From Classic to Contemporary Dance
By Goda Dapšytė
The Lithuanian ballet, like the theatre in Lithuania, has already entered its second century, however, the contemporary dance scene in the country is still relatively young, which is probably why it has been changing rapidly and constantly. Although the infrastructure and funding system is still developing, this field sees new choreographers debut every year, new creative collectives get formed and troupes and dance theatres get established. When endeavouring to review the map of Lithuanian theatre, we tend to start from the directors, who migrate from one theatre to another. In the case of ballet, it is usually state musical theatres in three major Lithuanian cities that form the centre. In reviewing the contemporary Lithuanian dance scene, we should start by talking about troupes or dance theatres formed by choreographers and dance studios operating alongside them, because contemporary dance in the country (as opposed to ballet) is an almost exclusively independent field of art, driven forward by the work of independent creators and initiatives of independent organisations.
According to Vita Mozūraitė, one of the first critics of contemporary dance in Lithuania, the transition from classical ballet to modern, contemporary dance was as long and painful in Lithuania as in the rest of Europe. Like the development, content and form of professional drama theatre in the early 20th century, the formation of dance as an independent field of art at the beginning of the 19th century in Lithuania was also determined by two main influences: that of ethnic culture informed by the romantic worldview, related to the search for national identity, and professional experience brought from abroad. Only if in the case of theatre that influence came primarily from Russia, dance was influenced from Germany.
The origins of contemporary dance in Lithuania are based on the work of the pioneer of expression dance Danutė Nasvytytė and the rhythmic gymnastics studio she founded, which operated in interwar Kaunas. Nasvytytė studied at the Jutta Klamt Dance School in Germany, and after returning to Kaunas, gave her first performance in 1939. Later she founded a studio, which, according to the press of that time, was attended by a couple of hundred Kaunas ladies. The studio offered classes in rhythmic gymnastics and German expression dance.
During the Soviet occupation (1940–1990), all manifestations of modern art in the country were suppressed, and only two forms of dance were tolerated: classical ballet and standardised folk dance. After Danutė Nasvytyte left for Germany and later for Australia, her student Kira Katerina Daujotaitė took over leading the dance collective and continued the traditions of expression dance in Kaunas. However, the repertoire of the studio Sonata, which she founded in 1969, also included a number of pieces based on Lithuanian folk dances, therefore the influence of German expression dance decreased over the years. According to the choreographer and graduate of the Sonata studio Birutė Letukaitė, such stylistic direction could be described ad ‘ethnic expression dance’. It is worth noting that due to various constraints in the Soviet era, the studio could only exist by steering clear from crossing the boundaries of amateurism.
In Soviet times, the only acceptable marker of professionalism was a university degree. Expression, modern or other branches of contemporary dance were not taught in the USSR, where, it would not be wrong to say, contemporary dance was not even considered as art. As a result, there was no path to ‘professionalism’. In addition to that, the opportunity to express abstract, unwritten ideas through movement was a cause for concern to Soviet censorship, which also contributed to the constraints on the professionalisation of dance, which was showing the first signs of becoming more modern. In this way, the pioneering choreographers of contemporary dance, now belonging to the oldest generation of dance artists, came to the professional stage from the amateur field.
The first manifestations of modernisation on the professional ballet scene could be glimpsed in the early 1970s. The performances Passions (Aistros, 1971) and Eglė the Queen of Serpents (Eglė žalčių karalienė, 1976) created by Elegijus Bukaitis at the Lithuanian Opera and Ballet Theatre could be considered the first non-classical ballet performances on the professional stage. According to Bukaitis’ contemporaries, the performances attracted a lot of criticism, while the choreographer was reproached for introducing new forms of dance that were undesirable during the Soviet era.
The new choreographic ideas were also influenced by the tours of world-renowned choreographers in Soviet Lithuania which at that time was isolated from the creative processes happening abroad, especially in Western countries. For example, Paul Taylor’s dance troupe visited Vilnius in 1978, and Marice Béjart’s Ballet of the 20th Century in 1987.
After Lithuania regained its independence, the first teachers from abroad started to come to Lithuania as soon as in 1991. Their workshops attended by dancers, choreographers, ballet masters and dance educators from different backgrounds became the first hub for dancers working with contemporary dance in the newly free country.
However, perhaps the greatest influence on the development of contemporary dance was brought on by the activities of the Lithuanian Dance Information Centre established in 1995 as a private initiative. In addition to collecting and disseminating information about dance, as expected from such type of organisation, for many years the centre has been actively producing new works by Lithuanian choreographers and has been engaged in dance education. The springboard for contemporary independent Lithuanian choreography became The New Dance Project (Naujojo šokio projektas) organised by the centre in 1996, where a dozen works by Lithuanian choreographers were presented. Until then, it was hard to imagine that contemporary dance in Lithuania actually existed or had any potential. Thus, the project became the basis for the further development of contemporary Lithuanian dance.
Since 1997, the Lithuanian Dance Information Centre has been organising the largest international contemporary dance festival in the Baltic States New Baltic Dance (Naujasis Baltijos šokis). This annual festival has brought such dance stars to Lithuania as La La La Human Steps (Canada), Cullbergballet (Sweden), Carte Blanche (Norway), Aterballetto (Italy), Kibbutz Contemporary Dance Company (Israel), Random Dance Company (UK), Ballet de Lorraine (France) and many more. It was also due to the initiative of the centre that the Lithuanian audience could get acquainted with the work of Pina Bausch (Germany). For the first two decades, under the direction of Audronis Imbras (1997–2017), New Baltic Dance was the main panorama of contemporary dance available for the Lithuanian dance-lovers and dance community, presenting the latest trends in choreography and contemporary dance from various countries, international dance stars alongside emerging artists, as well as new dance forms. In addition to that, for many years the festival acted as the main platform for presenting Lithuanian choreographers both to the local audience and to international producers. When the festival, which started from a group of just over ten dance artists, celebrated its twentieth anniversary, more than sixty names of Lithuanian creators who took part in it were mentioned. Gintarė Masteikaitė, who took over the management of the centre and the festival a few years ago, has adopted a strategy based on curation, social sensitivity and the search for young talent. This change in the principle behind the festival’s programme partly reflects the changes in the contemporary dance scene in Lithuania. Dance creators are becoming more and more independent, the ties with choreographers and dancers of Lithuanian origin working in foreign countries are growing stronger, which stimulates the exchange of ideas and creative work, while troupes and choreographers increasingly present their work abroad (in 2016–2018, Lithuanian contemporary dance troupes and theatres presented their work 450 times and travelled to more than 30 countries). Representing Lithuania at international events and fairs, and attending to the dissemination of the work of Lithuanian choreographers and troupes have also always been and remain some of the most important activities of the Lithuanian Dance Information Centre.
The university training of professional contemporary dancers in Lithuania began in 1998 when the Lithuanian Academy of Music and Theatre offered a study programme for actors-dancers for the first time. A little over a decade ago, the students of the Ballet Department of the National M. K. Čiurlionis School of Art also got the opportunity to choose contemporary dance as a speciality.
Thus, at present, the contemporary dance hub in Lithuania is divided between Vilnius, Kaunas and Klaipėda. There is at least one professional contemporary dance studio in all three cities, study programmes for dancers and choreographers are offered at their respective universities and each of the cities has an international festival (New Baltic Dance in Vilnius, Aura in Kaunas and Platform in Klaipėda) that presents contemporary dance performances. There are over ten independent and two municipal dance troupes, and three state musical theatres in Lithuania, as well as a dozen of independent choreographers.
Although, as in many countries, the centre of contemporary dance is still concentrated in the capital, the oldest dance theatre operates in the second-largest city in Lithuania, Kaunas. Kaunas Municipal Dance Theatre Aura was founded in 1979 by the choreographer Birutė Letukaitė, a student of the Sonata studio, who continues and develops the traditions of contemporary dance in this city. Since 1989, the dance theatre Aura has been organising the international dance festival under the same name, and some of the best Lithuanian dancers have been trained in the studio that operates alongside the theatre. The theatre regularly collaborates with visiting foreign choreographers and thus creates a strong and diverse repertoire that has received more than fifty municipal, national and international awards. Importantly, Aura became the first dance theatre in Lithuania to work with an international dancer troupe.
The first Lithuanian creator of contemporary dance to receive official acclaim is the choreographer Aira Naginevičiūtė, who won the National Culture and Arts Prize of the Ministry of Culture in 2003. She acquired the foundations of dance at the Sonata studio in Kaunas, and later graduated in the pedagogy of choreography in Klaipėda. She creates large-scale, complex dance performances which, according to dance critic Vita Mozūraitė, are the closest to dance theatre. Since 1998, she teaches at the Lithuanian Academy of Music and Theatre, where she is a professor at the Department of Dance and Movement. In 2013, the choreographer founded the dance theatre AIROS, where she works together with her former students.
Choreographer and teacher Vytis Jankauskas, who was the first to come to contemporary dance from street dance (breakdancing), for many years remained loyal to pure dance: his focused, aesthetic, thought-through to the finest detail, philosophical dance performances each time formulated clear yet open questions. In recent years, the choreographer has been increasingly focusing on social critique in his performances, leaning towards movement analysis. Founded in 1997, Vytis Jankauskas Dance Theatre did not limit itself to artistic and creative activities but, in cooperation with other non-governmental organisations, initiated and carried out various educational projects in Lithuania and abroad. For many years, there has been a professional contemporary dance studio operating alongside the theatre, which has trained many great dancers, popularised contemporary dance and brought up the young generation of dancers and dance lovers. Currently, Jankauskas teaches at the Lithuanian Academy of Music and Theatre, where he is an associate professor at the Department of Dance and Movement, and continues to create dance performances.
Choreographer and teacher Birutė Banevičiūtė was the first to obtain a PhD in dance education (social sciences) with her dissertation titled “Development of dance skills in early adolescence”. Not surprisingly, her recent creative period is dedicated to children and youth. She became the first choreographer in Lithuania to create dance performances for babies. Her dance theatre Dansema, founded in 2007, has been developing the culture of professional contemporary dance for young audiences: it produces professional contemporary dance performances for children, attends to promoting them in Lithuania and abroad and organises workshops for dancers, choreographers and dance teachers.
The first generation of choreographers who graduated abroad returned to Lithuania in 2005–2006. Loreta Juodkaitė, a graduate of the Salzburg Experimental Academy of Dance (SEAD) in Austria gifted with exceptional plastic expression, was noticed by dance critics and producers as soon as she returned to Lithuania. She quickly gained audience admiration, and her debut performance received the highest performing arts award, the Golden Cross of the Stage. Seeking to create independent productions, she founded the Lora Juodkaitė Dance Theatre in 2013, however, in recent years she has mostly danced and performed abroad.
Lina Puodžiukaitė, who graduated from the Master’s programme at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts and Hollins University/American Dance Festival, brought to Lithuania the traditions of modern American dance. Upon her return, Puodžiukaitė worked for a while at Kaunas Dance Theatre Aura and later headed the Ballet Department of the National M. K. Čiurlionis School of Art, as well as the Contemporary Dance Association. Currently, she teaches at the Lithuanian Academy of Music and Theatre.
Choreographer Agnija Šeiko returned to her hometown of Klaipėda following her studies at the Codarts Rotterdam (former Dance Academy) in the Netherlands. In less than a decade, the Šeiko Dance Theatre, located in the port city, has become a contemporary dance troupe with the most diverse repertoire in Lithuania. The dance theatre founded by Šeiko, which grew from the group of artists titled Fish Eye (Žuvies akis), which has been operating for more than fifteen years, unites a collective of dancers and choreographers who actively create the diverse character of Šeiko dance theatre. Apart from performances of the conventional form, the repertoire of this theatre also includes sight-specific performances-excursions, dance performances for children, as well as immersion theatre works. Šeiko’s work is characterised by interdisciplinarity: by collaborating with sculptors, video artists, composers, performers from various fields of art, the choreographer expands the concept of performance space and enriches choreography with a unique fusion of movement and objects and movement and heritage, thus creating a distinctive aesthetic world complemented with subtle humour and attention to detail. Alongside Šeiko, troupe dancers and choreographers of the young generation Inga Kuznecova, Darius Berulis, Niels Claes, Lithuanian choreographers living abroad Ugnė Dievaitė and Vilma Pirtrinaitė, as well as visiting foreign choreographers work in this dance theatre.
In 2017, a dance troupe was awarded the title of Vilnius City Dance Theatre, which was an unprecedented occurrence. This title was gained by one of the youngest professional dance theatres in the country, Low Air. This urban dance theatre was founded after the successful debut of the duo Feel Link (2011) by choreographers Airida Gudaitė and Laurynas Žakevičius. That was the first attempt in Lithuania to combine the aesthetics of street and contemporary dance on a professional stage. Low Air creates a wide variety of repertoire: from stage to open-air dance compositions and actions. The dance studio, operating alongside the theatre, is an active hub for the community interested in dance, performs social functions and is bringing up a new generation of dance artists.
The next generation
The youngest generation of the creators is yet to form larger troupes or theatres, and have so far been creating as independent choreographers or in small groups. The latest examples are the trio of dancers and choreographers Marius Pinigis, Marius Paplauskas and Andrius Stakelė as Kaunas’ Nuipiko and the duo of Agnietė Lisičkinaitė and Greta Grinevičiūtė as Without Company (Be kompanijos) in Vilnius. Another part of the young generation of dance artists (regardless of whether they create in troupes or otherwise) chooses to balance residing in various foreign countries with creative projects in Lithuania.
The young generation of Lithuanian ballet and contemporary dance creators is undoubtedly looking for new paths and a new language of expression. If in ballet they move further and further away from the linear narrative, in contemporary dance they increasingly rely on word and image, as performances are complemented by text, monologues and vivid dialogues of movement with action on the video screen. They tend to reflect on the surrounding world, tackle various social topics and particularly difficult themes, do not shy away from humour and political statements, and are less inclined to indulge in deep, general philosophical reflections typical of the first generation of independent Lithuanian choreographers.
Although contemporary Lithuanian dance is developing rapidly and becoming more professional, it would be a little early to define the national features of choreography as this field has only existed for a few decades and its development is just beginning to gain momentum. Contemporary dance school in Lithuania is still forming by absorbing ever new influences, while the professional dance scene exists in a mode of creative high and low tides. However, despite the competition with the drama theatre that enjoys deep tradition, due to the activities of international festivals, dance studios active for many years, the Lithuanian Dance Information Centre and independent troupes, contemporary dance artists have not only put themselves on the Lithuanian performing arts map but also developed a permanent audience that has high expectations for them.