The ruggedly handsome Jiri Jelinek, who has been praised all over the world for his powerful stage presence and strong partnering skills, is the latest coup for National Ballet artistic director Karen Kain as she carefully crafts the company of her dreams. But Kain didn't go out and recruit the 32-year-old Czech as a principal dancer. It was Jelinek who came calling.
"I first saw Jiri dance [in 2007]in a gala in Stuttgart, where Reid Anderson [Stuttgart Ballet's artistic director]expressed to me that he felt Jiri was the best Onegin in the world at the time," Kain says. "I was delighted when Jiri contacted me and asked if I would consider having him join our company as a principal dancer."
The obvious question is, why the National? He was enjoying a brilliant nine-year run at Stuttgart Ballet, where his rise through the ranks was meteoric, becoming a principal dancer in 2004.
For starters, Jelinek is not a typical dancer whose life is consumed by ballet. "I've always had a life outside dance." Last October, he married his Czech girlfriend, Aneta, and the couple do not see their future in Germany. "We don't feel comfortable with the lifestyle and mentality," Jelinek says.
He also points out that, at the age of 32, the time to move was now while he has good dance years left. "We knew we wanted an English-language culture," he says, "and we felt that Canadians are more down to earth than Americans. We were also worried about the economic crisis in the States."
Part of Jelinek's decision had to do with life after dance. To that end, he figures his best bet is the theatre. So Kain promised to help him find good drama and speech teachers in Toronto.
Jelinek was born in Prague in 1977. His parents divorced when he was 7, and his mother struggled with three jobs to raise him and his two older siblings. "I was a troubled boy," he says, "always getting into fights with the neighbourhood kids. My mother put me in ballet to get rid of excess energy, but it didn't work. She died when I was 17, so she never saw the dance artist that I became."
In 1988, Jelinek was accepted into the Prague Conservatory of Dance, where trouble was his companion. "If I felt someone wasn't treating me well," he says, "I opened my mouth. At every year end, there'd be an argument between teachers who wanted to kick me out and those who fought to keep me in."
In his graduating year, Jelinek came to the realization that he was trained to do nothing else but dance, so he had better take it seriously. To beef up his technical skills, he accepted a scholarship to the prestigious Ballet Centre Hamburg - John Neumeier, where he studied with the legendary Anatoly Nisnevitch.
But he didn't join Hamburg Ballet. "I spent a lot of time on John Neumeier's carpet being disciplined," he quips.
Jelinek joined the National Theatre Prague as a soloist in 1997 and was promoted to principal dancer the following year, winning the 1999 award for Best Dancer of the Czech Republic. Uninspired by the artistic team in Prague, Jelinek move to Stuttgart, where he remained until moving to the National this month.
Kain has big hopes for her newest treasure, provided that she can keep the veteran on track and out of the nightclubs. For the past six years, he has been DJing in clubs in Stuttgart and Prague. "Electronica mixing is really creative," he says. "Maybe I can get the odd stint in Toronto."
And then there's Thai boxing. When he was 10, Jelinek started with karate and moved to kung fu before falling in love with this particular form of kick-boxing. "I had to stop doing the sport because the physicality went against ballet and the injuries affected my dancing," he says. "I'll take it up again when I finish my dance career."
Jiri Jelinek's first role with the National will be Prince Siegfried in James Kudelka's Swan Lake, which runs March 11 to 21 at Toronto's Four Seasons Centre.