The first data on dance performances and ballet divertissements performed by German touring companies with which Karel Carolus Freudenreich, Zagreb’s popular actor, singer and dancer came to Zagreb, extend to the end of the 18th century. His grandson Josip Freudenreich was the first Zagreb choreographer (wheel dance in Graničari (Boarder-guards)) and the author of the first Croatian pantomimes on carnivals performed in 1862. In 1859 Pietro Coronelli, a ballet artist, choreographer and dance pedagogue arrived in Zagreb and opened the first dance school that was connected with the theatre and became the first ballet training school. The development of the ballet artistic branch began with the establishment of the Opera. After pantomimes and live images, this artistic branch at first evolved as a part of music performances. The director of the Opera Ivan noble Zajc knew the significance of having ballet scenes in opera works, so in 1876 he engaged a prima-ballerina from Amsterdam Ivana Freisinger who staged the ballet numbers for the world opening night of the opera Nikola Subic Zrinjski on November 4, 1876. She continued to choreograph ballet numbers as fragments in operas and operettas for years. Within the Opera, the first all-evening ballet The Fairy Doll by Joseph Bayer in the choreography of the Viennese ballet master Leopold Gundlach, had been performed in Zagreb on March 3, 1892 by the members of the Drama who were talented for dance!
Re-establishing the work of the Opera, Stjepan Miletic organised Ballet as a separate theatre branch, engaged foreign artists (prima-ballerina Ema Grondona, ballet master Otokar Bartika, dancing couple Viscuzi…) and started a children’s ballet school. The first big-scale ballet opening night, the pantomime in three scenes Pupil’s Love in Bartik’s choreography, did not gain the approval of the audience due to its German content, unlike Delibes’ Coppélia with Grondona in the leading role. Ballet At the Plitvice Lakes composed by Srecko Albini is considered to be the first Croatian world opening night, after the concept of Miletic and in Grondona’s choreography.
With the annulment of the Opera in 1902, the Ballet once again faded away and did not have an independent programme for almost twenty years. Since the revival of the Opera in 1909, it only acted as an opera fragment. Ballet experienced a revival only after 1921, when Margareta Froman, the prima-ballerina from the Moscow Bolshoi Theatre and a member of Diaghilev’s company, together with her brothers, the soloist dancers Maximillian and Valentin, as well as the set designer Pavel, were engaged. Setting strong foundation to Croatian ballet culture with her work, Froman marked a thirty-year period of ballet history. The ensemble that Froman led was expanded with several Russian dancers who were also on tour and amongst the local ballet names were some great artists that soon acquired acclaim: Draga Spoljaric, Paula Hudi, Zlata Lanovic, Mia Corak and Oskar Harmos. Creating an independent ballet segment, M. Froman based it on Diaghilev’s repertoire, as well as on Russian works in general, amongst which were for example Acts II and IV from Swan Lake by P. I. Tchaikovsky, Scheherazade by N. A. Rimski-Korsakov,Petruschka by I. Stravinsky and Carnival by R. Schumann. In the context of creating a national music expression in the 1930s, Froman based the repertoire on national works as well. She choreographed ballet Svatovac by K. Baranovic in 1922, as well as the world opening night of the anthological ballet The Gingerbread Heart by Baranovic in 1924, The Flowers of Small Ida in 1925, The Shadows by Bozidar Sirola in 1923 and The Figurines by Lujo Safranek Kavic. Between 1927 and 1930 Froman worked in Belgrade, after which she returned to Zagreb. In 1934, she stopped dancing and since then, worked solely as a choreographer and pedagogue. Besides all of this, she successfully directed thirty operas, amongst which was the world opening night of Ero the Joker by Gotovac in 1935 in which she choreographed the famous wheel dance. In 1930 she choreographed the pantomime ballet with singing The Gold by Boris Papandopulo who was the first younger artist who composed ballets and began a long-term cooperation with the Ballet. His works also include The Grand-hotel (1967), The Three Cavaliers of Miss Melanija (1976) and Kraljevo (1990). Froman also opened a ballet school in which Mia Corak, the future world famous ballerina known as Mia Slavenska was enrolled. Unfortunately, she stayed in Zagreb only for two seasons dancing the great soloist repertoire, as the first Croatian prima-ballerina. After her departure, she was succeeded by Vera Milcinovic Tashamira and Mercedes Goritz Pavelic, internationally acclaimed artists of contemporary dance. In 1935, Froman staged Baranovic’s Imbrek with a Nose and the same year The Devil in the Village by Fran Lhotka, one of the most performed Croatian ballets, directed, choreographed and performed by Pia and Pino Mlakar had its world opening night in Zurich. Its Zagreb opening night took place in 1937 with Mlakars in the leading roles, Olga Orlova and Oskar Harmos, as the legendary Devil. Until 1960, he danced this role two thousand times. Despite the fluctuation of dancers, the opening night of The Devil in the Village was one of the more significant professional and artistic achievements of this epoch. The first integral opening night of Swan Lakechoreographed and directed by M. Froman was performed in 1940, when she ceased to be at the head of the Ballet. But all until 1955, she was appearing as a choreographer and her most significant work was the staging of Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet in 1948.
Between 1941 and 1953, the Ballet was led by the dancing couple Ana Roje and Oskar Harmos who created a series of choreographies. The pedagogical work of Ana Roje was exceptionally significant, as well as the connection of the theatre with the ballet school founded in 1949. The school finally produced dancers with an academic education and that way, the professional level of the ensemble was raised. From 1951 to 1955, the Ballet was led by the choreographer Milorad Jovanovic (Apollo by I. Stravinsky and Francesca da Rimini by P. I. Tchaikovsky). During the 1950s the Chilean artist Octavio Cintolesi choreographed in the neoclassical style and Dimitrije Parlic appeared as a soloist (1945–1947) and choreographer (The Chinese Story by K. Baranovic, 1956; The Miraculous Mandarin by B. Bartók, 1958; The Legend of Ohrid by Stevan Hristic, 1980). After Ana Roje a series of new ballerinas have earned recognition: Sonja Kastl, Zlatica Stepan, Nevenka Bidin, Durdica Ludvig, Zlata Lanovic, Ivanka Zunac, Vera Markovic and Silvija Hercigonja. At that time an artistically strong male ensemble also appeared: Nenad Lhotka, Milko Sparemblek, Frane Jelincic, Ivica Sertic, Vlado Sertic, Veseljko Sulic, Drago Boldin and very soon Damir Novak. Many dancers went abroad and as acclaimed artists sporadically created choreographies (N. Lhotka, I. Sertic, M. Sparemblek, V. Sulic and F. Jelincic). The 1960s made prominent the artistic appearance of Maja Bezjak and her partner Damir Novak, who was the interpreter of leading classical roles for many years. He was the director of the Ballet between 1978 and 1981. Vesna Butorac marked thirty years on the stage creating a long and rich soloist career as one of the great names of our Ballet. Her name is connected to the choreographer Wazlaw Orlikowsky, who, since 1970, staged several times The Nutcracker, but alsoCinderella, Romeo and Juliet and The Sleeping Beauty.
In 1965, the Ballet was finally separated from the Opera and became an independent artistic branch. The first director was Sonja Kastl (1965 – 1969) who together with Nevenka Bidin and in cooperation with the Croatian composers choreographed new works – Symphony of a Dead Soldier by B. Sakac (1959), A Man in front of the Mirror by M. Kelemen(1963), The Three Cavaliers of Miss Melanija by B. Papandopulo (1976). Silva Muradori, Melita Skorupski, Milena Leben, Maja Srbljenovic Turcu and Bozica Lisak were soloists that performed the repertoire of that time. Besides Damir Novak, Marin Turcu, Stane Leben, Stefan Furijan and Juraj Mofcan, Mladen Drakulic, Antonije Maksimovic, Zoran Grgic, Marijan Babic and Guy Perkov danced equally well the classical and the modern repertoire. Miljenko Vikic and Zvonimir Reljic worked both as dancers and choreographers. The 1960s and the 1970s were a period when prominent foreign choreographers were engaged (R. V. Zaharov, O. Danovsky, W. Orlikowsky and N. Dixon), as well as dancers (e.g. Pavel Rotaru later on achieved an international career).
In the repertoire and style diversity, from the classical to contemporary ballet works, Milko Sparemblek’s work has a special place. He was a dancer and choreographer with an international career and in Zagreb staged ballets Triumph of Aphrodite by C. Orff, Opus 43 by L. v. Beethoven (1975); The Face by N. Beri, The Seven Deadly Sins by K. Weill and B. Brecht, The Symphony of Psalms by I. F. Stravinsky (1976) and big scale performances like Songs of Love and Death choreographed to the music of Gustav Mahler (1981, 1991, 2007), Carmina Krleziana choreographed to the music of Frano Parac (1985), Amadeus monumentum (1990), The Miraculous Mandarin by B. Bartók (2001) and Johannes Faust Passion (2001) choreographed to the music of J. S. Bach and unknown mediaeval authors. In the new generation of dancers from the 1970s, today’s national principal artists Irena Pasaric and Almira Osmanovic, were dominant. They were of different artistic profiles and preferences, but were both present in all the repertoire segments. Other soloists were Lydija Mila Milovac, Spomenka Sparemblek, Suzana Bacic, Ljiljana Gvozdenovic (later on also a choreographer), followed by Natasa Sedmakov. Amongst the male dancers leading roles were interpreted by Sorin David and Ostoja Janjanin. They were followed by Svebor Secak and Dubravko Kolsek.
Papandopulo’s Kraljevo choreographed by Drago Boldin was indicatively premiered in 1990 and other significant performances were Ballads…brought by the Wind by V. Wellenkamp (1992), as well as the Hommage à Carl Orff (Carmina burana by D. Boldin and Sparemblek’s Triumph of Aphrodite, 1993). New dancers appeared: Mihaela Devald, Mateja Pucko Petkovic, Milka Hribar, Olja Jovanovic, Stasa Zurovac and were joined by Andrej Izmestjev, Ilir Kerni and Ervina Sulejmanovna. Almira Osmanovic was at the head of the Ballet for eight years (1994–2002) and was wounded on May 3, 1995 during the bombardment, when a grenade hit the ballet studio in the centre of Zagreb. She strengthened the ensemble and initiated choreographic workshops for members of the Ballet (An Evening of Young Choreographers), premiered Do not Walk on Grass…Angels are Falling by Ivan Favier choreographed to the music of Stanko Juzbasic in 1998 and invited many Croatian choreographers, especially for the classical repertoire (I. Sertic, D. Bogdanic, M. Sparemblek and S. Zurovac). The Ballet ensemble was continually revived with new generations of dancers like George Stanciu, Andrej Barbanov, Mirna Sporis, Saule Ashimova, Edina Plicanic, Pavla Mikolavcic and Petra Vargovic.
Foreign dancers, choreographers and pedagogues were constant guests of the Ballet and since the 1930s our artists have performed and won recognition on all large world ballet stages.