One man. Two hats. Petr Zahradnícek has been dancing with Milwaukee Ballet since 2003 where he has appeared in roles such as Fritz in The Nutcracker, John Darling in Peter Pan and Jonathan Harker in Dracula. But it wasn't long before he got the itch to start exploring movement as a choreographer. He began working with another dancer in the studio, and soon moved onto creating new pieces for Milwaukee Ballet School & Academy and The Nancy Einhorn Milwaukee Ballet II Program. Now he’s had several premieres featured on Milwaukee Ballet’s stages and his reputation is growing. He's been to Ballet Memphis three times to create world premieres, and has just returned from Palm Desert, California, where his works were featured at the McCallum Theatre, his reward for winning a choreographic competition last year. Now Petr is back home, this time choreographing for Milwaukee Ballet’s Summer Intensive Program. We sat down to discuss his inspiration and the rewards and challenges of choreographing his fellow Milwaukee Ballet Company dancers.
When did you start becoming interested in choreography?
As soon as I started dancing, but I didn’t start getting serious about it until maybe 10 years ago. I set a piece on [former Nancy Einhorn Milwaukee Ballet II dancer] Brent Whitney, and I really enjoyed the process so I started exploring it further.
Is it challenging to dance and choreograph in the same season? Can you separate your brain like that or is there some crossover?
The two are totally different. As a choreographer, you use all that you’ve learned as a dancer. That movement can feed into what you’re working on. But you have a different focus as a choreographer. You have to let things go to a certain extent. It’s more of a process. You don’t have to worry about retaining the steps, it’s more about the ideas and making sure everything is flowing and making sense. That’s probably the biggest difference between the two. As a dancer you’re more focused on your steps and your assignment. As a choreographer you’re relying on the dancers to remember their steps because you’re more involved in the overall picture.
What is the dynamic like when you’re a colleague when you’re dancing with the Company, versus being the boss as a choreographer?
It’s definitely different when you’re creating work on your friends. You have to learn how to balance being their friend and being in charge. But there are benefits to it of course. I know all of them, and I know what they can do. It’s more of a collaborative process working with them and that's beneficial for me. Some choreographers probably hate it (he laughs). Some like to have a little distance from the personalities so they can focus on the work. A little distance is good, but I like having the input of the other dancers. I enjoy the freedom of exploring with them.
Where do you start when you’re creating a piece? An idea? A song you can’t get out of your head?
Ideas mainly. When I started it had more to do with the music but now it’s more about ideas. Usually the pieces I create are connected to what interests me in the particular moment. Sometimes I have multiple ideas for a piece but if I do not want to do something too dramatic or too happy... I choose not to do it. I imagine myself in these situations and then apply it to my choreography. I also ask the dancers how they would react in these situations.
In The Song She Used to Play, Susan [Gartell]'s story was my inspiration. She told me about her favorite song and its meaning to her. I asked her if I could do a piece to her song. I was honored when she accepted. I think every piece should have a purpose or story.
When I have the music and a first draft of a concept, I start to think about what is going to be happening on the stage with connection to the music. I try some steps and see how it flows together. I do not make all the steps, but bits and pieces to get an idea. I do this for the whole piece, to have a good idea of how it will all fit together. If I have a good feeling about it, I proceed and I start to work with the dancers in the studio. The piece starts to take shape and evolves as I choreograph. I do not consider the piece finished until I am sure that everything works. I think it is important for a piece to have a purpose. That purpose may be a story or a feeling. The most challenging yet exciting part for me is to make the intent clear to the audience.
You’ve premiered a handful of works here at Milwaukee Ballet. It would seem Michael Pink has been supportive of you exploring choreography as you dance with the Company.
Of course. The fact that he allowed me to come in and work with the dancers is great. Experience is the best teacher and that’s what he’s given me. And he’s given me some great advice. I remember after he challenged me to create a storyline for Concourse, and I'd be in rehearsal, and during a break he’d pull me aside and say “Petr that’s just not going to work” (he laughs). And I learn a lot just from watching him. He’s such a great story teller and doing that well is really hard.
How was your trip to California for the McCallum Theatre?
Good! I presented a collection of my works, and I got some great feedback. I created two new pieces in a three-week rehearsal period so it was a little crazy, but it was fun. We actually went camping together out there. It’s always nice to hang out with everyone out of the studios. Even if you’re with them all day, you get to know them so much more outside of rehearsals.
Petr’s upcoming projects include new works for Danceworks, Ballet Memphis and a premiere in Milwaukee Ballet’s performance of FALL(ing), a collaboration with Present Music and the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Department of Dance showing October 26-27 at the Zelazo Center for the Performing Arts. But your first opporunity to see his work would be at Emergence, the showcase of the Summer Intensive program showing Friday, July 27 at the Sharon Lynne Wilson Center for the Arts. And, of course, you can see him out on the stage dancing with his friends in Milwauke Ballet's 2012-13 season.
Photo of Petr: Jessica Kaminski.
Performance photo: David Hovhannisyan in Petr Zahradnícek's Autumn Leaves. Photo: Brian Lipchik.
Photo from California: Petr Zahradnícek with Susan Gartell, David Hovhannisyan and Rachel Malehorn.