Performance art, contemporary dance and edgy theatre have always played a crucial role in Croatia’s cultural scene. However it’s in the boundary- bending area between the main branches of the performing arts that much of the creativity seems to be taking place. Groups such as Montažstroj, BADco and the House of Extreme Musical Theatre take a multi- disciplinary, multi-media approach to their shows, winning local approval as well as increasing international recognition.

This year’s Venice Biennale will see Croatia represented by video works from late performance artist Tomislav Gotovac (1937-2010) and an installation by contemporary dance collective BADco. In highlighting Zagreb’s importance as an incubator of genre-bending art, it’s a significant choice.

As BADco’s Goran Sergej Pristaš explains, ‘Zagreb was a very lively place for contemporary dance in the 1960s, and was arguably the centre of Yugoslavia at that time in terms of new developments in dance. The performing arts in Croatia were always closely related to visual arts and theatre. Masters of performance art like Tomislav Gotovac were equal to any performance artists anywhere else in the world.’

Although the most internationally known of Zagreb’s dance-theatre-multimedia collectives, BADco are by no means the only team in the league. Better known among the local theatre-going public are Montažstroj, the multi-media performance group whose productions have frequently been perceived as state-of-the-nation commentaries on the ills of Croatia. Their shows present a frequently unnerving mixture of high art, popular culture, and reality-TV logic: the 2009 production Srce Moje was a contemporary-dance recreation of the Croatian football team’s victory over England at Wembley in 2007, with all the parts played by (female) amateur dancers recruited by open audition.

At the opposite end of the spectrum is Damir Bartol Indoš and his House of Extreme Musical Theatre, whose hypnotic performances mix performance art, obscure narratives and washes of abstract music – often played on home-made instruments that create a deliriously squeaky-scratchy racket.

All three groups have been featured in Zagreb’s Perforations festival, an annual event launched in 2009 to showcase work from the uncharted borderlands of performance art, theatre and dance. The festival was successfully transplanted to New York in March 2011, an experiment that Perforations founder Zvonimir Dobrović is keen to repeat in coming years.

‘The success of Perforations is based on the fact that most of the performances are experimental and the audience know it,’ Dobrović explains. ‘We like to work between the genres and it can be wrong to apply specific labels to this scene, especially when we are working with people who are outside the main institutions. It is often very difficult to put it in a drawer marked ‘theatre’ or ‘dance’.’

There’s no doubt that the status of Zagreb’s established contemporary dance scene has been a major beneficiary of the new appetite for experimentation. One of the fringe-theatre hits of 2010 was Natalija Manojlović and Goran Tudor’s ‘Vodoinstalater’ (‘The Plumber’), featuring four dancers and a strikingly contemporary score for five-person orchestra. A dark and sensual work based on Boris Vian’s short stories, it drew a young public that wouldn’t normally be seen dead at the ballet.

Many of the more experimental performances take place at the Dance Centre (Plesni centar), opened in 2009 to provide the city’s contemporary dance scene with a dedicated venue. The number of foreign dance performers visiting Zagreb has mushroomed now that the city has an institution capable of inviting them.

‘Before the centre opened contemporary dance performances were always squeezed onto the repertoire of other theatres in the city,’ says dancer and choreographer Silvia Marchig. ‘It is enormously positive that the scene now has some institutional backup. Obviously the dance scene is too diverse to be contained within one institution, and established theatre spaces like &TD and Zagreb Youth Theatre remain important venues for the more experimental productions.’

Marchig has her own view of why such experimentation has become a discernable Zagreb trademark: ‘Maybe because of our experience of transition from one political system to another, art initiatives in Croatia are somehow much more vivid. It’s as if we skipped a certain period of developing mainstream contemporary art and arrived at something more radical, which gives us a freshness which others lack. Also Zagreb is a relatively small capital city and people active in the arts tend to be much more connected, which means that people from different artistic disciplines are more likely to collaborate in an innovative way.’

The fact that most of Zagreb’s leading performers are working outside official institutions produces a certain kind of creative tension. As Zvonimir Dobrović explains, the alternative sector does get funding from both the Ministry of Culture and the City of Zagreb, but: ‘there is not always consistency in the kind of support they get and excellence is not always rewarded. That’s why the independent scene is actually very resilient, and why alternative artists are pushed towards networking and cooperation. Indeed the people in the independent sector are frequently much better at filling out forms for European funding than those who work in the major institutions, because they’ve learned how to be resourceful’. Marchig concurs: ‘Being an artist in Croatia means being much more engaged in social and political life than in Germany, for example, where it is much easier for an artist to carry on creating in their artistic bubble. To be an independent artist in Croatia also means to be an activist’.

Venues

&TD, Savska 25 (01 45 93 510, http://itd.sczg.hr).

Zagreb Youth Theatre (ZeKaEm), Teslina 7 (01 48 72 561, www.zekaem.hr).

Dance Centre, Ilica 10 (01 48 33 083, www.plesnicentar.info).

Festivals

Contemporary Dance Week (Tjedan suvremenog plesa; www.danceweekfestival.com). Late May/early June. 

Perforations (Perforacije;  www.perforacije.org). October.