What is the Lithuanian contemporary dance about?

Ingrida Gerbutavičiūtė 2014 12 19 Lietuvos scena, 2013
Finger Food Improvisations by the pupils of the National M.K.Čiurlionis School of Arts. Photo by Dmitrij Matvejev
Finger Food Improvisations by the pupils of the National M.K.Čiurlionis School of Arts. Photo by Dmitrij Matvejev

When describing the notion of dance the words theatre and/or music arise inevitably. It is hard to deny - dance is indeed closely related to theatre and music; however, speaking about the art of dance both in Lithuania and abroad the independence of dance from theatre or music must still sometimes be proved and not only to the viewers of television entertainment, but often to the players of the culture field, too. There are numerous examples illustrating this in Lithuania, e.g. dance is still "nestled" under the same roof as theatre in the Lithuanian Academy of Music and Theatre, whereas in the ballet performance annotations of the Lithuanian Opera and Ballet Theatre, the name of a composer is still indicated first and the name of a choreographer goes next, thus, highlighting the dependence of dance on music.

Looking at the Lithuanian dance and theatre tendencies (disregarding the differences in the development of both art branches) there is some consolation in the fact that, contrary to our theatre and theatricals, Lithuanian dance does not look back on Russia. Of course there is a simple explanation to that - modern dance that subsequently grew into postmodern and contemporary dance had come into being as an opposition to a strongly canonised classical ballet, while the Russian ballet school as one of the strongest schools of classical ballet and one of its nurturers has never been of any interest to the enthusiasts of contemporary dance (it is true, though that the works of such renown contemporary dance choreographers as Sasha Waltz, Angelin Preljoçaj, Nacho Duato and etc. staged at the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow and the Mariinsky Theatre in Saint Petersburg should not be underestimated). Yet the situation with theatre is slightly different. Even though new theatrical expressions have also arrived as a response to the well-established forms, an undeniable psychological contribution to theatre renewal at the beginning of the 20th century by such Russian directors as Constantin Stanislavski and Vsevolod Meyerhold still remains a unique theatre classics. If a parallel was drawn between theatre and dance, these two theatre creators could be compared to such modern dance originators as Isadora Duncan and Martha Graham. Nonetheless, if the dance and theatre tendencies of those times were generalised, certain trends of differing creative ideas would be traced, i.e. when at the end of the 18th - the beginning of the 19th centuries ballet was permeated with romantic images, theatre was head over ears into Realism, whereas when the theatre avant-garde moved to Symbolism, dance modernists turned to Naturalism addressing the views and real experiences of those days. Naturally, dance also grew interested in the Symbolism of those times (e.g. Triadic Ballet by Oskar Schlemmer, 1922) as well as in Abstractionism (e.g. Lamentation by Martha Graham, 1930) but it always remained one step behind the theatre reforms or, in other words, was developing independently from theatre.

Creative ideas and working conditions

I get confused when foreign dance community representatives ask me what contemporary Lithuanian dance is or what our dance artists speak about on the stage. I do not want to stammer trying to embellish too obvious choreographic ideas with seemingly disguised or invisible at first sight ideas of art philosophy and psychoanalytic aesthetics. I do not want to tell that Lithuanian dance is too immersed in self-examination and does not wish to or is incapable of opening itself to globally important political, economic and social topics, or that the criticism of our choreographers is merely a little air bubble in a gigantic ocean of dance. Nevertheless, when speaking, I always come to a conclusion that there is nothing to complain about as we do have an entire dance range, i.e. ballet, neoclassical (commercial) dance, "pure" contemporary dance, dance theatre, physical dance theatre with butoh elements, conceptual dance, street dance, commercial dance conveying slapstick-style stories and contemporary dance for children and youth. In other words, it is not as bad as it seems and there is no need to dramatize. Yet in this case, I would consider dramatization as the raising of an artistic quality bar that an artist could accept as a challenge.

If we look at the dance of the past several years, we will notice that our choreographers are mainly interested in the following three subjects: inner states related to existential human experiences, male and female identities and the topics of myths, rituals and religion. The first subject of self-examination is characteristic of numerous creators. At this point, it would also be possible to claim that psychoanalytic aesthetics is the motor of any work of art. It is just that by some it is clearly revealed, exposed and transferred on the stage without further interpretation, whereas the others depict it as an inspiration to take up broader sociocultural themes. In the landscape of Lithuanian dance, inner states are analysed by the choreographers of both the older (e.g. Vytis Jankauskas, Aira Naginevičiūtė, Birutė Letukaitė) and the younger (e.g. Erika Vizbaraitė, Edita Stundytė, Giedrė Ubartaitė) generations; however, the former closely associate inner senses with existential questions, whereas the latter tend to remain within the realm of homogeneous feelings.

Vytis Jankauskas, a choreographer and one of the founders of contemporary dance in Lithuania, could be referred to as a dance poet - movements and their combinations rather than dancers become the characters of a performance, whereas absolute musicality and "gentle" lighting design render his performances the shape of a poem. Through dance performances the choreographer speaks about self-perception, spiritual human life and existential experiences (e.g. Message, 2007; Vigil, 2008; Flames above the Cold Mountain, 2010). If compared to poetic dance in the European context, Vytis Jankauskas could be correlated to Jiří Kylián, a Czech choreographer and the former artistic director of the Nederlands Dans Theater (NDT), involved in the creation of meditative neoclassical and contemporary dance poems. Of course, the dance styles, working methods as well as creative possibilities of both choreographers are completely different and only the lyrical atmosphere conveyed by their performances can be compared. If we looked for the essential diversities, we would end up at the educational background of both creators - Vytis Jankauskas entered contemporary dance from the world of break dance, whereas Jiří Kylián, who had studied at Ballet School in Prague, subsequently acquired higher education in dance at Royal Ballet School in London.

As regards another prominent creator of Lithuanian contemporary dance - choreographer Aira Naginevičiūtė, a parallel could be drawn between our artist and Pina Bausch, the famous founder of the German dance theatre (Tantztheater). Yet again, the parallel is highly relative. While creating performances about an inner human world and authentic experiences, both women refer to the individuality, personal practices and free improvisational expression of dancers. Yet the desperation typical of Aira Naginevičiūtė dance art is more similar to the aesthetics of the Japanese butoh dance than to the dance theatre of Pina Bausch that analyses love, longing and the joy of life. Irrespective of the differences in the education of both choreographers, numerous diversities in the circumstances of their creative work can also be traced. For example, the German choreographer was invited to work as the director of the Ballet Department of the Wuppertal city theatre, where she formed her own company of dancers subsidised by the city of Wuppertal, whereas Aira Naginevičiūtė established her dance theatre AIRA only this year and the majority of her performances acknowledged by both the Lithuanian audience and critics (e.g. Pregnant Silence, 2004; EGO and ID, 2006; The Moon Doesn't Pay Attention to Barking Dogs, 2008) had been staged with the dance students of the Lithuanian Academy of Music and Theatre.

The career path of choreographer Vytis Jankauskas does not differ much. The Vytis Jankauskas Dance Company was set up in 1997 and became the professional dance theatre only in 2008. Thus, a certain duality of the problem can be traced. On the one hand, we do not have a strong tradition, which would ensure the activity of ballet or dance companies in state theatres. It is true, though, that this fact can also be interpreted in an ambivalent way - the Kaunas and Klaipėda Musical Theatres have their ballet companies; however, the "soviet" opinion that a dance company should at least be able to perform neoclassical dance is still prevalent in state theatres. On the other hand, Lithuania is neither Germany that takes pride in multiple state theatres nor France that has national choreographic centres (Centre choréographique nacional). As the result, it is not surprising that due to the absence of a favourable infrastructure (up to the 21st century, contemporary dance was considered as amateur art in Lithuania and only since 2004 the highest theatre award - the Golden Stage Cross - has been granted not only to the creators and performers of ballet and neoclassical dance  but also to those of  contemporary dance) our choreographers have been choosing the status of a freelance artist, which, having become a norm in the West, has also become the only creative path of numerous choreographers.

The longest existing Kaunas dance company Aura has been more fortunate - the company has received the status of a professional dance theatre in 1995 and has since remained the only municipal dance theatre in Lithuania. Artistic director of the theatre Birutė Letukaitė has created both performances of pure dance composed of broad movements radiating with power (e.g. Extremum mobile, 2001; Aseptic Zone or Lithuanian Songs, 2004) and those based on social (e.g. Medea, 2011) and ecological (e.g. The Sea, 2012) issues specially for Aura. The choreographer could be playfully compared with such prominent dance figures as Americans William Forsythe and Meg Stuart. Again, I would like to remind that such a comparison is merely atmospheric, i.e. the focus on wide strides and broad motions in the early works of Birutė Letukaitė and William Forsythe as well as the visualization of the body as a reflection of a society in the works of Birutė Letukaitė and Meg Stuart are atmospherically similar.

The trends of the aesthetic ideas and the creative weight or artistic works can in a way be explained by this slightly exaggerated and idealised comparison of the Lithuanian choreographers of the older generation with world-renown choreographers as well as by different education possibilities and working conditions of Lithuanian and foreign choreographers. Nevertheless, attention should also be paid to the works and the relevance of the artistic idea of the younger generation choreographers who have acquired dance education both in Lithuanian and foreign higher education institutions.

The next generation of choreographers

Choreographer Rūta Butkus, who has acquired the specialty of contemporary dance at Lithuanian Academy of Music and Theatre, creates pure dance theatre and intertwines the aforementioned themes in her works, e.g. inner experiences (The Feast, 2010), existential truths (5g of Hope, 2012) and religious images (Lost Eyes, 2012). Even though the performances of Rūta Butkus are powerful, they sometimes tend to slide into an opaque thickness of symbols and metaphors, where, having failed to find the way out, a spectator sticks to a stereotypically prevalent opinion, which states that contemporary dance performances are incomprehensible. Yet it is paradoxical that, having grown up in the tradition of metaphoric Lithuanian theatre, the Lithuanian audience gets confused when, all of a sudden, linguistic expression is substituted with kinaesthetic one. It is also paradoxical that during the project Crossing Lithuania (2012) such a country as the Netherlands, which is considered to be one of the strongest representatives of pure dance in the world, received the Rūta Butkus Dance Theatre as a gulp of fresh air. Is this a mere reverse proportion - we value most something we do not have?

Choreographer Agnija Šeiko residing in Klaipėda graduated from Rotterdam Dance Academy, where she was granted the Bachelor's Degree in Choreography. The choreographer is also not afraid of theatrical expression; however, is more orientated towards the identity of a man (No Space at the Parking Lot, 2012) and a woman (Prayers of a Silly Girl, 2010; Juliets, 2012) encoded in dance. Moreover, Agnija Šeiko is the only Lithuanian choreographer who openly questions philosophical ideas of such prominent thinkers as Friedrich Nietzsche and Jean Baudrillard. One of undisputed creative achievements of Agnija Šeiko is an artistic genre of dance opera that came into being in the Lithuanian dance landscape after several joint artistic projects (Isadora, 2009; Wasted Land, 2011) together with composer and opera soloist Jonas Sakalauskas. In the global context, German choreographer Sasha Walts is considered as one of the pioneers of dance opera but she synthesises contemporary dance with Baroque operas, whereas contemporary dance and contemporary opera compilations by Agnija Šeiko are supplemented with details of various dance and music styles.

One more choreographer favoured by the Lithuanian public is Loreta Juodkaitė who produces dance performances based on mythological stories (Salamander Dream. Picture, 2006; Sybil, 2008) and the ones permeated with the atmosphere of the Middle East (Prayer in the Sand, 2009). An interesting fact is that initially, having graduated from Salzburg Experimental Academy of Dance (SEAD), Loreta Juodkaitė chose an experimental path of the synthesis between contemporary dance and jazz music; however, the interest in the aesthetics of myths and rituals brought her back to the origins of modern dance. From the point of view of both ideology and expression, our choreographer could be referred to as "the Lithuanian Isadora Duncan" or "the Lithuanian Martha Graham." Unfortunately, the return to the roots of dance has noticeably pushed the Lithuanian contemporary dance back to the early decades of the previous century. You might say this is debatable as currently the European dance history is being archived live via conceptual contemporary dance performances. Even though it is true, European choreographers choose the history of dance as the starting point of critical reflections, whereas Loreta Juodkaitė directs her creative idea to the past rather than the future by exaggeratedly sacralising art.

Dance school

It is not easy to speak about the history of Lithuanian contemporary dance and its school as on the one hand, the dance history goes back to the 1930s when, having completed her studies in expressive dance at Jutta Klamt School in Germany, Danutė Nasvytytė established the first dance studio called at that time The Studio of Rhythmic Gymnastics and Art in Kaunas, in 1939; on the other hand, contemporary dance as a specialty was first introduced in the institutions of higher education in the Lithuanian Academy of Music and Theatre, in 1998, when the bachelor's course of actors-dancers of Anželika Cholina  was assembled. Such a gap in the education extending for nearly six decades seems to be logical. From one standpoint, dance had to develop and grow gradually, had to reach a proper level of professionalism and only then, upon demand, to look for realistic education possibilities. Yet from the other standpoint, more rapid development of contemporary dance was being interrupted by the Soviet Union, which rejected the aesthetics of modern art due to ambiguities in censorship. That is why dance (just like all the other branches of modern art) was ordained to the league of the amateur and could only survive under the disguise of decorative folk dance elements.

It took eight years following the restoration of independence for contemporary dance as a separate professional art branch to take root in the cultural landscape and to form demand for contemporary dance studies in higher education institutions. It is true, though, that the Contemporary Dance specialty introduced in the Lithuanian Academy of Music and Theatre in 1998 was twofold, i.e. the course assembled by Anželika Cholina was referred to as "actors-dancers" and the students were mingling between the two different disciplines. Nevertheless, we do have strong theatre traditions and, therefore, we should not be surprised that theatre often stands as the starting point. To illustrate, even the study programme of the currently established bachelor's and master's qualification degrees offering specialization in contemporary dance is referred to as "Acting" and graduates are granted with the Bachelor's or Master's Degrees in Theatre and Film. Another problem related to the dance studies at the Lithuanian Academy of Music and Theatre is that the future specialty is not clearly defined. For example, the first year students of the bachelor's and master's degrees were being prepared to be dancers, whereas in their theses almost all of them chose the role of a choreographer. Now, the academy concentrates on the preparation of contemporary dance performers and yet again we come to a dead end. On the one hand, students should study foreign choreography techniques and a certain repertoire that comprise obligatory dance study modules in foreign universities and art academies; on the other hand, they should also study physically and flawlessly the development of Lithuanian dance. At the moment, they do neither this nor that, whereas the academy, still looking at the theatre study tradition, gives the "technical" preparation of students solely into the hands of the head of the course. How can a contemporary dance performer, who should control his or her body perfectly and perform any dance technique included in the programme meticulously, later work with different choreographers and various (perhaps even foreign) dance companies, if he or she has only been taught to have a one-track mind? That explains why compared to the global context Lithuania continues to produce often monochromatic and not critical enough (i.e. leaving the political and social "nerve" overboard) dance performances that reflect a too obviously defined (maybe shaped?) outlook of a creator.

Contemporary dance choreographers and/or performers are also prepared at the Choreography Department of the Faculty of Arts, Klaipėda University (KU). Here, contemporary dance as a subject was introduced in 2000, whereas last year, dance was separated from theatre. Thus, Klaipėda University has kind of wiped the nose of a supposed forge of artists, i.e.  Lithuanian Academy of Music and Theatre, as the KU graduates of the Choreography Study Programme have been receiving a Bachelor's Degree in Dance (since 2013) and a Master's Degree in Dance (since 2012) rather than in Theatre. Yet university study programmes, their aims and professional qualification annotations still sound better than they really are as only a few new names of dancers and/or choreographers can be observed in the Lithuanian dance landscape. Of course, the general education reform has also put a spoke in the wheel. On the one hand, a future student who fails to receive a study basket is unwilling to pay for unpopular dance studies and prefers a more profitable profession of a lawyer, economist or manager, whereas an inclination to dance remains a leisure time activity at some dance studio. On the other hand, a future dancer and/or choreographer considers his employability or creative path possibilities in Lithuania that, unfortunately, do not promise anything good - a performer or creator merely making ends meet often takes up additional work of a different profile, which usually becomes the main source of income. This explains why only very few new names (e.g. Giedrė Ubartaitė, Inga Kuznecova) emerge in the Lithuanian contemporary dance field; why creators choose to study and work abroad (e.g. Andrius Katinas, Austėja Vilkaitytė); and why some choreographers decide to withdraw from dance completely (e.g. Dovilė Petkūnaitė, Tautvilas Gurevičius).

Another field of activity that often becomes the main source of income for dancers and/or choreographers is dance pedagogy. In Lithuania, dance pedagogues are prepared at the Lithuanian University of Educational Sciences, which offers Bachelor's and Master's degrees in Arts Education (Dance), as well as the Vilniaus kolegija/University of Applied Sciences, which offers Bachelor's Degree in Arts Education (Dance). As the result, it is not surprising that the majority of the Lithuanian contemporary dance creators devote more of their time to the pedagogical activities ensuring more stable income rather than creative work.

Going back to the development of the Lithuanian contemporary dance school, there is one peculiar fact that contemporary dance as a subject was first introduced in the institutions of higher education and only later - in the National M.K.Čiurlionis School of Arts, where performers of modern/contemporary dance have been prepared at the Ballet Division only since 2010. Thus, roughly speaking, "the first" contemporary dance students came to the institutions of higher education either from "streets" or non-formal education studies and amateur dance circles. Anyway, we should be happy about this meaningful although a bit belated development of the National M.K.Čiurlionis School of Arts - at 2013 international dance festival New Baltic Dance, the performance Finger Food Improvisations by the pupils of the school presented at the shopping centre Europa appeared as the platform of promising new faces and names. 

It is worth mentioning, though, that dance as a discipline of both formal and non-formal education has been included in city and district school education programmes for many years already. 2013, for the first time ever school-leavers who chose to take a maturity examination in arts could choose dance next to the fine arts, music, photography, film making, graphic design and theatre. Such a welcome step in the education structure can also be associated with one more contemporary dance trend, which has been developing for a much longer time, i.e. the creation of professional contemporary dance performances for children and youth. In 2007, choreographer Birutė Banevičiūtė founded the dance theatre Dansema and since then has been organising an annual international dance festival of the same title, the aim of which is to present both Lithuanian and foreign contemporary dance performances intended for the young audience. The dance theatre involved not only in creative but also in educational activities has pushed the Lithuanian dance art farther in the direction of professional art as up till now the dance performances for children were perceived and produced as mere amateur dance shows for children, their parents and relatives and were performed by children.

Speaking about higher education institutions and the preparation of professional performers, there is an unarguable fact that the best contemporary dance performers are prepared by the Kaunas dance theatre Aura, where no diplomas signifying a higher education degree in dance are granted. This was once again proved during the encounter of the Nordic-Baltic dance network organisations Keđja, which took place in Klaipėda, in June 2013. Thus, the question arises - what reforms and/or cooperation plans should the Lithuanian higher education institutions take up in order to prepare versatile, technically strong performers of contemporary dance that Lithuanian still lacks? What example tested in practice should be followed so that all dance specialty niches are filled and not duplicated? What culture support reforms should be initiated so that having chosen their career path Lithuanian dance artists would not go round in circles looking for a more appropriate source of living? Finally, what is worth taking up so that on the level of performing arts dance would appear on a par with the arts of opera and theatre? Sure, certain questions or their parts are actually rhetoric because it is not only Lithuania that faces similar problems, but also other European countries; however, people say that dreams do come true...

This is a shortened version of an article published, in Lietuvos scena, 2013

Translated by Monika Kisliakovaitė


Ingrida Gerbutavičiūtė is a dance critic. Recently she is a head of the Dance and Movement Department in Lithuanian Theatre and Music Academy. Ingrida also organizes a Lithuanian dance festival in Berlin, where she lives.