Sanja Petrovski in the Rector's Palace in 1991 © Željko Karavida
Sanja Petrovski in the Rector's Palace in 1991
© Željko Karavida

I first spotted this iconic photo on the side of the Rector’s Palace in Zadar in June 2017, my first visit to Croatia. As a dance photographer and big believer in the power of the arts to both transport and transform, it stopped me in my tracks and produced an immediate, visceral response. A ballerina, tying the ribbons of her pointe shoes, in a bombed-out concert hall: it was both defiant and hopeful for the future. If we can make art in the face of war, what else can we achieve? Out of the ashes and all that.

My interest piqued, I found out both who the dancer and the photographer were, and a tantalising snippet of the story behind the image. The ballerina in question is local legend Sanja Petrovski, who was remarkably easy to find, as most of the city’s children who learn to dance do so at her school. In fact, Zadar Dance Company is more than solely a dance school, though that in itself would be an impressive achievement post civil/international war. Zadar Dance Company spans both professional and amateur, performing and education, and it is embedded in the cultural life of the city. The photographer, Željko Karavida, also still working in Zadar, was similarly simple to find: a number of monographs on the destruction from the Homeland War (1991-1994) contained many of his photos, including this one. Sadly, once found, he did not know of what had become of the original slides he took that day. Lost to the war. Or so we thought…

Despite having little contact with dancing as a child, except for films and books, Sanja knew she was going to be a ballerina. “I used to fantasise about the images I had seen and made up plays in my head. When I was 13, Ana Roje came to my town and opened an International Ballet School. Back then, she had schools in London, Bermuda and Boston, and held classes all over the world. The then president of the Russian Ballet Association in the West, she was a beautiful artist with an open spirit and she accepted every child that came to her school. She brought us teachers and dancers from all over the world and besides classical ballet, we also had classes in anatomy, stage make-up… I learned ballet history from the people who were creating it. With Ana and her husband Oskar Harmoš I spent 12 years that have greatly influenced my perspective on the art of dance.”

Sanja Petrovski and her students in 2018 © Jane Hobson
Sanja Petrovski and her students in 2018
© Jane Hobson

After working with the National Theatre Ballet in Split, Sanja went back to live in Zadar, started a family and became a ballet teacher in the newly opened Zadar dance school. Then the war came.

“It was the 5th October 1991, the city was under attack, 40 days of non-stop bombing,” Sanja recollects. “My colleague called and, in tears, said that the Rector's Palace [the building that housed their dance school] had been attacked the night before and asked me to come and help clean up. All the teachers were there. The wounded building was looking at the street, at the sky. Pianos, chairs, note stands, mirrors, the beautiful chandeliers were all shattered. We cleaned and tried to save anything we could. I started wondering how to capture that moment, how to give some realistic hope to this shattered but beautiful and dear space.”

That's when she felt compelled to make art in the ruins. A divine middle finger to the destruction.

“I invited a friend, Miljan Nikić, who had a great eye for photography and a great camera,” she tells me. “We tried to take a couple of photos. The space was partially cleaned, but ruins remained on the floor. An idea came to my mind: to take a photo of a ballerina tying her pointe shoes. That everyday, normal and a bit romantic moment within the war surroundings had a soothing impact on me, and gave me hope for a happy ending. So, in front of my friend Milan’s camera, I tied my shoes in this Dalmatian 500-year-old cultural centre and captured the cultural massacre that was done to Zadar. Then art organisation Culture Platoon saw the images. They were making postcards for Zadar so we organised to shoot new photos in the same location, based on the same idea, and this time the photographer was Željko Karavida.”

That initial spontaneous impulse led to this iconic image being used in the campaign to rebuild not only the city of Zadar, but also Croatia itself, in the wake of the Homeland War. “This photo went worldwide: Australia, Canada, all over Europe, even in Japan” says Sanja. “I wasn’t thinking about its future back then, but until this day it has been shown many times in Zadar and reproduced in various magazines, newspaper and other media.”

And if she could go back in time and speak to her old self in that moment, Sanja would simply say: “Just be brave, and don’t compromise!” she smiles.

Sanja Petrovski in 2018 © Jane Hobson
Sanja Petrovski in 2018
© Jane Hobson

I ask Sanja what happened over these last 27 years. “I still work at the school,” she says. “Many of my students graduated from dance academies and made successful careers abroad. My daughter is a contemporary dancer in Slovenia, my son is a lighting designer in a theatre and the other son is a movie editor… they are all artists. Together with a friend, Nives Šimatović Predovan, who died 15 years ago, I started Zadar Dance Ensemble, the oldest contemporary dance ensemble in Dalmatia. We created around 50 plays with more than 40 choreographies of mine, countless productions and performances. I’ve also started the contemporary dance festival Monoplay with my student and friend Petra Hrašćanec, and organized many exhibitions on the history of dance art in Croatia. We also organise an evening where everyone on the dance scene of Zadar gathers, the Dance Miniatures Evening, and the celebrations of International Dance Day. I’m working a lot, enjoying it for the most part and having fun, progressing and maturing in every way.”

Not dissimilar ages (Sanja was 33, I was 26 at the time) it made me wonder how I would have responded to the terror and destruction. And I was struck by how (relatively) quickly city structures recover – if not people: PTSD of survivors of this period is a huge issue in the country. Having seen the “during”, I wanted to show the “after”, how Zadar, as well as Sanja's career, had come through this and blossomed.

Sanja Petrovski dancing in the Rector's Palace: in 1991 (left) and 2018 (right) © Željko Karavida (left)  |  Jane Hobson (right)
Sanja Petrovski dancing in the Rector's Palace: in 1991 (left) and 2018 (right)
© Željko Karavida (left) | Jane Hobson (right)

Retracing the steps of Sanja and Željko, 27 years later almost to the day, Sanja and I started taking photos in the same room of the Rector’s Palace. Now pristine, and lacking in the natural light from the high windows, the room was definitely the same, but very different in look and feel. Now set up as a concert room, with fixed curtains on the windows as blackout, it wasn’t the same aesthetic. But why would it be? And why should it be? Nothing stays the same, but we can remember. And our memories were helped by Sanja serendipitously finding the original slides as she was preparing her costume for the shoot!

“Repeating the photos in a space that has been renewed, wearing the same white leotard and pointe shoes reminded me that I am 7 kg heavier, that I haven’t worn a leotard for a while now, and that I actually don’t remember when was the last time I wore my pointe shoes,” smiles Sanja “But also the fact that there is still someone interested in this made me happy.”

“Truth be told, I was excited when I did my hair and make-up today,” she adds. “I was wondering what changed, when in fact, I’m still the same person as the one I was back then, 7kg lighter, in a devastated hall, expecting it all to end well! Because creativity, art, and will – at least in my case – don’t give up. Those are things that go beyond time and space.”

Sanja Petrovski dancing in the Rector's Palace: in 1991 (left) and 2018 (right) © Željko Karavida (left)  |  Jane Hobson (right)
Sanja Petrovski dancing in the Rector's Palace: in 1991 (left) and 2018 (right)
© Željko Karavida (left) | Jane Hobson (right)