Make Me Laugh

420PEOPLE Explore Comedy Through Contemporary Dance

By Michael Chrupcala

Zuzana Herenyiova stands inert amidst a troupe of hurried and precise cratestackers. Herenyiova and the six others are from the dance company 420PEOPLE. She patiently holds the ever-growing tower of milk crates they assemble for her, which ultimately looms more than twice her height. They stand motionless, surveying their work. Six dancers and the audience watch a pas de duex— “dance for two”—featuring Herenyiova flirting with gravity. She takes one step, two, and the stack falls to the floor, a failed attempt at weightlessness.

Entertainers in any form are distinguished by their precision. But, what the audience first considers a “mistake” is often calculated; a rupture of disbelief becomes reassurance, while the performer stares out over the crowd, smirking, silently announcing, “I meant to do that.” With the simple act of dropping boxes, Herenyiova challenges our conceptions of both contemporary dance and public entertainment.

“Instead, what the dancers use for support is each other.”

It is exactly this sense of challenge and experimentation which led Vaclav Kunes and Natasa Novotna to form 420PEOPLE in 2007. Having met at the prestigious Netherlands Dans Theater, located in The Hague, Kunes and Novotna returned to the Czech Republic and began choreographing and producing their own works. The troupe commands a repertoire of 16 total pieces which vary from 5 to 70 minutes long, and the 14 dancers of 420PEOPLE join productions depending on the cast size needed. Although typically fulfilling their residency at Prague’s NEW STAGE of National Theater, the domineering, seemingly transparent cube-shaped structure on Narodni, 420PEOPLE often attend international festivals based in New York, Moscow, and other major cities.

420People is the Prague dance company founded by Natasa Novotna and Vaclav Kunes.Photo courtesy of

420People is the Prague dance company founded by Natasa Novotna and Vaclav Kunes.
Photo courtesy of

Staging its premier at this year’s international 4+4 Days in Motion festival, Mirage, Kunes and Novotna’s most recent piece, attempts to merge stand-up comedy with contemporary dance. Inspired by the work of Jimmy Fallon and Dave Chappelle among others, Kunes was drawn toward the exaggeration of truth found in modern comedy. He injects everything from knock-knock jokes to social critique between the breathtaking steps of the dance troupe. Dance is both mocked and exalted, often in the same scene; while at times disconcerting, this treatment of entertainment offers two things: a profound respect for those who perform, and the growing sense that our lives are, in fact, a performance.

Mirage opens with and is framed by a host. Stepan Pechar begins the evening fumbling with a microphone and mumbling introductions in Czech. He backtracks, addressing the audience in English, and describes a mirage as “a naturally occurring optical phenomenon,” before he is then pulled offstage by the mic cable. At a contrast to the bumbling presenter, 420PEOPLE take the stage with the poise and slow pace of a jellyfish suspended in sun-soaked seawater. They dance with milk-crates, each other, and nothing at all. At times their kicks are reminiscent of Ballet, and yet these times are brief, as the dancers’ fascination with the ground brings to mind Capoeira, the Brazilian amalgamation of fighting and dance. Even still, the bent knees and outstretched arms of African dance and the clutching, groping hand-gestures of Japanese Butoh can be found if you look hard enough. Vaclav Havel once said, “Prague stands at the crossroads,” a truth embodied in its dance, to say nothing of politics and history.

Continuing the cultural globetrotting, the music of Mirage, written by Canadian dance composer Owen Belton, winner of 2009’s Dora Mavor Moore award for Best Dance Score, is steeped in sounds of Spanish Flamenco and the occasional brass fanfare. Belton uses trumpet to announce the intense showcasing of the men and women of the company in a trade-off reminiscent of a bullfight. His overall score acts as a film score like soundscape, accompanying the action onstage while heightening the drama. At first, the occasional pre-recorded laughter of children is endearing. Yet, as the show grows darker in content, we instead find derision in the obnoxious guffaws of grown men as Belton merges the grit of Tyler Bates’ Watchmen soundtrack with manic laughter evocative of Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon.

It is within this intensity that our clumsy host, Stepan Pechar, returns. He emerges from the curtain, both literally and figuratively, at the most inopportune times. Pechar stops the dance action to discuss ticket sales with the audience. He runs off stage during a heart-wrenching couples’ dance with Natasa Novotna, only to return with a mic and list the group’s sponsors, while simultaneously finishing his performance. Throughout the show, it is unclear whether he is a disruption or a foil, a genius or a fool. In fact, he demands to know the same in his closing monologue, asking the crowd, “Why do I have to be the funny one? Why don’t you make the faces for once?”

The company has had much success in its European tour.Photo courtesy of

The company has had much success in its European tour.
Photo courtesy of

What ties the varying scenes of beauty and ridicule is the search for what lies behind. Kunes is interested in the source of both the “humor we love to experience from the position of a spectator” and the “elegance and lightness of dancers.” The only props used onstage besides milk crates are masks, which depict the goofiest faces each dancer could make. They illustrate both playfulness and outrage. These masks are mirrors which the performers use both to hide behind, and to confront with, and yet they are never involved in a dance. This is quite striking, as they exist in the show as a static image to dance around, but never with.

Instead, what the dancers use for support is each other. One scene pits the entire troupe together, embodying varying types of contemporary dance, from the Charleston to air-guitar. The dance seems to parody the profession of dance, but the shift of lighting from spotlights to floodlights betrays the farce. They portray themselves as entertainers, and suddenly they reveal themselves as people. People who love and cry, sing and joke. They dance like flappers and rock stars, but ultimately they’re dancing together. During the curtain call one row of crates separates the audience from the performers. Each of them removes their clothing, standing, staring, forcing those of us seated to confront our own demands inherent in the purchase of a ticket.

Click here for upcoming performances of 420PEOPLE
Click here for more performances at The New Stage of National Theater

Michael Chrupcala is in the NYU Steinhardt class of 2015. His hometown is Marlton, New Jersey.


Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Categories: Culture, Fall 2013 Issue Number 3

Author:The Prague Wandering

The Prague Wandering is an NYU based study abroad webzine- the only one of its kind. It focuses on issues in contemporary Czech culture and the city of Prague, exploring beyond the study abroad bubble.


Subscribe to our RSS feed and social profiles to receive updates.

%d bloggers like this: