The National Folk Dance Ensemble Lado
Lado – Croatian cultural guardians and their success story
Lado’s brand story can be turned into a marketing case study and a success story. Recognised for its consistency, quality, selectivity and hard work, The National Folk Dance Ensemble celebrated its 70th anniversary just last year. The Croatian list of UNESCO’s intangible cultural heritage is a long one, and Lado carries the majority of it. Our cultural guardians are loved and welcomed across the globe and performed on the stages of most famous theatres and concert halls, opera houses, festivals, exhibitions and sports events.
We had a chat with Krunoslav Šokac, Artistic Director of The LADO Ensemble.
Becoming ‘The Lado’
Croatia is a small country, but so rich and diverse in folklore. How does an ethnologist explain this not quite phenomenon?
National parks and nature parks, the Adriatic sea and its sandy and rocky beaches, mountains and hills, plains of East Croatia, caves, but the rest of the natural riches as the geographical placement of Croatia, make it exceptionally diverse in nature but also in folklore. With its programs, LADO presents the Croatian heritage created at the crossroads of cultures, enriched with Mediterranean, Oriental and Central European influences.
In the narrow coastal belt and islands, the influence of the Mediterranean is visible in diet, clothing, musical and dance expression and customs. The inhabitants of Dalmatian towns and islands were mostly fishermen and sailors who sailed the world’s seas. Thanks to them, Croatia was in touch with the world, foreign trends, innovations, material goods and various cultural practices unknown to locals.
Northwestern and eastern Croatia have been part of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy and the Central European cultural circle for centuries, while in the Dalmatian hinterland the most visible oriental influences, both in clothing and in musical expression. ‘Nijemo kolo’, a dance without instrumental accompaniment in the Dalmatian hinterland, is considered to be the oldest dance expression in Croatia and beyond.
All this has led to a fascinating diversity in Croatian folklore and the fact that Croatia is a world phenomenon in terms of the number of protected intangible cultural assets. We are especially proud of the goods that are on the UNESCO list of intangible cultural heritage of mankind, such as ‘Međimurska popijevka’, ‘bećarac’ – humorous folksong from Slavonia region, ‘nijemo kolo’ – circle dance of Dalmatian Hinterland, Spring procession of Queens from Gorjani, Klapa – form of traditional Croatian a cappella singing, Two-part singing and playing in the Istrian scale, ‘ojkanje’ – archaic and distinctive voice-shaking technique, Annual Carnival Bell Ringers’ Pageant from the Kastav Area, procession ‘Za Križen’ (Following the Cross) on the Island of Hvar are also on LADO’s repertoire.
It’s not an easy task but if you would have to summarise the Lado in a brief timeline, which years and events would you mark as key milestones?
Since its founding in 1949, led by Prof. Zvonimir Ljevaković, LADO has been recognised as a top performer of Croatian music and dance heritage and a center of excellence. The contribution of the Ensemble in presenting Croatian culture in the homeland and the world is immeasurable. In its 70 years, LADO has toured all continents, bringing the heritage, mentality and perseverance of the Croatian man and his way of life closer to the professional and wider audience around the world. ‘The DNA of the Croatian people is written in Lado.’
Your repertoire grew throughout the years. How do you achieve consistency and how much do you change and adjust over the decades?
Through its work, LADO brings together the most famous Croatian ethno-choreologists and choreographers, ethnomusicologists, music arrangers and folklorists, as well as composers and conductors inspired by folk music. All this has resulted in an impressive choreographic and musical repertoire with more than a hundred choreographies and hundreds of vocal, instrumental and vocal-instrumental numbers, in which original, authentic folk art is respected above all else. It is important to mention the connection with the native groups and narrators in the field, from which LADO still draws the immense beauty and richness of Croatian folk art.
How does behind the scenes support work and how many team members do you have working as your ‘infrastructure’? How do you maintain and take care of approximately 1200 costumes?
Lado has around 70 employees. About 50 artists are actively participating on the stage. About 20 people are employed in all infrastructure services, headed by the director and artistic director, responsible for the professional performances of the ensemble and the functioning of the entire organization of the only national professional folklore ensemble in Croatia. In addition to artists, Lado has technical service, cloakroom attendants, employees in marketing and public relations, concert organization, legal department and accounting.
The keeping and maintenance of the costumes is entrusted to the head of the fundus and workshop of folk costumes and cloakroom attendants who rely on the help of external associates and professional institutions such as the Borrowing and Workshop of Folk Costumes and the Ethnographic Museum in Zagreb and local museums that keep the material of Croatian traditional clothing.
The list of your achievements, awards and people is remarkable, and wouldn’t fit this page. There is an evident dedication from the people who historically managed the ensemble. Details about them are available online, but can you share the most significant facts in your own ‘Lado’ words, traditionally, about people behind Lado?
LADO is made up of people whose everyday life is filled with traditional music and dance, let’s say they already have that kind of way of life. It is impossible to do this job without a love for the heritage we inherited from our ancestors and pass that enthusiasm on to future generations. The already mentioned Zvonimir Ljevaković, as well as Božo and Anđela Potočnik and the legendary Ladari left a lasting mark in the Ensemble.
What is the common thing all Lado artists share, besides the obvious?
The obvious love for folklore, certainly complemented by sports discipline and diligence, dedication to every detail, but also their individual energies in synergy which they channel to the audience during the concerts.
How does one become a Lado artist? What does a person need to have to be considered for a dancer or a vocalist, and can it be only one?
Life in the Croatian countryside has always been difficult so it is easier to bear with a song. The Croats sang both in joy and in sorrow, and while sowing, and while reaping, and while picking olives and going to the sea. When they are leaving and when they are returning. That is why Croatian folklore is rich in traditional tunes. It was also sung during the dance, which is not so common among other nations. That is why Croatian folklore is unique and recognizable in the world. Therefore, Lado’s artists are both excellent dancers and singers, which makes them not only a professional dance ensemble, but they can easily be transformed into a representative folklore choir.
The LADO Ensemble is a cultural institution and the Republic of Croatia’s only professional folk dance ensemble, and as such employs persons of voting age (18 years and up). Dancers, singers and musicians are accepted into the ensemble after successfully completing an audition. Calls to auditions are made after candidates have submitted their complete applications to the LADO Ensemble.
Auditions for a LADO Ensemble musician
Candidates will be asked to prepare a selection of folklore works for their audition to be played on their primary instrument so as to showcase their musical and technical abilities. Following this, the head of the orchestra will choose a piece from LADO’s repertoire for the candidate to play (without prior practice) so as to demonstrate the candidates’ ability to read sheet music.
Auditions for a LADO Ensemble dancer singer
Candidates will be tested on their sense of rhythm and pitch, as well as their singing ability and range of voice. Candidates need to prepare one folklore song. Following this, candidates will be tested on their dance technique and style skills by dancing elements of various Croatian traditional dances as shown to them by a dancer from the LADO Ensemble.
How long does the career of a typical Lado member last?
Being a professional dancer in the LADO Ensemble is a job that implies exceptional physical and mental effort. Therefore, Ladovci, in accordance with Croatian law, have a beneficial length of service, i.e. they retire a little before engaging in some other less demanding job. Studies and measurements conducted among dancers have shown that this job requires exceptional psychophysical effort, primarily due to full-foot dancing, simultaneous dancing and singing, and wearing costumes, some of which weigh more than 5 kilos.
Are all LADO artists included in all activities, not only stage events but music publishing and special projects?
They are usually not involved in all activities, but Lado’s management very much welcomes the independent engagements of Lado’s artists as well as initiatives for some new, joint projects. The last such project is LADO Electro, which was created through the collaboration of the LADO Ensemble with Lado’s soloist. This collaboration resulted in the albums LADO Electro and 2.0 Memorabilium, which combine electronic and traditional music, and live concerts with Lado artists, accompanied by Crnić and Harfman at the DJ desk. A large number of vocal elements are already on Lado’s repertoire or are inspired by parts of some choreographies, while the other part consists of traditional tunes that singers have not encountered before but have sung in a way that only LADO can perform.
In due time, an exhibition of works by Lado artists who in their free time are engaged in textile handicrafts, painting and art photography was held.
From more than 100 choreographies, how do you choose your programme for a particular event or country?
When creating the program, we try to choose choreographies or musical works that will show the audience and evoke the dance and singing heritage of different Croatian regions. In addition to dance and music, equal attention is paid to folk costumes and traditional solo instruments and protected vocal expressions.
What are the process and techniques behind introducing new choreography?
LADO is recognisable by its stage adaptations in which the original tradition of music, dance and clothing templates are fully respected. Before creating and placing a dance and music work on the stage, systematic ethnoarchaeological and field research is conducted. In addition to numerous video and audio recordings from the field, most of which are kept at the Institute of Ethnology and Folklore in Zagreb, the existing professional literature, the most important stage in creating a new choreography is a tour and conversation about local, native traditions.
How much fitness do your dancers and vocalists need to have and what is their usual routine, excluding rehearsals?
Every working day consists of fitness preparations, dance and vocal rehearsals.
Having around 100 concerts a year, how many do you have in a full ensemble?
The whole ensemble usually participates in all concerts, especially when it comes to dance programs. However, in its structure, LADO is divided into smaller performing groups – Ladarice, Lado Vocalists and Orchestra, which are able to perform independent all-night concerts.
Other projects, workshops and masterclasses
Can you tell us more about the Lado Electro, folklore ballet with singing Veronika Desnička, JazzLando, and what was the idea and audience behind those projects?
Many authors are inspired by traditional songs and dances as well as the entire folklore and traditional culture, which they shape into various artistic expressions – from fine arts to music and dance projects. Right at the moment when we are answering these questions, performances of LADO Electra are underway, which combines electronic music with rich vocal and musical traditional expressions of the Croatian people and which offers the audience a special experience.
Also, in 2019, when LADO was celebrating the 70th anniversary of its artistic activity, a documentary was made about the work and life of professional folklore artists employed by the Ensemble, and on the same occasion an exhibition of photographs was designed during 2019 and 2020, visited several Croatian cities, and will soon be available online. By creating and participating in such projects, we want to bring traditional art closer to the younger population.
Does the same team collaborate on these projects or you have guest-artists?
It largely depends on what type of project it is. Collaborations with other music and dance artists and ensembles are not foreign to us. For example, in the LADO Electra project one of the authors is an established artist from the Croatian music scene who participates in all LADO Electra performances, and sometimes in projects of different choreographers or music processors, only artists of the LADO Ensemble participate in performances. A new project ‘Clash of Traditions’ is being prepared, in which, in addition to the LADO Ensemble, two other Croatian jazz and percussion ensembles will participate, and which will be performed in 2021. LADO often collaborates with other professional folklore ensembles from Slovakia, Hungary, Poland, Serbia and Macedonia.
Last but not least, and for those who don’t know can you share the meaning of the word ‘Lado’?
LADO is an archaic Slavic word, a synonym for good, kind and nice, and is frequently used as a refrain in ancient ritual songs of north-western Croatia.