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dancing with swords

Marco Polo-inspired pasta notwithstanding, Korčula is noteworthy as the only place in Croatia to preserve the centuries-old tradition of moreška sword dancing. A staple at public feasts and royal banquets during the Renaissance, the choreographed combat pits two opposing armies in a mock battle provoked by — what else? — a lover’s quarrel, of course.

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Performed since the 17th century, moreška can be seen in the heart of the city during Korčula’s patron saint celebrations. As that occasion comes around but once a year, however, an enterprising troupe of dancers began organizing weekly performances for tourists shortly after Croatia attained independence. The 9pm showtime was well past Munchkin’s curfew, but sword dancing sounded too novel to miss. Once he got cranky after dinner, we put him in his stroller and made several loops around the city, literally circumnavigating the walled historic center multiple times while S’s parents saved us seats in the front row.

For a few minutes at the beginning of the performance, we actually entertained the frivolous notion that Munchkin might sleep through the show. He snoozed through the introduction, delivered in five different languages, and did not stir while a female a cappella group sang a handful of klapa songs. But then the drums boomed for the moreška warriors and our little man got up to see what the commotion was all about.

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First to enter were the black king and the white king’s fiancee, whom he had kidnapped and bound in chains. As they quarreled in an ancient Korčula dialect, the two armies arrived and prepared to do battle. For some reason, the white king and his minions were all dressed in red robes, and while a fight between black and white makes perfect sense, we never did get a satisfactory explanation as to why the white army could not manage to color-code their attire.

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After the two young monarchs danced a little introduction challenging each other to a test of their manhood, their armies squared off and launched into the first of seven battle dances. These were separated by interludes during which the warriors trundled slowly in a circle. There is no question that the dancers were sweating their socks off; sparks flew from their clashing swords, as did a few drops of blood. Even so, the choreography left a lot to be desired and the movements proved so monotonous that we quickly lost track of how many battle dances we had seen. At last, the black army capitulated, and we rushed to the hotel to put Munchkin to bed.

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We left the theater with mixed feelings. On the one hand, we had never seen a sword dance before. On the other, the performance felt rather hackneyed at times, as if its frequent repetitions robbed it of its color and vitality. We’re sure that seeing a moreška dance performed in front of the main church during Korčula’s annual saint day celebration would be quite a treat. The theater version, put on especially for tourists like us, felt like a pale imitation, lacking the authenticity we had hoped to experience.

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