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Ivana Slunjski, Mjereno plesnim metrom

Ivana Slunjski

Measured with a Dance Metre

When anniversaries are the matter, we usually reach for data that takes us back far into the past, in order to confirm the rootedness of the observed subject in a particular area, its primacy in cultural and social events, or at least its constant involvement in them. Indeed, if we look into repertory books and historical documents, we can be convinced that dance forms in a performance context have been present in the Varaždin theatre environment since the early days – already in the first season of the permanent theatre in Varaždin, on December 28, 1915, when a Christmas comedy was performed in 13 pictures with the dance Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs by Karl August Görner. Another question is what kind of dance it is and how much the available records tell us about these performances. Taking into account that the Theatre has been the centre of the city’s cultural life ever since the theatre building was built, and in a certain way even before: until today, various professional and amateur groups, schools, cultural and artistic societies, humanitarian organizations, among others, have paraded on its stage and artistic performance types and performances that cannot be classified as artistic, nor do they try to present themselves as such. Stages in smaller communities can also be an outlet for things for which there is no room in the theatres of the metropolis, so the programmes sometimes feature unusual co-productions with festivals and other projects.

From the beginning of the professionalization of the Varaždin theatre, from 1945 onwards, dance was represented in two ways in the repertoire components: in dramatic performances, mostly of a popular-folk and comedic character, and in simpler musical performance forms such as musical comedies or operettas. It was not easy to stage more complex musical and stage works due to technical and production reasons, the default stage and insufficient involvement of singing, or music and dance profiled artists. The first ballet performances were included in the Theatre’s programme in 1957, a collage of shorter choreographies Ballet Evening by Zora Kolnago, and to this day they are relatively rarely staged, including guest performances. Let’s mention recent ballet performances, My Name Is Nobody (2011) by composer Fran Đurović and choreographer Massimiliano Volpini, a psychological, chamber ballet to electronic music performed by contemporary dancers, a co-production of the Zagreb Music Biennale and the Croatian National Theatre in Varaždin, and The Nutcracker (2022) by E. T. A. Hoffmann and Lada Kaštelan directed by Paolo Tišljarić, a drama-dance version of the popular ballet fairy tale produced by the Varaždin’s Croatian National Theatre, in which the students of the Vindi Classical Ballet Association dance.

That stage movement was not considered an element of equal value to dramatic or musical expression for a long time, or that this was not realized, is shown by the fact that the movements, gestures and facial expressions of the performers were edited by those who had an interest in it or were already involved in the creation of the play in some other way. Movement in dramatic and musical performances was often designed by people completely outside the dance profession, such as the operetta singer Regina Čanić (Benatzky, My Sister and I, 1951) or Zdenka Jagetić (Satinski-Lasica-Rusi, Comedians /Sojtari/, 1980), in charge of designing costumes and decor at the Theatre. Even Rudolf Opolski, who directed and choreographed a large number of musical productions until the late fifties of the 20th century, was not dance qualified. On the other hand, this points to the subordination of dance to dramatic or musical expression, in the sense that movement is tied to a dramatic or musical template as its complement, instead of seeing movement and dance as a self-sufficient stage expression. The Varaždin audience, however, over time, as can be read from the newspaper clippings, accepts the dance sections very well, partly looking for a break from everyday life in the theatre.

Two names should be singled out as being specifically occupied with dance endeavours in the first decades of professional activity of the Varaždin theatre. First of all, the aforementioned Zora Kolnago, a ballerina and choreographer from Petrograd who moved to Varaždin from Zadar, where she ran the Ballet School of the National Theatre until 1953, preparing students for performances in operettas. From 1955, in the theatre of Varaždin, she collaborated as a choreographer in drama and musical performances, organizing ballet events as well. At the same time, in the 1960s, in the premises of today’s Europa Media Club, she held ballet classes. Then, from the beginning to the mid-seventies, Eva Morandini’s choreographic and pedagogical work stands out:


The young high school members of the “Rhythmic Group” enlivened and refreshed the show with their dances. Cooperation with the theatre proved to be successful and useful. High school girls danced sheik, Can-Can, waltz, Charleston, performed acrobatic jumps, screamed – in short, they were enthusiastically received by the audience. Their teacher Eva Morandini, who trained the students for several months for this performance, deserves the most praise for their success. (Vrdoljak, 1973: 6)

The aforementioned Rhythmic Group began its work in 1969, the same year when the Movement Art Studio of the then August Cesarec National Theatre was founded in order to educate its own staff, and they presented their programmes for children and young people of different ages together and performed on the occasion of the Women’s Day, March 8, 1970. Among the founders of the Studio was the Slovenian ballerina and ballet pedagogue Dana Renčelj, and her ballet teaching in 1971 resulted in the plays A Little Night Music (Mozart) and The Innkeeper and the Girl (Pintarić). After the rise of the Rhythmic Group and the creation of movements in dramatic plays, in the mid-seventies, Morandini retired from the theatre, becoming a choreographer in Donadini’s Gogol’s Death directed by Matko Sršen in 1981.

In addition to plays for adults, plays for children have been gradually introduced into the programme of the Varaždin theatre since the mid-1950s. Directing several titles in that theatre in the seventies, drama pedagogue and director Zvjezdana Ladika regularly collaborates with choreographers, bringing confirmed authors in contemporary dance, dance pedagogue and choreographer of the Zagreb Youth Theatre Academy Branka Petričević (Parun-Tulač, Cat Genghis Khan and Miki Trasi, 1974, Brlić-Mažuranić, Neva Nevičica, 1975 and Brlić-Mažuranić-Čečuk-Tulač, Fisherman Palunko and His Wife, 1989) and choreographer and founder of the Zagreb Dance Ensemble Lela Gluhak-Bunet (Minoli-Grün, Elf from the Moon, 1975 and Jelačić Bužimski-Tulač, Conquer of the Theatre, 1987.). Insisting on stage movement as an important element of children’s (dramatic) performances, the collaboration with the two paves the way for the practice of engaging professional contemporary dance choreographers. In 1990, after inviting the cooperation of the Slovenian choreographer Matjaž Farič, Ranka Mesarić approaches the choreographic, dramatic expression in Harms’ Elisabet Bam, directing the event “as if without words, that is, with an extremely reduced dialogue that does not flow parallel to the action but is in a surprising relationship with it (Grgičević, 1990)”. At the end of the same year, in a co-production project of the Varaždin Theatre, Cankarjev dom and the Centre for Youth Interest Activities in Ljubljana, and the Zagreb Youth Theatre, Farič realized the “dance drama Emotional – an Eastern Dance Project based on the motifs of the psychological thriller Fatal Attraction. The choreographic, dramatic expression is well received, and Damir Zlatar Frey, with his recognizable handwriting of emphasized visuality and grotesque, shapes Blood and Hinds (2006), Marinković’s Gloria (co-production with the Istrian National Theatre, 2011) and Zajec’s Swines (2015).

Speaking of dance, which is understood as an independent performance discipline with the starting point in the movement itself, and not in the dramatic words, libretto or music, Davorka Čorko-Rodeš, leading the Vindi Dance Studio, first entered the stage of the Croatian National Theatre in Varaždin in amateur productions in 1995. In addition to showing performances for children prepared and performed by the participants, and since 1999 organizing dance meetings Plesokaz, which gathers groups of similar profiles from other cities, the choreographer also collaborates in professional dance performances, for example in Purple (2022), a co-production of the Croatian National Theatre, the Vrum Art Organisation, ex-scene and Vindi Dance Studio, and occasionally on-stage movement in drama performances. In the artistic context, thanks to the opening of the Varaždin National Theatre at the end of the first decade of the 2000s towards the non-institutional scene and incorporating guest dance performances into its offer, the biggest breakthrough was made by Sanja Tropp Frühwald, at first in the auspices of the Theatre, finding space for the programme of the Days of Performance and Contemporary Dance in Varaždin (2009). The performance days will soon end and the festival will develop until 2011 as the Days of Contemporary Dance in Varaždin. In those few years, the audience was shown different dance forms and researches of performance media, trying their hand at workshop and participatory content. Due to difficult production conditions, the continuity of dance events throughout the season was not possible. In 2016, the festival was transformed again, into the Kliker Festival, this time targeting a young audience and as part of a national platform, expanding to more towns and cities, while maintaining performance and workshop activities, while introducing residential and educational projects intended for both children and parents, as well as educational experts. For the development of dance art in Varaždin, the biggest potential so far lies in the co-production collaborations of the Varaždin Croatian National Theatre, bearing in mind that the performances thus remain in the repertoire. In recent years, with Vrum and Sanja Tropp Frühwald, the plays No logo opera(tion) (multiple co-production partners, 2014), The Killer in Me Is the Killer in You My Love (co-production with the Čakovec Cultural Centre – Pinklec Theatre Company, 2015) and the already mentioned Purple have been realized. A good foundation has been created, and the Vindi Dance Studio is a nursery of young hopes that should be supported in their authorial independence. Let’s hope that Varaždin will recognize this value, and not that, according to the old custom, everything depends on the perseverance of individuals.