Tumult in Slovakia’s National Theatre

A new opera director in Bratislava in letting politics interfere in art

On The Town | Alec Kinnear | June 2010

Slovakia continues to struggle with its national theatre for music, opera and dance, the SND. The SND  has been in a hunt for new leadership for the last nine months. The latest conflagration comes as the Bratislava public and new general director Ondrej Šoth trade blows over the fate of popular ballet director Mário Radačovský.

Last August, the opera director Pavel Smolík and the drama director Štefan Bučk combined forces in a public expression of non-confidence to push out general director Silvia Hroncová in the middle of her five year term. In December, no new general director had been found so a special search commission was named. On 1 May, Slovak Minister of Culture Marek Maďarič following the commission recommendation named Ondrej Šoth of Koscice to the post on 1 May, replacing temporary directory Pavol Smolík.

To the astonishment of Pavel Smolík and Štefan Bučk, Šoth’s first official act as general director was to fire all three directors of SND and name his own favorites to those spots on 19 May. Unlike in Vienna’s Staatsoper, where a transition of artistic leadership takes at least a year and is carefully prepared, Šoth’s diktat was effective immediately.

Particularly controversial was the timing of the announcement, one day before a major ballet premiere, Made in Canada. Ballet director Mário Radačovský had to perform the leading role in James Kudelka’s Four Seasons, the day after the announcement. Four years into his terms as ballet director, Radačovský is extremely popular in Bratislava with both public and dancers for the outstanding international work he has brought to Bratislava from choreographers like Juri Kylian, Kudelka and Nacho Duato. On both 20 May, the historical theatre resounded with a ten minute standing ovation for Radačovský. From the stage, Radačovský called the style of his dismissal "disgusting and craven."

Already on 21 May a petition committee was formed to request the reinstatement of Radačovský, collecting signatures after performances with the help of dancers in costume.

Despite physical intimidation and harassment from theatre security under Šoth’s orders, over one thousand signatures have been collected from the public. The petition has been signed by leading Slovak cultural figures including businessman Boris Kollar and Tatrabank general director Igor Vida. Tatrabank is the general sponsor of the SND.

Šoth has refused to reinstate Radačovský, infuriating the dance public in Bratislava.

Over the last two weeks, SND petition stories have been the popular and most commented on in the culture section of the Slovakia’s leading newspaper SME.sk. When asked by SME about Radačovský’s dismissal, Šoth backtracked and said Radačovský was not dismissed as a dancer but only as director. But behind closed doors at rehearsal on 29 May Šoth threatened any dancer who supports the petition with immediate dismissal.

Radačovský took no part in the resignation of Hroncová nor in the nomination of a new general director. Asked why Šoth removed him, former NDT and Grand Ballets Canadiens star Radačovský admits it’s personal. "He hates me for my success in the Netherlands and Canada. Šoth never had any success outside Slovakia."

There is a national general election is taking place in Slovakia on 12 June. It is very possible that there will be a new government and a new Minister of Culture. The petition committee will present the signatures after the election.

Meanwhile in Vienna, Manuel Legris will take over as director of the Staatsoper ballet in September after a year of painstaking preparation and careful gala goodbyes from departing director Gyuola Harangozo. For Slovakia, clearly there are still some lessons to be learned from Austria on cultural management.

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