Cancer spurs choreography

Black Swan Nadia Yanowsky and White Swan Katherine Minor strike a pose. Photo: Ross Brown
Black Swan Nadia Yanowsky and White Swan Katherine Minor strike a pose. Photo: Ross Brown
Choreographer Mario Radacovsky’s outlook on life was turned upside down by cancer. Twenty years later he tells Rebecca Fox how it informed his career.

Watching the swans on the lake he could see from his hospital bed, Mario Radacovsky made himself a deal - if he survived cancer treatment he would create his own version of Swan Lake.

Radacovsky was only 27. He thought he was invincible but in a matter of months the professional dancer, who had the lung capacity of a high performance athlete, lost 70% of his muscle mass and 30% of his lung capacity as he went through a series of treatments for cancer - operations, chemotherapy and radiation.

He walked out of hospital in the Netherlands determined he would dance again.

And he did so - against medical advice - just three months later.

Mario Radacovsky
Mario Radacovsky
''I was not my best but mentally it was amazing for me.''

That experience changed his life.

Before cancer Radacovsky had been a rising ballet star. He had graduated from the Eva Jaczova Dance Conservatory in Bratislava, and joined the Ballet of the Slovak National Theatre in 1989.

Within a short period he became a principal dancer and in 1992 he was invited to dance with Jiri Kylian's Nederlands Dance Theatre (NDT) in The Hague. During his time at NDT he had the opportunity to work with world-renowned choreographers including Jiri Kylian, Mats Ek, Nacho Duato, Ohad Naharin, William Forsythe, Edouard Lock and many others.

He missed a tour to New Zealand when he was completing a contract with another company.

Radacovsky began choreographing in 2002 with Les Grand Ballets Canadiens in Montreal.

It was there he met Pacific Northwest principal dancer Patricia Barker (now artistic director of the Royal New Zealand Ballet) and created the White Swan duet as per his hospital promise to himself.

''It was charming; it was so breathtaking. Mario is a storyteller as a choreographer,'' Barker remembers.

Radacovsky later created Black Swan, another duet, for a cancer benefit while in Slovakia where he was directing the Slovakian National Ballet. Barker was also working with the company at that time.

He remembers Barker calling and urging him to turn the duets into a full ballet, something he was reluctant to do given Swan Lake's prominence and stature in ballet.

''It was not that I was scared. I had a lot of respect for the ballet itself and the genius of it. It's such an incredible work. If I'm going to do it, the only way is do it my own way.''

Barker says it took about three years to convince him to create a Swan Lake based around the two duets.

''He created this 21st-century story that speaks to generations. I call it a Swan Lake of our times. It crosses social and economic barriers ... that we have to fight for life, for a good life, for a life that we deserve.''

For Radacovsky, the names of his duets are also reflective of his past - white means ''danger'' as it brings back memories of doctors and hospitals.

''It's such an unpredictable colour.''

Black is an emotional colour and that does not have to be a bad thing, he says.

''Nothing in life is black and white. We have to see things in more context in many colours we often don't see or perhaps we don't want to see.''

RNZB principal dancers Paul Mathews and Nadia Yanowsky. Photo: Stephen A'Court
RNZB principal dancers Paul Mathews and Nadia Yanowsky. Photo: Stephen A'Court

His creation, Black Swan, White Swan, has become his most popular work. It has been performed in the United States, Slovenia, Slovakia, Austria, Germany, China and 48 times alone in the Czech Republic, a country known for its strong appreciation of classical ballet.

''This ballet is about my life, my battle with cancer. It has all the elements of that but I believe also everyone has some problems. The important thing is you are able to stand up again.

''I'm very happy. It's been beyond expectations. It has been an incredible journey.''

But he is quick to say, its success was born of his struggles.

''It was the most important experience in life.''

As a result he has little time for today's ways of thinking.

''The old-fashioned way of thinking has been lost. Values are not respected or they are taken as a prehistoric thing that this is an old-fashioned way of thinking. Let's go back to the basics, be gentlemen again, be nice and polite, well brought up and educated. We have lost what we are.''

So when Radacovsky explains the story behind his ballet to dancers for the first time, he urges them to be honest and real when performing.

''I remember every single minute in the hospital but at the same time it's beautiful to see how honest and real they are.

''I do not like bad acting and fakeness. I feel they believe what they do. They do not have to like the steps, are not obligated to have to love it, but I feel like they honestly bring themselves to the stage and say something with this.

''Don't be dancers, be humans. That is most important essence of the ballet for me.''

For Barker, who also designed the costumes for the RNZ production, bringing the ballet to New Zealand was important as she wanted the country's audiences to see ballets that are capturing audiences overseas.

Radacovsky had no qualms about bringing the ballet to New Zealand at Barker's request, yet he has turned down other companies' requests to perform it.

''This company is beautiful and great enough to do an outstanding job. They've done a wonderful job with it. It's stunning.''

While the popularity of the work is validation of his journey and choreography, it also means Radacovsky lives through that experience each time he sees the ballet.

''Every time I see it I'm back in '98. This is not something bad. It turned upside down certain values and reconfirmed others.''

He also returns to the hospital regularly for check-ups and tests.

''I'm always a little bit nervous.''

But it reinforces his belief that everyone needs a regular checkup. He hears people in Europe grumbling because of how much it costs to go to the doctor.

''In Europe you have winter tyres and you have to change them. You'll spend 200 to 300 on taking your car in to switch tyres; you bitch about it but you do it. Yet if you have to go to doctor for a checkup which probably can save your life, you have to pay 200, everyone is like, 'Why do I have to do that?'.

''When you are healthy you take it as a normal thing, but things change.''

While the work is based on his cancer journey he does not see it as a depressing ballet.

''I want people to talk about things that are not easy to talk about, to be real, to make them laugh and smile.''

For him that is his wife and 18 month-old daughter.

''She's stunning, starting to climb.''

To see

Black Swan, White Swan, Royal New Zealand Ballet,  Regent Theatre, Dunedin, July 3, 7.30pm,

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