Dragan Klaic obituary

The suspicion of intellectuals in the British performing arts runs deep, so it is hard to appreciate exactly the status and reputation throughout the rest of Europe of the theatre scholar and cultural commentator Dragan Klaic, who has died aged 61 after a long illness. He enlivened any meeting or symposium he attended, arguing profoundly, in nine languages, as a tireless advocate of European cultural collaboration, leading complex international research projects and producing books, papers and lectures in a restless torrent of activity.

He was without equal as an arts conceptualist in Europe because of his background, intellect and energy. But all his theorising was based in theatrical activity and practical involvement; he was nomadic in both temperament and ideology, having left Belgrade in disgust as the wars began in 1991, to settle in Amsterdam, where he led the city’s theatre institute for 10 years.

Klaic, an only child, was born in Sarajevo, in Yugoslavia, of Jewish parents. He was raised in Novi Sad. He graduated in dramaturgy in Belgrade and took a doctorate in theatre history and criticism at Yale, before returning to Belgrade, where he was a professor at the university from 1978 to 1991. He co-founded the European theatre quarterly Euromaske before going to the Netherlands.

From an early age, he saw theatre as a means of healing fractured communities and promoting international cooperation. This led to his decisive participation in many festivals, notably the Belgrade international theatre fest ival (Bitef), founded by Mira Trailovic and Jovan Cirilov in 1967.

At this time in the cold war, theatre in the former Yugoslavia was both developing its own voice and acting as a bridge between the explosions in the western counterculture and the reconsideration of Slav and Russian classical traditions. Bitef became a crucible for the kind of cultural exchanges Klaic relished, with the participation of important figures such as Peter Brook, Jerzy Grotowski, Jan Kott, Yuri Lyubimov, Eugenio Barba, Robert Wilson and Andrej Wajda.

As Cirilov has written, Klaic channel- led all his knowledge in a living reality, and in the context of world theatre as a whole. He became a spokesman of the dedicated, radical theatre emerging in Subotica, north of Belgrade, near the Hungarian border, as part of a group including the leading director Ljubiša Ristic. He was theatre critic on the main Belgrade broadsheet, Politika, from 1982 to 1984, but he cast his net too wide to be contained on a mere newspaper.

He taught at Amsterdam University and, over the past 10 years, lectured regularly as a visiting professor at universities in Leiden, Budapest, Istanbul, Belgrade and Bologna. As a permanent fellow of the Felix Meritis foundation, he was involved in projects aimed at preserving cultural heritage and developing policy at local and national level. Always, for him, good theatre was to do with good citizenship.

At a conference in Novi Sad in 2007, he memorably questioned the whole idea of a national theatre, advocating a more focused programme attached both to diverse local constituencies and creative peers across Europe. In 2004 he launched the European Festivals Research Project and was more recently one of the main consultants, with Rose Fenton, founding director of the London International Festival of Theatre, in the preparation for the candidacy of the Polish city of Lublin for the European Cultural Capital in 2016, although the nomination went in the end to Wrocław.

Klaic, generally known as “Klaja”, was a loyal friend, and a hero to countless colleagues, students and practitioners. He is survived by his wife, Julia, a psycho- analyst specialising in refugee trauma, their daughter, Nora, and by his mother, who still lives in Novi Sad.

Dragan Klaic, theatre scholar and cultural analyst, born 27 April 1950; died 25 August 2011

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