Živili Dance Company History

Directors Melissa Pintar Obenauf and Pamela Lacko Kelley

As the only fully professional ethnic dance company in the United States that performed exclusively the dances, songs, and music of the peoples of the Southern Slavic Nations, ŽIVILI was an important cultural institution in Ohio, and left its mark in renowned theatres, cities and countries, while also intersecting with the war in the former Yugoslavia, as well as with Mark Morris’s eminent contemporary dance company. ŽIVILI Dance Company traveled far and wide, performed in important venues, and won awards for its work, all along acting as de facto ambassadors of Ohio and its cultural diversity.

Melissa Pintar Obenauf, Executive Director and Dance Director, and Pamela Lacko Kelley, Artistic director and Choreographer, won various awards for their work, and are respected experts in the field of ethnic dance. In addition to performing its folk repertoire, accompanied by its own musicians, ŽIVILI also made unique in-roads and crossed boundaries as it collaborated with arts institutions and artists across varied artistic landscapes. Some of its traditional music was arranged and adapted for symphony orchestras, enabling ŽIVILI to perform to audiences it might never have reached otherwise, both in Ohio and in Florida. The company also performed with Opera Columbus (“Die Fledermaus”) and it also collaborated with dancers and dance companies throughout the nation on programs and concerts to bring all types of dance forms to its audiences.

Established in 1973, Živili Dance Company was a one-of-a-kind performing arts organization in this state. The work it showcased was excellent and important, drawing national and international accolades with invitations to perform at notable venues. Less than 5 years after its inception, the company began an annual touring schedule that took them as far south as Florida, as far west as Wyoming, and as far north as Ely, Minnesota. A review of a local Columbus performance in 1979 at Mershon Auditorium, said, “They danced as if they were born to it; they sang as if nothing else in the world mattered, and they played as if salvation depended on it.” *

The company performed at the 1982 World's Fair in Knoxville, Tennessee; at EPCOT Center in 1983; at the Brooklyn Center for the Performing Arts at Brooklyn College, also in 1983; as well as in the former Yugoslavia, Bulgaria, and Hungary. During the summer of 2000, the company was chosen to represent Ohio on the Millennium Stage at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C., and acted as a key facilitator in Plovdiv, Bulgaria at a UNESCO-sponsored "Balkan Youth Reconciliation Seminar."

ŽIVILI gave particular emphasis to school-aged audiences, performing annual Young People’s Concerts in Columbus, as well as offering “Informances,” lecture-demonstrations, and dance residencies in hundreds of schools and community centers nation-wide.

The company’s prominence also intersected with the war in the former Yugoslavia (1991-1995), and the troupe traveled and performed there in its aftermath in an attempt to help raise the spirits of those people impacted by this particularly brutal conflict. During the summer of 1997, ŽIVILI performed for persons displaced by the war in former Yugoslavia in refugee camps in Hungary, Slovenia, Croatia, and in Sarajevo, Bosnia. During the summer of 2001, the company again traveled to Europe to perform in Refugee Centers and Orphanages in Croatia.

Another marker of the excellence of ŽIVILI, occurred when acclaimed choreographer, Mark Morris, made a notable work, The Office (1994) that seemed to speak of life, war and death in the former Yugoslav republics. For the company, it was a nearly unheard of collaboration between a noted contemporary choreographer and a folk dance company, and the piece premiered, to critical acclaim, at The Ohio Theatre in 1994, in the midst of the war in ex-Yugoslavia. ŽIVILI then toured this acclaimed work in theaters throughout the United States, as well as in the former Yugoslavia in 1997. “The Office” has also remained in the repertory of the Mark Morris Dance Company, who has performed it nationally and internationally, as well as in numerous Ohio cities.

*Rosemary Curtin-Hite, the Columbus Citizen-Journal

(ŽIVILI is actually a Croatian exclamatory, stand-alone phrase that means, "To Life," and it's always said with great gusto!)

Milestones

1973
ŽIVILI Dance Company Founded by Melissa Pintar Obenauf, ŽIVILI's executive director and dance director, and Pamela Lacko Kelley, the company's artistic director and choreographer.
1978
ŽIVILI Dance Company began an annual touring schedule.
1982
ŽIVILI Dance Company performed at the World's Fair in Knoxville, Tennessee.
1983
ŽIVILI Dance Company performed at Brooklyn Center for the Performing Arts at Brooklyn College, and the former Yugoslavia, Bulgaria, and Hungary.
1994
Acclaimed choreographer, Mark Morris, made a notable work, The Office (1994), which was performed by ŽIVILI Dance Company at The Ohio Theatre.
2000
ŽIVILI Dance Company was chosen to represent Ohio on the Millennium Stage at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C., and acted as a key facilitator in Plovdiv, Bulgaria at a UNESCO-sponsored "Balkan Youth Reconciliation Seminar."
2001
ŽIVILI Dance Company again traveled to Europe to perform in Refugee Centers and Orphanages in Croatia.
2006
ŽIVILI Dance Company disbanded



A review from THE WALL STREET JOURNAL by Dale Harris on Tuesday, May 10, 1994:

  • "Those New Yorkers who have become discouraged by the disappearance of joy and energy from the work of their local dance troupes should put Ohio on their itineraries. For the past two decades, Columbus has been home to ŽIVILI, an ethnic dance company of such animation, commitment and artistic probity that an evening in its presence is enough to reawaken in the most disheartened viewer a powerful sense of the primal excitement of dance."
  • "Though the songs and dances performed by ŽIVILI are necessarily divorced from their original context of south Slavic village life, they possess with great vividness a still potent vision of community. Yet from the rise of the curtain, it was clear that the company is animated not simply a fervent belief in the virtues of social coherence, but also by a poignant sense of its fragility. For the dancers and musicians of ŽIVILI ...there is no going home again. What the company is celebrating, in fact, is an unrecoverable past. In doing so, however, it is at the same time celebrating the virtues of the U.S. ---its hospitality and curiosity, its belief in diversity, the opportunities it offers for self-renewal. ŽIVILI's animating spirit may be an ethnically specific national pride, but no American, whatever his or her heritage, is likely to feel excluded from participation in the troupe's festive spirit.
  • "...in presenting this heterogeneous material, Ms. Kelley and Ms. Obenauf have performed a notable service...the greatest tribute one can pay the company's directors is to say that they have put their scholarship to brilliant theatrical use. Ethnic piety plays a less significant role in the success of ŽIVILI than sound artistic judgment."
  • "Nothing could show the directors' seriousness of purpose better than their decision to extend the company's offerings for the first time beyond the strict limits of folk dance, and to do so, moreover, by commissioning a work from the most talented choreographer of his generation...Mark Morris."
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