of legislation allowing government censorship on national networks, the reporters shut down television in the entire country for two weeks, at Christmas time no less! 200,000 people took to the streets to demand the return of television. The strike succeeded, and the legislation was not passed. However, two strange phenomena were discovered within a year. First, the divorce rate increased dramatically, and second, the birthrate soared approximately 9 months following the strike! Fascinating.
I’ll close this entry with one of my favorite local customs, perhaps influenced by the Germans since we also saw it in Berlin. In the evenings, the owners of outdoor restaurants provide blankets for chilly customers finishing their dinner or coffee. As someone who often gets cold but likes to sit outside, this is a dream come true! Ah, Europe. We will miss it, but we’ll return next year, and besides, a new adventure awaits us in DC!
On our third day in Prague, we walked out of the apartment and saw an ordinary wooden chair had been bolted securely to the side of a building, one story up. Now, the chair itself would already be an interesting choice, but there was also a very ordinary, older man sitting in the chair. He was playing some sort of game, rolling dice in a cup and writing with a pencil. He paid no attention to passers by staring up at him. The man in the chair remained a mystery until the following evening, when we navigated Prague’s surprisingly straightforward public transportation system to attend a modern dance performance, part of the June festival Tanec Praha (Dance Prague) which coincides nicely with our stay here.
The show was fantastic, a Romanian choreographer’s work that used powerful gestures and real-life movements in a very surreal way to reveal disturbing human conflicts. Among many beautiful moments was a man perched on a woman’s back with his legs dangling down on either side. She walked slowly across the stage dipping down every few steps to touch one of his toes to the ground. At another moment, two dancers carried a third around the stage as though he were flying. His arms were outstretched and one of them grasped the hand of a fourth dancer who ran with him on his brief assisted flight.
But getting back to the man in the chair. On the way out of the theatre we picked up a brochure of the Prazske Quadriennale (www.pq.cz), a 10-day festival of experimental theatre, scenography, and costumes from around the world. The man in the chair, we discovered, was one of twelve senior citizens placed around the city in similar fashion. Suspended above the city in their chairs, the participants of this theatrical exhibition carried on their daily activities for all to witness. In only four days we are deeply impressed with the vibrant artistic life of this city.
Saturday we ventured out to the kampa, a long park along the river, where we passed many beautiful decorative statues, gardens, and buildings. Prague as a city is richly decorated at every turn, but because so much of the decorative details contain spiritual symbols from pagan, christian, and mystical traditions, the overall feeling in the city is magical rather than historical.
After a late lunch, we made our way to one of Prague’s sports arenas where the Karmapa of Diamond Path Buddhism was invited to speak. A rare opportunity anywhere, it seemed even more apropo to join this spiritual event in mystical Prague. Pavel believes that after centuries of religious and dogmatic conflict, the Czechs are more drawn to a pragmatic sort of spirituality like Buddhism. I asked whether the Czechs felt patriotic and the answer was mixed. It seems they identify more with a particular city than with the Czech Republic itself, or perhaps that they don’t care very much, but prefer to envision themselves more personally than politically, more internally than externally.
That same night was Museum Night, when all museums in the city are open and free between 7pm and 1am. It was impossible to see everything, so we first chose to see an exhibit of ancient stone sculptures which had been removed from their original places around the city in an effort to preserve them from age and vandalism. Then we crossed the river to Prague Castle, worth the trip on its own, and explored the many small museums inside the buildings. Finally, we peeked into a large art gallery (also a classical concert hall, we were told) to see a special exhibition of the German artist Neo Rauch, said to be one of the most significant living artists today. His massive paintings appeared to have been created using several very different techniques, and I found them very compelling, both comically surreal and deeply disturbing. That night I had very strange dreams which I attribute to cultural over-stimulous!
But there was more to come, because on Sunday we rushed out after breakfast to see another Quadriennale event, “Dance with Bulldozer,” a clever and romantic choreography between a man and, yes, a small yellow bulldozer, set to opera music and including elements of aerial dance, contact improv, and modern movement. It was surprisingly captivating. We walked home in unsual weather, bright sunshine and tiny rain droplets.
Our arrival in Prague seemed epic for several reasons. First because it is the final city on our tour although it was the first to be booked, and second because in nearly every previous city we have visited, people have responded always the same way when they hear the word Prague: a small gasp, followed by a long exhale, and a phrase like, “Oh, Prague is beautiful/really special/incredible/a great place for couples/the perfect end for your tour.” Neither Isaac nor I had visited Prague before, but as the months passed it became a fantastical image like Atlantis or some other lost mythical city. We landed at sunset on the jetway and waltzed through customs as peaceful as you please. Jenne greeted us just outside the international gate, her long hair and flowing cotton skirt reminiscent of a spiritual guardian welcoming us across the threshold. Looking out the window of the taxi on our way into the city, Isaac spotted a rainbow, clearly marking the cosmic significance of our journey here. Inside her building, at the base of the staircase, a dragon curled amongst the interlacing vines of the wrought iron railing. It was the first of many dragons that we would find lurking around Prague.
Over dinner, Jenne told us a little bit about the city, including the fact that the name itself means “threshold,” as in, the border between worlds, between east and west, perhaps between dreaming and waking. The popular legend tells of the clairvoyant daughter of the first king of Bohemia, who inherited his domain and foretold the birth of the city. We are here to teach at the Tango Alchemie Festival, held on the summer soltice and organized around the symbolic colors of black (dissolution), white (purification), and red (union), which just happen to be tango colors as well. Needless to say, we love the place immediately and, except for the complicated language, feel strangely at home. Czech grammar has seven tenses, three genders, and two states of being for objects. Names are conjugated depending on context. So for the moment, anyway, I’ve given up on anything beyond “thank you.”
Jenne and Pavel are wonderful, amazing people, and their stories of how Prague has changed over the past 10 years, post-Velvet Revolution, are fascinating. The accessibility of foreign foods seems to have been one of the most exciting developments, as traditional Czech meals are not the healthiest (meat and dumplings, cabbage, potatoes). Nowadays there is everything from vegan cafes to Algerian take-out. Also, in most other European cities, it is easier to see how certain areas were destroyed and rebuilt. Old Prague, on the contrary, remains largely intact. This might seem to be a superficial observation, but I have a feeling the atmosphere is thus preserved in a special way along with the buildings, despite the commercial onslaught of tourism.
And what buildings! I have quickly become a fanatic of Alfonse Mucha, credited by many with defining the style of Art Nouveau. Prague is full of architectural details, stained glass panels, and paintings by this artist, and by others in the same style. In the Mucha Museum we were able to see a nearly complete collection of his lithograph posters, which are incredibly beautiful. The lines of art nouveau curve and twist like plants, and the aforementioned dragons, as well as lions, angels, and other creatures dwell in architectural crevices around the city. Amidst all the decorative flowers and sculptures, a darker legend tells of the Golem, a creature conjured up by a medieval rabbi to protect the Jewish people…