When Radenko Pavlovich was eight years old, he stood before a panel of ten people who looked him up and down. They stretched his legs in all directions and had him blow into a tube to check his lung capacity. They brought in his parents so they could speculate as to what physique Radenko may resemble at a mature age. As he stood there in tiny black shorts, the communist government of Yugoslavia decided that Radenko was, indeed, fit to pursue ballet.
Today, the Columbia Classical Ballet recruits exquisite dancers from around the world to display their talent in our city — all thanks to that boy in those tiny black shorts. His appearance has changed quite a bit, but his love for ballet has not. Radenko’s journey to Columbia has been a wild ride of ups and downs, all of which has made him the man he is today — a man who loves life and the art that he brings into it.
On the exterior, Radenko is a humble, quiet man whose slim, muscular physique hints to the life he lived on stage. Beneath the surface, he is a man who was once singled out from his entire country to attend a prestigious dance academy in Russia. He is also the son of a top military general, whom he devastated when he escaped Yugoslavia’s mandatory army service to pursue ballet. His mother, a neurosurgeon who hated communism, has remained close to him throughout his life.
“I can’t imagine going through life doing something I don’t love,” he says. “I was lucky and blessed to have my mother. She didn’t understand me but she always supported me.”
Radenko arrived in New York City on the Fourth of July in 1979. He knew immediately that there was something about America and the country’s sense of freedom to express oneself artistically that he loved.
“I can’t explain it,” he says. “It’s something that you have here that’s missing there — it’s an energy. Here, if you really wanted, you can make something of yourself. It’s hard to say what it is because you can’t measure desire.”
Radenko “accidentally” found his way to the South in 1980 by showing up to a class that turned out to be an audition for the Atlanta City Ballet. Radenko refers to his time in Atlanta as “an amazing time in my life.” In 1984, he returned to Yugoslavia for the first time in five years.
“After a month in Yugoslavia, I said I’m going back home (to America),” he says. “This shocked me. This was the first time I referred to America as home.”
Two years after realizing America was “home,” Radenko was offered a job in Columbia that meant teaching, not dancing. His first impression of Columbia was during dinner at Goatfeathers — he then knew there was something special about this city. He decided to leave the stage in order to search his soul and teach in Columbia.
“I wanted to leave the stage on my own terms,” he says. “There are too many old men and old women dragging themselves across the stage. Can you imagine someone forty playing Romeo and Juliet? Juliet is supposed to be 16! Some do it but it looks idiotic. You always want to get off before someone chases you off.”
In 1991, the Pavlovich Dance School was born. Eventually, Radenko realized that his school alone could not fill the void missing from Columbia’s cultural community and in July of 1998, he founded the Columbia Classical Ballet.
Radenko has indeed given Columbia’s cultural community something new to look at through the Columbia Classical Ballet. The sole interest of the organization is to present ballet in its true art form. He believes there is nothing more beautiful than the human body; as he puts it, these dancers are athletes and their craft is visual art. Radenko also believes the ballet has had a domino effect on the standards of other Columbia organizations.
“Guess what? If another business opens up, it forces other organizations to step up,” he says. “It makes them get their stuff together, almost like an evolution. We have changed ballet in Columbia without a question. We have given Columbia an opportunity to see exactly what you can find on the stages of London or Paris.”
Dancers from places such as Cuba, Japan, Hungary, Italy, Argentina and Ukraine have all come to Columbia to follow their dreams at the Columbia Classical Ballet. This path was paved many years ago by a young man who left Yugoslavia to follow the American Dream.
“We curved where Columbia is going,” he says. “We’ve given the city fresh blood. Without the arts there is no life.”