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Sunday, 25 April 2010

"A Dancers Odyssey" - A Film About The Famous Croatian Emigre Ballerina Mia Čorak Slavenska

(studio photographs by Marcus Blechman/performance photographs by Fred Fehl)

Sources/Related Links: wwwslavenskadancepreservation,.org

Notes from the filmakers:

Maria Ramas:

Mia Čorak Slavenska was one of the most celebrated ballerinas of the 20th century and Croatia's greatest dancer. She was also my mother. She came of age during an explosive time of dance in an era that witnessed the birth of ballet modernism and modern dance. She danced through a dark time of Western history when powerful nationalist currents swept Western society inexorably into a second world war and spawned unthinkable cataclysms. Yet, while politics buffeted Mia Slavenska and those she loved, she insulated herself in her world of dance and art. She escaped the looming war in 1939 by immigrating to the United States with the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo.

An expatriated artist, she pioneered her art form in these then-culturally virgin hinterlands and was one of a handful of artists who changed the face of American culture by introducing Americans to ballet. Acknowledged as the most beautiful and versatile of all her contemporaries, and as the greatest technician of her era, she was a pioneer who pre-echoed Balanchine's neo-classicism and a maverick who moved freely between classical ballet and modern dance. In 1952, when she danced the role of Blanche Dubois in the modern ballet, A Streetcar Named Desire, Tennessee Williams called her his greatest Blanche.

Mia Slavenska died in Los Angeles in 2002, believing that she had been completely forgotten, not only in the United States, but also in her native Croatia. When I began, I thought that I was making this film because my mother asked me to tell her story. But over the past three years, as I have retraced her life journey, I realize that I am making this film because "once upon a time" Mia Slavenska danced.

Kate Johnson:

It has been 6 years since we began our own odyssey of uncovering Mia Slavenska's story. After her death, her daughter Maria Ramas, found me through word of mouth amongst the dance community of Los Angeles. Together we created a film about Mia for her memorial and in the process discovered a much larger story. Maria decided to devote herself fully to telling her mother's story, a promise she had made on her mother's deathbed. She approached my partner Michael and myself to co-direct a feature documentary and it has taken us to Zagreb, Paris, London, New York, Chicago, and Miami to capture the images and people who knew her.

I knew of Mia Slavenska when I began working on the film. I had trained as a modern dancer and Mia's legacy was etched into the fabric of Los Angeles contemporary dance. However, what I didn't know was about the power of art to transform both individuals and nations. I knew it intellectually, I knew of stories of the transformative power of art, but I hadn't experienced it at such a profound level as I have in the process of making this film. When Maria came to me I thought that I was done with dance. I was in the midst of a creative crisis. I thought I needed to focus on more "important" things. I questioned if art was truly necessary in a world that needs so much to survive. But Mia's story kept unfolding revealing ever deeper facets of the impact an artist can have on her artform, cultural history and national identity.

Mia Slavenska, A Dancer's Odyssey Trailer

Filming in Croatia was a life changing experience. The scars of the recent war were evident on monastery walls and in the memories of the people. It was a new democracy, an independent country, and it was ready to reclaim its lost history. While behind the Iron Curtain it had been sealed off from any knowledge of the many artists it lost during the war and ensuing communist regime. Then, Mia could only be whispered about in the ballet halls and back stages of the national theatre. In 2005 we witnessed a country rediscovering its rich artistic contributions to the world and Mia was central to its cultural legacy as Croatia's greatest ballerina. Mia had touched many people and the memories of her performances were some of the beautiful images stored in the hearts of those who had seen so much suffering and had lived through countless wars and occupying forces. I began to understand that fleeting glimpses of artistry can nurture people through the darkest moments of their lives and can empower them to keep going in the face of insurmountable pain.

When we returned to Los Angeles I discovered that I was a second generation Mia trained dancer. I didn't know that my teacher, Susan Rose, had trained closely with Mia when she was at Cal Arts. This discovery surprised me and everything seemed to come full circle. I re-embraced my dance past, and while I never returned as a dancer, I began to realize the impact that the training had on my filmmaking. Dance informs my work with a visceral sense of musicality, rhythm and a sense of transitional flow in storytelling. I see images, sound and stories weaving together as a kind of dance. Dance is an ephemeral artform and was ever more so in Mia's time when few performances were filmed. As we face the challenge of telling segments of Mia's story with limited archival resources, I pull from my background as a dancer, video artist and documentary filmmaker to recreate scenes so that the viewer can get an impressionistic yet visceral sense of the impact of Mia's live performances.

Mia: A Dancer's Odyssey has become not only a film but also a cause. We are returning to a nation the artist it lost, we are refusing to let an artist be forgotten, and we are remembering that yes, art in all its forms, does matter.

Michael Masucci:

It is rare when a film project can actually effect the cultural climate of a nation, especially before that film is even finished. But this project has already done just that, as it increasingly has served as a catalyst for a re-discovery by Croatia of the life and work of its most important dancer. This responsibility of the filmmaker as not just storyteller but also as historian, has re-affirmed my conviction of the power of cinema and the role it plays in our world today.

On a commemorative Croatian postal stamp. Image:

Throughout my work on this important project, I have felt compelled to rethink my own beliefs about the role of 20th century cultural history, not just in dance but in the arts as a whole. Mia's story is an iconic glimpse into not just the life of an artist, or the evolution of dance in a previous century, but also the role that society plays in art and how, in the end, the forces and agendas of a few may erase the life, legacy of an artist, and even the remembrance of art itself. The film serves as a reminder that just as dance is ephemeral, so too history itself may simply disappear.

I am proud to be part of the realization of this film and how it acts as a form of archeological detective story, uncovering previously overlooked or forgotten elements to tell a story much more diverse and expansive than we usually find in dance histories. The film takes Mia Slavenska off the stage and shows not just her strengths but also those forces, personal and private, which drove her, tortured her, and embraced her. Her family, her friends, her enemies, all are as much the story as is her career. Far beyond being just another documentary about dance, this film places Mia's personal journey in the context of some of the most tumultuous events in modern history, including World War II and the Cold War. Looming ever present in the film are the nationalist struggles which drove artists like Mia Slavenska from their homelands around the world and into the promise of the American Century.

Mia Slavenska - A Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo Prima Ballerina


Mia Čorak was born in Brod na Savi, Croatia, on February 20, 1916, the daughter of Milan and Heddwiga (Palme) Čorak. Her early teachers include Josephina Weiss, former Ballerina of the Viener Stadts Opera, Margarita Froman, ballerina of the Bolshoi and Maximilian Froman, soloist of the Bolshoi. Born as Mia Čorak, she changed the name soon after permanently leaving the country in 1937. Mia a was a student at the Royal Academy of Music, Zagreb, Croatia for five years, where she majored in piano. She studied ballet in both Vienna and Paris. At age 12, in Vienna, she studied with Leopold Dubois, ballet master and first dancer of the Vienna State Opera, and modern dance with Gertrud Krauss, later the foremost proponent of modern dance in Isreal. At 13 she was a solo dancer in the Croatian National Theatre ballet and a prima ballerina at the age of eighteen. In Paris, her teachers included Mathilda Kchessinskaja, Olga Preobrajenska, and Lubov Egorova, Prima Ballerinas of the Maryinsky Theater. In New York, she completed her ballet training in the Cecchetti Method under his protégé Maestro Vincenzo Celli. She came to the United States in 1939 and was naturalized in 1947. She formed the Slavenska Ballette Variante and, later, the Theatre Ballette. In 1954, she became the prima ballerina of the Metropolitan Opera Ballet. She married Kurt Neumann and had one daughter, Maria. Mia Čorak Slavenska died on 5 October 2002 in Los Angeles and on 18 April 2005 the urn with her remains was transferred to the Mirogoj Cemetery in Zagreb.

1919 First apperance on stage as “Trouble” in Madama Butterfly, Croatian National Theater in Zagreb.
1920 Began ballet training with Josephina Weiss.
1921 Training with Margarita and Maximilian Froman and made appearances at the National Theater of Zagreb, Croatia.
1922 Debut at age 6 at the Zagreb National Theatre dancing the Froman-Rebikoff La Sylphide.
1922-1927 Appearances with Croatian National Theatre Zagreb.
1925 Performed at the age of 9 the leading role in Figurine, music by Shafrensek-Kavic and choreographed by Margarita Froman especially for her.
1928-1933 First recital at the Zagreb Academy of Music at age 12 dancing a program choreographed by her. Also engaged as soloist of Zagreb National Ballet. Her first role was as the Princess in the Fokine-Stravinsky Firebird.
1933-1935 Concertized throughout then-Yugoslavia. First performance in Split, Dalmatia, Croatia.
1934-1935 Prima Ballerina of the National Theater of Zagreb, Croatia. Proclaimed Prima Ballerina Assoluta at age 18 in 1934. Her debut in that capacity was as “Swanilda” in the Delibes-St. Leon Coppelia and on the same bill, dancing the title role in the Fokine-Stravinsky Firebird.
1936 Acclaimed the winner of the World’s First Dance Olympics in Berlin, Germany.
Appeared in Serge Lifar’s David Triomphant opposite Lifar as David’s wife, Melhola, in Paris, France.
1937 Made triumphant debut at La Salle Pleyel on July 7 in Paris. Awarded Plaque d’Honneur by France as ambassadress of good will between France and Yugoslavia in Belgrad.
Starred in prize-winning motion picture, La Mort du Cyne, (Ballerina, in USA). Concert tours with partner Anton Vujanic throughout Europe and North Africa.
1938 Guest star with the newly organized Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, in the Principality of Monaco. Her first appearance was as the “Gloveseller” in the Massine-Offenback Gaite Parisienne.
1938-1941 and 1942-1943 Prima Ballerina, Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. Toured in the USA, France, England, North America, Canada, and South America.
1944-1945 Formed Slavenska, Tihmar and Company.
1946 Married Dr. Kurt Neumann.
1947 Gave birth to her daughter, Maria.
1948 Rejoined the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo as guest ballerina.
1947-1952 Toured the United States, Canada and Central America with her own concert ballet company, Slavenska Ballet Variante.
1951 First appearance at Ted Shawn’s Theatre: Jacob’s Pillow.
1952 Guest starred with Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo in Chicago.
Formed Slavenska-Franklin Ballet with Frederic Franklin.
Created and produced ballet A Streetcar Named Desire, based on the play by Tennessee Williams and choreographed by Valerie Bettis.
Created the lead role of “Blanche.”
1952-1954 Toured with Slavenska-Franklin Ballet throughout the USA, Canada and Japan.
1954 Prima Ballerina with Ballet Theatre (now American Ballet Theatre). Featured in Guy Lombardo’s Arabian Nights at Jones Beach Marine Theater co-starring with Lauritz Melchoir.
1954-1955 Prima Ballerina of the Metropolitan Opera, New York City.
1956-1958 Artistic Director and guest ballerina with the Louisville Ballet.
1957 Choreographed Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf and Delibes’ Coppelia for Gus Lambiez’s Children’s Theater in New York City.
1955-1960 TV debut in National Broadcasting Company Spectacular.

Guest star on:

Max Liebman’s Show of Shows
The Steve Allen Show
The Firestone Hour
The Ed Sullivan Show
The Bell Tele[phone Hour with Alicia Alonso, Nora Kaye and Melissa Hayden, in Anton Dolin’s Pas de Quatre.
Performed with Igor Youskevitch at Wolf Trap near Washington, D.C., before an audience of 28,000.
Guest starred with Ballet Theatre at Lewisohn Stadium in New York, and with the London Festival Ballet, in London.
Danced many times at Jacob’s Pillow, including an engagement with the Slavenska Ballet Variante.
Performed in many summer theaters in Song of Norway, Oh, Jupiter, and as ”Vera” in On Your Toes.
1958-1960 Artistic Director, Fort Worth Ballet Arts
World Premiere Ballet in the round at Casa Manana
World Premiere of her own ballet, Chiaroscuro
1960-1969 Private teaching in New York City.
1961 Danced at the Brooklyn College, New York, partnered by Igor Youskevitch.
Retired from the stage on July 17 in American Dance Festival, Metropolitan Arts Center. Her Cavalier was Igor Youskevitch.
1969-1983 Faculty, Dance Department, University of California at Los Angeles.
1970-1984 Faculty, Dance Department, California Institute of the Arts, Los Angeles.
1971-1991 Private teaching, Los Angeles, California.
Oct. 5, 2002 Died in Los Angeles, California.
April 18, 2005 Ashes interred at Mirogoj Cemetery, Zagreb, Croatia.

*Since already on the topic, I might as well add that there are a number of similar theatres/opera/ballet houses in Croatia, a surprising amount actually considering the size of the country is not huge, and some of the theatre groups and opera/ballet ensembles have a history going back to the 17th century, some of the earliest ones to appear in Europe. (Incredible but true, even at the same time that the Ottoman muslim jihads were taking place from their Sanjak of Smederevo, the arts were also a form of warfare and morale builder of the nation). However, some of the other more classic theatre/opera/ballet houses in the country (like seen in those 17th-19th century era themed movies about composers and musicians etc) are the Croatian National Theatre in Split which opened in 1893, there's a nifty virtual tour at the link also. As well as the Croatian National Theatre Ivan pl. Zajc in Rijeka which opened in 1885, the Croatian National Theatre in Osijek which opened in 1866, the Croatian National Theatre in Šibenik built in 1870, the Croatian National Theatre in Varaždin which opened in 1873, and of course the Marin Držić City Theatre in Dubrovnik built in 1865 and which also stages numerous Croatian productions and other well known international programs throughout the year, and that's just to name a few. (these classic pre-20th century theatre houses at times also perform modern plays and other performances throughout the year)

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