Theatre and ballet
The earliest examples of theatrical life in Croatia, as in other Western countries, were liturgical dramas in Latin, and, soon after, in Croatian. However, secular theatre appeared as early as the beginning of the 14th century in Dubrovnik, which over the next centuries emerged as the leading theatrical centre and the largest Croatian stage. It reached its zenith in the highly-developed theatrical forms of the 16th and 17th centuries, in which the original comedy theatre pieces of Marin Držić were dominant, and in various dramatic forms of a particularly Baroque character (Ivan Gundulić and Junije Palmotić).
This was an era in which other Croatian centres joined enthusiastically in theatrical life, whether in Dalmatia (Hvar and Zadar) or inland (Zagreb, Varaždin and Osijek), where a major role was played by Jesuit school productions, and performances gradually moved from public spaces to halls. Hvar was the first to get an indoor theatre (1612), while in Dubrovnik a theatre hall was established in 1682, a time when what was called the frančezarije, adaptations of Molière’s comedies, reigned on the theatrical repertoire. In 1834, a theatre building opened in Zagreb, where, thanks to the efforts of Dimitrija Demeter, Croatian professional theatrical life began gradually to take shape during the National Revival period. The first performance in Croatian (Juran i Sofija, by Ivan Kukuljević Sakcinski) was staged in 1840, and the first opera (Ljubav i zloba, by Vatroslav Lisinski) in 1846.
Up to 1860, German theatre companies continued to perform alongside their Croatian counterparts, but after the official institutionalisation of the national theatre in 1861, August Šenoa, as artistic director, redirected the repertoire towards Slav and Romance authors during the following decade. Under the reformist management of Stjepan Miletić, theatre was characterised by the trends of Croatian Modernism, and a new theatre building was opened in Zagreb (1895) where Zagreb’s Croatian National Theatre (HNK) is still housed today.
Between the two world wars, theatrical issues were strongly affected by political interference. However, under the management of Julije Benešić in the 1920s, the directorship of Branko Gavella and the work of scenographer Ljubo Babić, the plays written during Croatian and European literary Modernism began to achieve recognition on the Zagreb stage in the first half of the 20th century, when the dramaturgy of psychological bourgeois theatre began to dominate the domestic repertoire.
After 1945, a series of new, professional theatres and the Academy of Theatrical Arts (today’s Academy of Dramatic Arts) were established. Amateur theatricals also received support, becoming a training ground for alternative and avant-garde performances, particularly with the founding of the Experimental Student Theatre. Festivals with their tradition of performing using local monuments as a natural setting, like the Dubrovnik Summer Festival (launched in 1950) and the Split Festival (launched in 1954), with their international flavour, contributed to the affirmation of the national theatre abroad.
In 1954, the Gavella Drama Theatre began operating. This marked the beginning of pluralism on the national cultural scene, which became evident in repertoire, staging, and other organisational aspects. New stages (Teatar &TD in Zagreb), followed by a series of independent, or rather amateur groups which promote a wide range of theatrical forms (Teatar u gostima, Histrioni, Pozdravi, Coccolemocco, Kugla-glumište, Montažstroj), along with specialised theatres for particular genres and purposes (Zagreb Puppet Theatre, Zagreb Youth Theatre, Komedija, Kerempuh Satirical Theatre) and festival competitions, the most important of which are the Fadil Hadžić Days of Satire (Zagreb) Marul’s Days (Split), the Small Scene Theatre Festival (Rijeka), the Children’s Festival (Šibenik), PIF (an international puppet festival in Zagreb), and Eurokaz (a festival of avant-garde and experimental theatre in Zagreb), have enabled the realisation of a multi-faceted repertoire with a variety of interpretative polymorphisms as the basic characteristics of contemporary Croatian theatre.
The beginnings of the Croatian ballet tradition were linked to the mid-19th century Zagreb theatre, but the arrival of a Russian ballerina, teacher and choreographer, Margarita Froman, in 1921, ushered in a new period of development. A plethora of excellent dancers and choreographers emerged from her school, among whom were Mia Čorak-Slavenska, Ana Roje, Oskar Harmoš and Sonja Kastl. The School of Classical Ballet was founded in Zagreb in 1949. The art of ballet was celebrated in the second half of the 20th century by Vesna Butorac-Blaće, Irena Pasarić, Almira Osmanović, Dinko Bogdanić, Tomislav Petranović, Edina Pličanić, Leonard Jakovina, and particularly Milko Šparemblek, who danced in the Maurice Béjart Ballet du XXe Siècle ensemble and was Director of the Metropolitan Ballet in New York, the Gulbenkian Ballet in Lisbon and the Lyon Ballet.
Modern dance in Croatia was cultivated in parallel with the emergence of different trends in Europe. From the late 1920s, the following were active in Zagreb: Mercedes Goritz-Pavelić, a student of Mary Wigman and Gertrud Bodenwieser in Vienna and Munich, Mirjana Dragana Janaček, who established her school on the dance expressions of Isadora Duncan, and Ana Maletić, a disciple of the Rudolf Laban school and founder of the Rhythm and Dance School (1954), which still bears her name today. These schools have produced generations of dancers, among whom are some of the founders or members of the best known modern dance ensembles – the Modern Dance Studio, the Chamber Ensemble of Free Dance and the Zagreb Dance Ensemble. The dance scene today is very active, with a major role being played by the international festival Modern Dance Week, which has been organised in Zagreb since 1984.