When dancers from the professional Slovakian folk art ensemble Sl'uk hit the stage of the Croatian National Theatre in Zagreb last September, not all of the comfortably-seated audience could have known what was in store for them. Renowned for their acrobatic and zealous performances, the Slovaks wheeled through the air, mirroring the celebratory movements practised by their forebears at joyous social gatherings in years gone by.
Such a wild and physical show stood in sharp contrast to the pristine and subtly-executed ballet and bombastically-accentuated opera usually found on this grandest of Croatian stages. It also stood in contrast to their partners of the evening, LADO, the Croatian National Folk Dance Association, whose own introduction to the stage saw them slowly mimic the toil of agricultural workers accompanied by a heartfelt chant of multiple harmonies. Comparatively, this wasn't the most explosive or dramatic of entrances to have happened on this stage. But, that is not what LADO is about. When the members of LADO take the stage, they are not the supernatural figures of ballet nor the overwrought characters of opera. They are you. They are us. They are the people of Croatia and their ancestors, their performances offering an honest insight into the everyday lives, festivities and diverse, enduring traditions of past centuries.
The style of dance on display that September evening was not the only aspect separating Croatia's LADO from their Slovakian counterparts. Of all the national folklore ensembles in Europe, LADO are completely unique; their ranks contain 42 members who are not only highly practised dancers, they are also all singers. In addition, the ensemble holds 14 musicians who between them play more than 80 different traditional and classical instruments. These instruments, many of them uncommon and archaic, reflect the wealth of different musics and musical influences which exist regionally throughout Croatia. Like the folk dances themselves, each of these distinct strands of music has been collated and carefully chronicled by folklorists and other academics who have worked with LADO throughout its 70 years. Travelling the country to seek out traditions, lest they be lost to the mists of time, LADO's partners have also amassed a huge collection of original and authentic folk costumes which are employed during performances. Archived and some repaired at LADO's headquarters in Zagreb, these costumes now form a collection numbering over 1200 with many of them older than anyone still living.
Governed by foreign monarchies and empires for most of its past, we are today apprised of much Croatian history by a wealth of documents and other physical evidence which emanates from these rulers and those immediately surrounding them. The courts of kings and empires were always serviced by those gifted with the ability to communicate via writing. But, such gifts were far from universal in the Europe of old. Folklore, like Romani culture, has largely been preserved using the oral tradition, passed down from generation to generation via the no doubt at-times admonishing complaints of impatient grandparents or neighbours. In comparison to other evidence, Croatian folklore is a history free of flattery and insincere remembrance. Instead, it is an honest history, a people's history and an authentically Croatian history.
Such is the importance of this voice within Croatian culture that LADO have consistently been chosen to represent the country on the world stage. Receiving the highest cultural honours at home, LADO have taken their award-winning presentations to stages as far afield as Tokyo, Moscow, New York and every European capital. In 2020, when Croatia marked the start of its first presidency of the European Union Council, it was to LADO they turned for the official cultural display to mark the occasion. From the fields and village festivals of days gone by, it is LADO and Croatian folklore which now represents the country in the present-day courts of international leaders and dignitaries. Thanks to LADO and its 70 years of dedication, a people's history, a Croatian history, is finally prized above all others in the country's cultural expression.
You can catch a special collaboration between LADO and the Croatian Radio Television Jazz Orchestra at the Lisinski concert hall in Zagreb on 2 May, although this show is subject to a postponement. Before that, to mark World Dance Day, the documentary film 70 will be shown today (Wednesday 29 April) on Croatian TV Channel HRT3, starting at 6:55pm. 70 offers a never-before-seen glimpse into the lives of performers, both on and off the stage, with a special focus on three stories: that of Dubravko Radić, Petra Matutinović and Mladen Kosovac. Viewers will be able to come closer to individual LADO members while also seeing the spirit of the collective unfold. They will also get to see the final, dazzling results as LADO hit the stage, a performance which is the culmination of the members' efforts and of all the exhaustive background preparations. You can watch a trailer for the documentary below and keep an eye out for a version of the documentary with English subtitles, which will be hosted on Time Out Croatia later this year.