Zdenek Konvalina was just a kid at ballet school in what is now the Czech Republic when the Berlin Wall came down, the Soviet Union collapsed and videos of Nureyev and Baryshnikov began to appear in Eastern Europe. These images of performances by the Russians who had defected to the West made a huge impression. Russia taught technique; America imparted joy.
"They danced differently. They were more happy, not in their faces but in their movements," the 27-year-old Czech dancer who has just joined the National Ballet of Canada observed in a recent interview. "It was not the body of someone who danced because it was their career and that's what they do; it was someone who had a purpose in life and was happy and wanted to put it on stage."
With the rigorous technique drilled into him by his Moscow-trained instructors, Konvalina is now free to pursue his artistic happiness in North America, although the express route that has brought him to the National Ballet as a principal dancer has not always been a smooth one. After five years at the Houston Ballet, he left Texas in the spring alleging sexual harassment by the company's Australian artistic director Stanton Welsh, who was hit with similar accusations at the Australian Ballet in 1998. Konvalina will not discuss his lawsuit against the Houston Ballet, which is still before the courts, other than to say it was time to move on anyway.
"Of course, it was part of it but whatever would have happened I was looking for change. I was thinking of going back to Europe," he said. However, word of Karen Kain's leadership at the National had spread through the dance world: Konvalina took it as an indication that the company was returning to its classical roots after its years under contemporary choreographer James Kudelka, and would favour the kind of traditional repertoire he loves. Kain had worked under the legendary Eric Bruhn during his years at the National in the 1980s and had often been partnered with Nureyev, the star who had proved you could dance both modern choreography and the classical repertoire.
"It has become a hot place to go with Karen," Konvalina said. "She has that bridge back to when classical ballet was at the top." Konvalina came to Toronto to attend class, the technical drilling that all dancers do daily, and to ask if there might be a job for him. Kain saw him and offered him a spot as a principal, a rare hire in an art where most companies groom their dancers from childhood in their own feeder schools and then promote up from the ranks. That's a slow and steady route that Konvalina has always eschewed during a career he has aggressively fast-tracked.
He auditioned for the Brno Conservatory in his hometown of Brno, in what was then Czechoslovakia, at the suggestion of his mother when he was only 9, and had little understanding or appreciation of dance.
"I have a twin, not identical, and I was bored always being with him, being dressed in the same clothes," Konvalina recalls. "I said why don't I go to a different school. I didn't know what work it would take."
However, by the time he was in his last three of eight hard years being drilled in the elite arts-training system created by the Communists, he was hooked on ballet and ambitious for a career.
"As much as the teachers weren't encouraging -- everything [anybody did]was wrong -- I started to understand where I was heading. I took it very seriously then," he said.
When he left school, he was offered a variety of spots in the corps de ballet of Eastern Europe's big companies, but worried he might disappear into the ranks. Instead he joined the small National Ballet of Moravia-Silesia, where he was promoted to principal dancer within a year. "I wanted a shortcut," he said.
He danced there for two years but abandoned his plans to move to a bigger European company when the Quebec choreographer Eddie Toussaint came to work with the company on a version of Mozart's Requiem. Toussaint urged Konvalina to cross the Atlantic, and arranged for him to perform at a few American galas to get exposure. Today, the pair are still a couple.
"It's a good relationship and I get to do his ballets," said Konvalina, pointing out that Toussaint's work is not much seen these days.
In the United States, Konvalina did various guest appearances and worked with the Brandywine Ballet outside Philadelphia. But the roaming life soon got to him and, using a gold medal from the Helsinki International Ballet Competition in 2001 as his calling card, he went to Houston looking for an artistic and physical home. He settled there with Toussaint and initially thrived in a country where young dancers were not the reverential pupils of his homeland but instead could pursue their ambitions with the confidence of youth. If the Houston assignment turned sour in the end, it was only after five years of great opportunities to dance the classical repertoire to favourable reviews: There are even those who compare Konvalina to Nureyev himself, partly because there is some physical resemblance between the two.
"I'm flattered, but it's just a critique, a reference. I'm not trying to be him. You are who you are. If you try to copy someone else you lose who you are. . . . You hear all these wild stories about what he was like behind the scenes," he says, laughing. "As long as the comparison stays on stage, it's fine."
Still, the Russian star who died of AIDS in 1993 is a hero to him, and he will be pleased to be dancing the Prince in Nureyev's version of The Sleeping Beauty next month when the National inaugurates its first season in Toronto's Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts.
"Nureyev always wanted to prove to himself he could do the hardest thing and still look good. He puts in layers, one hard thing and then another hard thing," Konvalina says of The Sleeping Beauty.
Meanwhile, he will also pursue some personal projects and guest appearances: He has a standing invitation with several companies in the Czech Republic and hopes to dance with the Czech National Ballet in Prague this winter so that he can squeeze in a visit home. He laughs at the thought of going back to attend class at his old school to scandalize his teachers with his artistic liberation: "You don't do a Russian pirouette!" he imagines them shrieking.