European cultural ambassador during the breaking points of history

When the critic Andrej Jaklič wrote in the Slovene daily newspaper Delo that the story of the Mladinsko Theatre reads like “a very dynamic genre novel with particular elements in its contents that already transcend and upgrade it,” he hit the very essence of the turbulent changelings, rises, falls, and oscillations of this living theatre organism. The path that the Mladinsko has trodden in five decades of its stage life, oftentimes very resonant in society, started after World War II, in the pioneering 1950s when the theatre needed a full 3 years to be able to move into its current premises in 1959 and begin with its regular, continuous work. This path reached one of its peaks with last year’s prestigious recognition and award of the European Commission: Mladinsko was styled as a European Cultural Ambassador, making it the first Slovene theatre and cultural institution in general to achieve this status.

A relief map of the reformers of the Slovene theatre in the second half of the 20th century

The Mladinsko Theatre story is an extraordinary relief map of contemporary theatre practices of the reformers of the Slovene theatre of the second half of the 20th century, among whom let me only mention some directors: Žarko Petan, Mile Korun, Dušan Jovanović, Ljubiša Ristić, Meta Hočevar, Paolo Magelli, Janez Pipan, Vito Taufer, Tomaž Pandur, Eduard Miler, Matjaž Pograjc, Martin Kušej, Dragan Živadinov, Emil Hrvatin, Tomi Janežič, Matjaž Berger, Jan Decorte, Diego de Brea, Jernej Lorenci, Ivica Buljan, Silvan Omerzu and Damjan Kozole.

Establishment and moving into the current premises: Balbina Battelino Baranovič

The Mladinsko Theatre, which changed its name to Slovensko mladinsko gledališče (Slovene Youth Theatre) in the 1980s and thus finally gained the seal of not only local theatre, but also one recognized in Ljubljana, in Slovenia and also internationally, was a theatre tried by the fire of the new theatre philosophy from the very beginning. Its creation came in phases: at the end of 1955 the first event of the Mladinsko was presented, the year after, the first premiere occurred. Until the 1958/59 season, when the theatre got its space and moved to the current premises of the never-finished Baraga Seminary (arch. Jože Plečnik) in Bežigrad, it had to go to great lengths to ensure its place under the – otherwise pleasant – sun of the fast-growing Ljubljana. It was the settling into the new premises that we can understand as the end of the pioneering process of establishing, and from which 50 years have passed.

When discussing these (mis-)adventures it is certainly important to mention that the first years were inextricably tied to the name of Balbina Battelino Baranovič, a director and theatre educator, a pioneer of the contemporary theatre in Slovenia who founded the Eksperimentalno gledališče [Experimental Theatre] at the same time. The Mladinsko thus developed as a double of its programme. As a contemporary theatre and a theatre intended for young audience the actors in its first “teams,” for example: Brane Ivanc, Majolka Šuklje, Minca Jeraj, Alja Tkačev, Milena Grm, Sandi Pavlin, Niko Goršič, were artists who, while creating performances for youth, also performed on the experimental stages of the time, such as Oder 57, Ekperimentalno gledališče and later also the theatres Glej and Pekarna.

Andrej Jaklič described the fast growth of the theatre with the following words: “What began in the second half of the 1950s soon became a lot more insightful and engaged than formal entertainment for youth.” Ms. Rapa Šuklje, who has been following the path of the creators of this theatre from the very beginning, has lucidly written at the occasion of the 30th anniversary of the theatre: “The Mladinsko Theatre, founded as a stage for children, has thus, together with its audience, grown up. It has simultaneously shaped its own tradition and, with the new members of its ensemble, continuously responded to new impulses. In the sense of repertoire as well as production it has reached a distinguished maturity.”

Tone Pavček’s successful battle for the survival of the theatre and the era of Dušan Mlakar

The visionary views of the theatre’s founder Balbina Battelino Baranovič, which fed on modern theatre currents and understanding of theatre was continued by her successor Tone Pavček, who managed – despite operating within the framework of relatively aggressive politics which had marked the theatre for an amateur venture – to retain the theatre’s independence and create performances for young audiences with professional actors. The era of Dušan Mlakar that followed further increased the artistic quality of the set programme.

A key turn with Dominik Smole and Dušan Jovanović

The key turn for further research and establishing the trademark under which Mladinsko is today known in Europe and the world, came in the first half of the 1970s with the great Slovenian playwright Dominik Smole, who took over as the managing director and ensured the theatre the necessary artistically demanding youth performances. In the 1970s the Mladinsko was on the theatre margin which allowed lots of different creative energies to congregate there. The political powers deemed the theatre unimportant, so organizational changes could be made as well as programmatic ones. The 1970s were also the times of a crisis at the Drama Ljubljana (the Slovene National Theatre) where the circumstances prevented the development of the kind of contemporary theatre which Mladinsko started developing with the arrival of Dušan Jovanović.

This was the time when Mladinsko gained a reputation as a theatre with high-quality youth performances, but at the same time a space that opened, with Jovanović’s Victims of the Bang Bang Fashion in 1975 – a performance that was commissioned as a so-called partisan meeting – to political theatre. The performance finally broke through the understanding of Mladinsko as a theatre for youth only.


A political and experimental theatre

Ristić’s Missa in a-minor
The next decade – when Petar Jović became the managing director and Dušan Jovanović the artistic director (with the help of the dramaturg Marko Slodnjak), followed by Ivo Svetina – was first marked by the projects by Ljubiša Ristić, especially Missa in a minor, which began the series of projects that profiled the Mladinsko as the nexus of the political and at the same time experimental. At the same time, around the mid-1980s, poetics that were not bound to “actual political” began to appear. First, there were the projects by Vito Taufer, then the performances by Janez Pipan and Scheherezade by Ivo Svetina, directed by Tomaž Pandur, Dragan Živadinov’s projects ... This line has continued throughout the 1990s until now in the form of diversity and auto-poetics in the performances by Eduard Miler, Matjaž Pograjc, Emil Hrvatin, Tomi Janežič, Matjaž Berger, Diego de Brea and a wide range of contemporary theatre artists.


An internationally recognized theatre organism

From at least the 1980s onwards – or, more accurately, from Missa in a-minor onwards – Mladinsko has been an internationally recognized theatre organism. In the 1980s it became a Petri dish for the development of new performance aesthetics and policies, a dish that was only seemingly homogenous, as the theatre and social-cultural space was constantly dynamized by different and exceptionally strong artists. Dušan Jovanović and Ljubiša Ristić, who most visibly marked the first half of the 1980s, were engaged in a powerful dialogue – despite Josip Vidmar calling them cultural terrorists –,but this dialogue was one about the differences in the fundamental postulates of theatre, originating from the universe of innovative theatre groups, Pupilija Ferkeverk and Glej for the former, and Pekarna for the latter. When they were joined by Janez Pipan, his divergence was perhaps not as evident, but recognizable enough (let’s just remember the exceptional performance dedicated to Edvard Kocbek Fear and Courage). But when, in the mid-1980s, Vito Taufer shocked with his perfected and far-fetched poetics in the performances Class Enemy and I Am Not I, a strong field of sometimes contradicting aesthetic and ethical points-of-view was opened, and it was extremely productive. With Tomaž Pandur’s staging of Scheherezade by Ivo Svetina, and before that, Taufer’s staging of Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll it became clear that new theatre tactics and aesthetics were being formed.

It was these new understandings of theatre that, with all the support and shock surrounding Dragan Živadinov and his performance Drama Observatory Zenith as a typical post-dramatic theatre of images of the retro-avantgarde, catapulted the Mladinsko outside the Yugoslav theatre space and out of the field of the drama theatre.

Who’s Afraid of Tennessee Williams?, directed by Matjaž Pograjc, 1999, in the photo Željko Hrs

Therefore, in the last couple of decades, you could have met the creators of this theatre everywhere: in Buenos Aires checking out the posters announcing the arrival of a well-known theatre from a country few people had ever heard of, except that it was on a continent that their ancestors had once come from. In Bogota, among a hundred troupes from the whole world, at the National Theatre where a festival that in only a decade rose to the top of world theatre sensations was founded. In Milan, taking a break from presenting five projects to have a friendly chat with their Italian colleagues in one of the typical bars around the Piazza Duomo. In Moscow, after an exhausting performance, in an engaged debate with their Russian counterparts. In Sao Paolo, where Brazilian television was making a programme about a “miraculous European theatre of images” in the Avenida Paulista.

The Mladinsko Theatre thus became a theatre organism that is constantly on the road. With its ensemble and directors who on the wings of fantasy keep creating newer and newer parallel worlds to introduce them to newer and newer audiences. These strong signatures held together by a Peter Brook-inspired commitment to research and Artaudian accents into non-theological theatre have heralded and enabled the aesthetic boom of the last two decades.

A space of diversity and the centre of theatre research in Slovenia

Under the artistic leadership of Eduard Miler, Tomaž Toporišič, Matjaž Berger, and in the last few seasons of the current director of the theatre Uršula Cetinski, Mladinsko became a space of the wealth of diversity while remaining the Slovenian centre of theatre research. The strong accents of Martin Kušej (Scandal after Cankar), Meta Hočevar (A Family Album), Matjaž Pograjc (Roberto Zucco, Fragile!), Emil Hrvatin (Male Fantasies), Eduard Miler (Susn, The Mission), Tomi Janežič (Oedipus Rex, Utva), Matjaž Berger (Galileo Galilei, Interpretacija sanj), Diego de Brea (The Damned, Crime and Punishment), Ivica Buljan (Young Flesh), Jernej Lorenci (Gilgamesh), Vinko Möderndorfer (Blasted), Barbara Novakovič, Vlado Repnik, Ivan Peternelj, Jan Decorte, Sebastijan Horvat, Damjan Kozole, Silvan Omerzu … have, together with Taufer’s research of an extremely wide territory of theatre function (let us remember the performances Silence Silence Silence, Pippi, Midsummer Night’s Dream) and the projects of Dragan Živadinov resulted in the aesthetically most diverse period in the history of the theatre that the critical machinery in Slovenia – due to the limited tools it was operating with, and at the same time do to ideological altercations of the political left, connected to the so-called independent or “dependent” production – didn’t know to or couldn’t analyse or contextualize.

For this reason, the placement of these phenomena into the international and festival theatre space, was extremely important. Today, when we are ensconced in the post post-socialist era of the so called transition period in Slovenia, the historic distance enables us to claim that without this support from abroad Mladinsko as a phenomenon of contemporary theatre wouldn’t have survived. That the positive response in Europe and the Americas was critical for the continuation of the research. Thus, the duality occurred: Mladinsko was relatively marginalized in Slovenia, while abroad it represented Slovenian art, culture and even the country.

A crown, or the final confirmation of the fact that Mladinsko is the Slovene theatre with the strongest brand name internationally, is the honorary title and the award European Cultural Ambassador that it received in 2008 by the European Commission on the grounds of its intensive international activity and the quality of its performances. The theatre, to whom the City of Ljubljana did bestow the Župančič Award for special achievements as a “exceptional example of communal creative will for quality conveying theatre art to wider circles” as early as 1969, has thus become the European Cultural Ambassador before becoming a Slovene Cultural Ambassador, which is flattering for the theatre itself, but less so for the Slovene politics.

For the future historians of this rich treasure chest of stage seduction, represented by the Mladinsko, an almost immeasurable multitude of extraordinary performances has been created. With a greater time lapse and a necessary look into a wider European theatre and other art space it will be possible to see the forest in addition to the strong trees – or, as the case may be, forests of creativity. To write about them will be a pleasure, just as today’s insight into the rich history is a pleasure, a history that exists so that the artists can look into the future with greater ease. And therefore the Mladinsko has been, is, and will continue to be a theatre organism that looks into the future in order to reflect the present in it.

Prepared by Tomaž Toporišič.


The essay was commissioned by Ms. Nada Šumi and was first published in the Glasilo mestne občine Ljubljana, No. 5, 6,, Vol. XIV, May-June 2009

Plaque on the wall of  Križanke, the 1st venue of The Mladinsko
Rehearsing a new performance: Metka Leskovšek, Balbina Battelino Baranovič, Nataša Sirk


Nil, Evfrat, Tigris (1963),
director Balbina Battelino Baranovič, cast: Alja Tkačev, Mina Jeraj, Brane Ivanc, Miro Veber, Božo Vovk

Dušan Jovanović: Victims of the Bum Bum Fashion, 1975

Ivo Svetinja: Šeherezada, directed by Tomaž Pandur, 1989
F. M. Dostojevski: Crime and Punishment, directed by  Diego de Brea, in the picture Matija Vastl, Boris Kos in Ivo Godnič, 2009
Silence, silence, silence, conceived and directed by  Vito Taufer, in the picture Robert Prebil, 1996
Drama Observatory Zenith, directed by Dragan Živadinov, in the picture Pavle Ravnohrib, 1988
A poster for guest performances in France in early 1980s, designer: Matjaž Vipotnik