Though founded in 1946 as a part of the Opera of the Croatian National Theatre Ivan pl. Zajc, the work of the Ballet ensemble is marked by the full-length ballets. This is mostly due to the ballerina Olga Orlova (Kiev, 1903 – Rijeka, 1991), who came to Rijeka in 1949 to take over the pedagogical and choreographic leadership of the ensemble. Orlova studied ballet with Branislava Nižinska (from the famous Nižinski ballet family). In 1921 she came to Zagreb with Margareta Froman’s troupe, with which she performed numerous notable roles. The knowledge she passed on enabled the ensemble to perform its first full-length show in 1952, Boris Asafjev’s Bakhchisarai Fountain. Orlova also staged Coppelia by Leo Delibes, which was held in the same evening as Silfida, choreographed by Ratko Andrić-Drndarević (one of the first soloists of the Rijeka Opera Ballet). This initial period of the Rijeka Ballet ended in 1954 with the inclusion of a work of Croatian ballet heritage The Gingerbread Heart by Krešimir Baranović, choreographed by Nevenka Perko (1907-1986) in the Ballet repertoire.
After Olga Orlova’s tenure, the Slovenian ballet artist Maks Kirbos (1914 – 1972) assumed leadership of the ballet from 1954 to 1963. After his schooling in Ljubljana and Paris, he had been a soloist in the Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo, London’s Covent Garden, Milan’s La Scala and in the Rome Opera. After the Second World War, Kirbos and his wife (Irina Litvinova) worked in Ljubljana and Maribor, as well as in Novi Sad and Rijeka. Kirbos left a strong mark with his choreographic achievements by staging an impressive array of works by domestic and international composers. He introduced the Rijeka audience to Scheherazade by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, Love, the Magician by Manuel de Falla, Peer Gynt by Edvard Grieg, Don Juan by Christoph Willibald Gluck, Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun by Claude Debussy, Romeo and Juliet by Sergei Prokofiev, Coppélia by Léo Delibes, and Petrushka by Igor Stravinsky. He also stage The Legend of Ohrid by Stevan Hristić (on two occasions) and The Devil in the Village by Fran Lhotka, and even two Croatian premieres: The Miraculous Mandarin by Béla Bartók and The Harvest by Boris Papandopulo. Kirbos presented himself as a complete author with his ballet Icarus, which he not only choreographed, but also set to music.
In addition to Kirbos, the choreographies were jointly set by Sonja Kastl and Nevenka Biđin in the early sixties, inspired primarily by contemporary music. They began in 1961 with the staging of Sergei Prokofiev’s Classical Symphony, Branimir Sakač’s Symphony of a Dead Soldier and George Gershwin’s Symphonic Poem. In 1964, Games by Pavle Dešpalj and Dubrovačke šeme (“Dubrovnik Schemes”) were added to Symphonic Poem, then they staged The Room by Georges Auric and the 1963 Zagreb biennial success The Man in Front of the Mirror by Milko Kelemen.
Among the dancers, Vera Vasiljević stood out as the leading soloist of the Rijeka Ballet during the 1960s. In the first two decades of work, a large part of the members of the Rijeka Ballet ensemble came from the Belgrade and Novi Sad Ballet School, while a smaller part was educated in the ballet studio that operated at the Theatre. Female solo roles were mostly covered, while male guest soloists were always necessary. Thus, for example, the dancer Carlos Araya arrived from Chile to join the ensemble, to which he also significantly contributed as a frequent assistant choreographer.
In the mid-1960s, Đuro Herceg and Nada Herceg came from Zagreb to lead the ensemble as head of the ballet and as pedagogue, respectively. Under their leadership, the ensemble achieved exceptional success: in 1964, they premiered the world classic Giselle by Adolphe Adam, choreographed by Gradimir Hadži-Slavković (based on L. Lavrovsky). Vera Vasiljević shone in the title role of Giselle, and her partner Damir Novak became a regular guest of the Rijeka ensemble. Later, Raisa Struchkova and the famous Maris Liepa, the principal dancers of the Moscow Bolshoi Theatre, were guest performers in Rijeka’s Giselle.
In addition to Sonja Kastl and Nevenka Biđin, Đuro and Nada Herceg (she later as the head of the Ballet) hired local choreographers such as Zvonimir Reljić, Franjo Horvat, Vera Kalan, Jože Komljenović and Nada Herceg. Franjo Horvat staged Abraxas by Werner Egk, and three Croatian composers wrote three short ballets for the Rijeka premiere: Boris Papandopulo created Doktor Atom, Milo Cipra Leda and Ivo Lhotka-Kalinski wrote Legenda o pjesmi (“Legend of a Song”). Most of the performances remained in the repertoire for a short time: a month, sometimes two or three, with an average of a dozen performances. Only Coppelia and Giselle stayed longer. Coppelia was performed fourteen times in two seasons, and Giselle twenty-three times in three years. Of the more modern choreographies, the exception was George Gershwin’s Symphonic Poem, which was performed thirty-five times in four seasons (in various combinations with other works).
In 1967, Nada Herceg, with the mediation of the British Arts Council, invited the English choreographer Norman Dixon to Rijeka. After he was a student of Marie Rambert and a leading dancer in her company, he also became a successful choreographer at the National Opera of Wales, as well as director of the City Ballet of Santiago, Chile, the Uruguayan National Ballet of Montevideo, and the Ballet of St. Pölten in Austria. Dixon is the founder of the Portuguese Experimental Ballet as part of the Gulbenkian Foundation in Lisbon, and in 1966 he received the first award in the history of English ballet – the British Arts Council Award. His first ballet in Rijeka was Ferdinand Hérold’s La fille Mal gardée in 1967, which proved to be extremely popular and in 1969 won the Ballet ensemble the City of Rijeka Award.
At the end of October 1967, Ray Harrison’s Evening of Modern Ballet was held as the last performance in the building of the Ivan Zajc National Theatre at the time. Renovation of the theatre building had begun and would take a full twelve years. The ensembles found temporary accommodation in the hall of Neboder in Sušak (today’s Croatian Cultural Center in Sušak). Joža Komljenović took over the management of the ballet as the most prominent Rijekan soloist of his generation and of the 1960s, and after Joža Komljenović, Dixon himself was the head of the ballet from 1977 to 1986. The quantitatively thinnest period of the Rijeka Ballet with the fewest independent performances began at the start of the 1970s with the renovation of the theatre.
The most significant date in the history of the Rijeka Ballet is September 21, 1990, when the Ballet received the status of an independent artistic branch, with Peter Pustišek as director. Already in December 1990, Giselle by choreographer Gradimir Hadži-Slavković was performed, followed by extremely well-attended and highly praised performances: The Duel by R. Banfield choreographed by Štefan Furijan, The Firebird by I. Stravinsky choreographed by Henrik Neubauer, Romeo and Juliet by S. Prokofiev and Don Quixote by K. Minkus choreographed by Valery Miklin. In 1995, the ballet ensemble began with the premiere performance of the most popular ballet of all time, P. I. Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake, choreographed by Croatian prima ballerina Vesna Butorac-Blaće. Following that was Scheherazade by N. R. Korsakov (1996) choreographed by Henrik Neubauer, as well as the renewal of Giselle (1996). Under the direction of Leo Stipaničić (1997-2001) came Song and Sin (Mathilde by K. Weill and The Seven Deadly Sins by B. Brecht) choreographed by Milko Šparemblek, as well as renewals of Dixon’s La fille Mal gardée (1999) and Coppelia (2000), and the premieres of his La Sylphide (2000) and The Four Seasons, as well as Bizet’s Carmen (2001) choreographed by ballet master Vasile Solomon.
In 2002, the ballet ensemble performed the Croatian premiere of Esmeralda by C. Pugni, directed and choreographed by the director at the time, Slavko Pervan (2001-2003). From February 1, 2003 to October 30, 2003, the director of the Ballet of the CNT Ivan pl. Zajc was the Romanian pedagogue and ballet master Vasile Solomon, after which the Rijeka Ballet was headed by choreographer and dancer Staša Zurovac (2003-2012). Under his direction, the Ballet turned toward contemporary authorial projects, recognizable by their quality and originality with a tendency to follow contemporary world trends. It was during this period that exceptional performances arose such as Do You Love Brahms? (2004), Marquezomania (2005), Cirkus primitif balet (2006) and Song of Songs (2008), all choreographed by Staša Zurovac, as well as Love and Loneliness (2005) choreographed by Gagik Ismailian, Tango (2006) choreographed by Edward Clug, Three Songs (2007) choreographed by Matteo Levaggi, the premiere of which opened the 24th Zagreb Music Biennale, and Process (2009) choreographed and directed by Staša Zurovac, the premiere of which closed the 25th Zagreb Music Biennale. In addition to these titles are Epitaph for Frederic (2008) choreographed by Milko Šparemblek, Penelope (2008 as part of the “Rijeka Summer Nights” festival) choreographed by Luis Souse, Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet (2007) choreographed by Staša Zurovac, Bartók’s The Miraculous Mandarin (2008) choreographed by Milko Šparemblek, Ščedrinov’s Ana Karenina (2008) choreographed by Dinko Bogdanić, Mirror of the Soul (2010) choreographed by Patrick Delcroix, Daphnis and Chloe (2010) and the musical work Discrete Charm of the Bourgeoisie (2011) by Marjan Nećak, both choreographed by Staša Zurovac, La Valse (2011) by French choreographer Etienne Frey and Carmina Burana (2011) by Portuguese choreographer Hugo Viera.
From September 2012 to May 2015, the director of the Rijeka Ballet was Ronald Savković. Savković supplemented the repertoire of the Ballet of the CNT Ivan pl. Zajc with neoclassical vocabulary without giving up on nurturing contemporary dance expression. In 2013, Ronald Savković drew a new audience with his work Shut Up and Dance, which combines ballet movement in point shoes and electronic music. He ended the year with the Rijeka premiere of The Nutcracker as the most famous Christmas ballet in history, with his own choreography. In 2014, the Ballet performed Savković’s version of Carmen, while in the same year Hugo Viera focused on the harmony of Mozart’s music and more modern ballet movements in his choreography of The Mozart Effect. During his tenure, the Rijeka Ballet’s performances were also choreographed by local choreographers Leo Mujić and Maša Kolar, who designed the authorial project Pour hommes et femmes (2014).
Leo Mujić continued his collaboration with the ballet of the CNT Ivan pl. Zajc through his highly aesteticized Scheherazade (2015) and Midsummer Night’s Dream (2016) under the artistic guidance of dancer, ballet master and choreographer Balázs Baranyai. Baranyai remained in that position until the end of 2016, showing the audience an unusual diversity in genres and stylistic directions. For the ensemble he created the contemporary ballet show Sex (2015), and the neoclassical Dogma (2016), which was performed on the same evening as Checkmate by choreographer Raza Hammadi. The 2016/2017 season was finalized by Ballet producer Kristina Kaplan Rukavina, who, after a long period, staged Swan Lake (2017) once again, accompanied by the orchestra of the Rijeka Opera, but this time with modernized choreography and direction by Staša Zurovac.
The modernized version of Swan Lake (2017) marked a return to the search for novelties in dance art and dance dramaturgy with an emphasis on the dynamic, the physical, even the acrobatic and the unexpected. Under the direction of Maša Kolar since September 2017, the Ballet achieves significant diversity in the work and excellence of art projects that have been promoted and designed under the brand of “Ballet with Character.”
An important factor in creating this brand are collaborations with a new wave of internationally recognized and authorially impressive choreographers, thanks to which performances were created such as Macbeth (2017) by choreographer Maša Kolar, Ivica and Marica (2018) by American choreographer Gina Patterson and Rossini Cards (2018) by Mauro Bigonzetti. In the 2018/2019 season, “Ballet with Character” was upgraded through 4 Boleros (2018) as a meeting place for four different choreographers: Adonis Foniadakis, Kristian Lever, Shota Inoue and Maša Kolar, and their flexible and innovative interpretation of the music form of boleros. This was followed by Serenade and Allegro (2018) with choreography by Igor Kirov and Maša Kolar, Hero is Tired by Giuseppe Spota, which closed the 30th Musical Biennale in Zagreb, Apollo and Pulcinella choreographed by Giovanni di Palma and Martin Chaix, The Nutcracker by choreographer Mauro de Candia and Lace choreographed by Maša Kolar. Summer 2020 was marked by the extremely successful and striking Burning Water by choreographer Andonis Foniadakis as the only ballet within the Rijeka 2020 European Capital of Culture project. In 2021, a new full-length ballet was performed: Odyssey, choreographed by Walter Matteini and Ina Broeckx, accompanied by double bill program Pathetique and Le sacre du Printemps choreographed by Douglas Lee and Maša Kolar.
Though small in number, the Rijeka Ballet has been achieving truly significant artistic results for more than half a century. Three co-productions were created with the Zagreb Music Biennale, the Ballet of the Croatian National Theatre in Split, and with the Istrian National Theatre in Pula (INK-Pula City Theatre), with 20 guest appearances. Our ballet productions were guests at the Šibenik Dance Festival (2018, 2019, 2020 and 2021), at the Festival of Dance in Belgrade and Novi Sad (2020), at the June Festival in Ljubljana (2018) at the 64th Split Summer Festival (2018), at the festival “Days of Mija Čorak Slavenska” in Slavonski Brod (2018, 2019 and 2020), at the Mediterranean Theatre Purgatory Festival in Tivat (2019), in Regensburg (2020) and Theater Altenburg in Gera (2020), at the Istrian National Theatre in Pula (2019, 2020 and 2021), in Đakovo (2020) and at the Borštnik’s Meeting Festival in Maribor (2020). Four ballet productions were performed with live music by the Rijeka Symphony Orchestra (RSO) and guest pianists. In an attempt to reaffirm the importance of diverse artistic work and new poetics and dance genres, the Rijeka Ballet performed five neoclassical titles and three performances richly equipped with costumes and scenery, and profiled itself as a powerful “Ballet with Character.”
The results remain imprinted in the collective consciousness of the ensemble and continue to shape it through a dedicated, self-critical and honest reexamination of its own values, meaning and position in the local and global scene of dance art and dance skills.
The Rijeka Ballet strives to act as a future-oriented company that creatively responds to new challenges. It therefore hires versatile dancers who will develop artistically through working with choreographers such as Andonis Foniadakis, Giuseppe Spota, Douglas Lee, Mauro Bigonzetti and Giovanni di Palma. Over the past two years, the number of guest performances has increased significantly through efforts to rebrand the ensemble as a company with the same number of performances on the home stage as well as beyond it. To do so, the necessary skills to quickly adapt a particular dance piece to the specifics of a new stage are of exceptional value and importance to young dancers. In addition, the annual Koreo-Lab project encourages them to think about their own choreographic ideas and to gain experience in building the structure of choreography in practice. One of the greatest advantages of working in the Rijeka ensemble is that every dancer is treated as a soloist. Only solo contracts are offered to remove any obstacle to literally any dancer playing a major role at any given time. Being employed as a soloist is advantageous for potential applications to solo positions in dance companies around the world.
Efforts to create an artistically stimulating and technically challenging environment for dancers arise from the view that only a homogeneous dance community (albeit composed of a soloist corpus) can offer a quality that can overcome labor market instability. Such a transformation of the so-called “ensemble” into an ensemble of soloists reflects novelties in the standards of European dance companies. The interaction between companies (their management and employees) and each dancer individually, which is constantly taking place on a global level, teaches us the importance of intercultural competencies and sensitivity to them. They, in turn, encourage us to reduce ethnocentrism, prejudice, the propensity for stereotyping, inequality and discrimination in society through performances that incorporate the best of each of our dancers, as well as the best of their heritages that permeates each and every one of them.