60 Years of Celebrating Traditional Croatian Music and Dance
by Heather Desaulniers
October 9, 2009 -- Music Center at Strathmore-Bethesda, Maryland
For more than a decade, Irish-themed performing arts have been on an upswing. The spectacle of “Riverdance” and “Lord of the Dance” appealed to the general public much like reality dance competitions do on television. Reaching a larger audience is a notable and significant achievement; however, at the same time, these overly produced shows have a sense of falseness to them. I, too, was blown away by the uniform choreography the first time I saw “Lord of the Dance”; the technical excellence was undeniable and absolute. But what I remember more about that evening was the artistic emptiness on the stage. The dancers wore constant eerie smiles, making them look more like plastic and less like people. The narrative format was also circusy, phony and contrived. It was nearly impossible to make any substantial connection to what was happening on stage, mostly because the performers themselves were so disconnected from what they were doing. It was sad; they had achieved such a high level of technique and such a low level of artistry. This past weekend, The Music Center at Strathmore proved that an evening of ethnic dance can be both technically brilliant and deeply emotional. They welcomed LADO, the National Folk Dance Ensemble of Croatia, in a performance that was generous, gracious and a sincere sharing of their customs and their national dance.
Though it is very difficult to reduce a two-hour performance to just a few thoughts, there are three words that best describe LADO: smooth, calm and joyful. The dances were steeped with fast footwork, continuous jumps and traveling hops. Their feet were moving so quickly and energetically that maintaining any degree of composure seemed impossible. Yet, composed they were. “Dances From Prigorje,” the final piece before intermission, added a shaking quality to the basic steps, overcoming the entire body. This type of movement can appear frenetic, chaotic and out of control. But, the dancers of LADO executed it perfectly, while still managing to retain an essence of tranquility.
One thing I learned by the end of the evening was that Croatian dance is full of spinning: individual spinning, spinning in couples, spinning in groups, spinning in concentric circles. You could get dizzy just from watching the dancers perform all of these turns. Yet again, they were calmly in control, making their turns look effortless. Laura Dean only wishes that she had this many dancers who could spin so well! LADO was technically exquisite. The choreography was exact, the staging was perfect, and the unison was completely in sync. Yet, what impressed me the most was the absolute elation that was exuded from every dancer on the stage. They radiated pure joy with each other, with the audience and with the dance. The pride was in their culture, not in flashy theatrical demonstrations; theirs was an intimate honesty expressed through a lineage of movement.
I have not attended many full-length ethnic dance concerts, especially not those that represent a single cultural heritage. Much of what I have seen has been in mixed repertory or festival format, which only provides a taste of the richness that traditional dance can express. As it continues, LADO will be instrumental in bringing ethnic performance to an even higher position of popularity and prominence.