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The Development of Contemporary Dance in Lithuania

By Goda Dapšytė

The contemporary dance scene in Lithuania is still relatively young compared to theatre, but it is changing continually and developing fast. Despite the continuous financial challenges, and an infrastructure that is still in its early stages, each year sees the debut of new choreographers, and new collectives and troupes. In theatre, we notice how directors move from one theatre to another. In contemporary dance, the place to begin is with the troupes and the dance companies, and the studios that exist alongside them, which were established by choreographers. Contemporary dance in Lithuania is almost exclusively independent, relying largely on the initiatives and the creative output of independent artists.

The beginning of contemporary dance in Lithuania came with the work of the expressive dance pioneer Danutė Nasvytytė, and her rhythmic gymnastics studio, which operated in the interwar period in Kaunas. During the Soviet occupation (1940–1990), every manifestation of modern art in Lithuania was suppressed, with just two dance forms tolerated, Classical ballet and standard folk dancing. This is why the Sonata dance studio, established in Kaunas in 1969 by one of Nasvytytė's students, Kira Katerina Daujotaitė, could only exist by remaining amateur. It developed the tradition of expressive dance that came to Lithuania from Germany, and which can be regarded as the original expression of contemporary dance. In the Soviet era, the only criterion for professionalism was a university diploma. However, since in the USSR contemporary dance was not considered an art form, expressive and contemporary dance, and other kinds of modern dance, were not taught at university level, which made it impossible to acquire any sort of 'professionalism' in the field. Moreover, the possibility for using movement to express abstract ideas made Soviet censors uncomfortable. Censorship also contributed to curbing professional dance, an art form that was constantly modernising. Therefore, choreographers who pioneered contemporary dance in Lithuania, and who now belong to the older generation of dance artists, came to professional dance from an amateur background.

The influence of the Lithuanian Dance Information Centre (LDIC), established in 1995, on the development of contemporary dance cannot be overstated. Apart from its activities in collecting and disseminating information about dance, which is usual for such an organisation, for many years the centre has been actively encouraging new works by Lithuanian choreographers, and putting much effort into dance education. The New Dance Project, initiated in 1996 by the LDIC, which presented a dozen dance productions by Lithuanian choreographers, was the starting point for independent contemporary Lithuanian choreography, and a point of departure for its later development.

Alongside New Baltic Dance, the country's largest international dance festival, which it has run since 1997, the LDIC has organised a Summer Dance School for professionals and beginners since 2000. This annual festival has brought dance stars to Lithuania such as La La La Human Steps (Canada), Cullbergballet (Sweden), Carte Blanche (Norway), Aterballetto (Italy), the Kibbutz Contemporary Dance Company (Israel), Random Dance Company (UK), Ariadone/Carlotta Ikeda, Ballet de Lorraine (France), and many others. Thanks to the LDIC, Lithuanian audiences have been introduced to works by Pina Bausch (Germany). Moreover, the LDIC represents Lithuania at various international events and fairs, it is responsible for promoting productions by Lithuanian choreographers, and it publishes the electronic Dance News (www.dance.lt).

The first contemporary dance choreographer to be officially recognised was Aira Naginevičiūtė, who received an award from the Ministry of Culture. She learnt the basics of dance at the Sonata dance studio in Kaunas, and graduated in dance pedagogy in Klaipėda. She creates large-scale, complex productions, and, according to the dance critic Vita Mozūraitė, she comes the closest to dance theatre. The first course for actors-dancers was put on at the Lithuanian Academy of Music and Theatre in 1998, and Naginevičiūtė was invited to teach improvisation and contemporary dance technique. She has been running the course and teaching improvisation and composition since 2003. In 2013, she established the AIROS Dance Theatre, for which she creates productions mainly with her former students.

The dancer, choreographer and educator Vytis Jankauskas came to contemporary dance from breakdance, and for many years he was faithful to pure dance. His charged, aesthetically strong and minutely perfected philosophical dance productions always raise clear and direct questions. This choreographer has lately been focusing on social critique. In 1997, he established the Vytis Jankauskas Dance Company. It does not limit itself to creative output, but also initiates various educational projects in Lithuania and abroad, through collaboration with other NGOs. A professional contemporary dance studio functions alongside the Vytis Jankauskas Dance Company, which has nurtured a number of outstanding dancers, and which promotes contemporary dance, raising a new generation of dancers and audiences. 

The choreographer and educator Birutė Banevičiūtė was the first Lithuanian dance professional to gain a PhD (social sciences) in dance education, with her thesis 'The Development of Dance Skills in Early Adolescence'. Not surprisingly, her latest work has been devoted to dance performances for children and young adults. In 2007, she established the Dansema Dance Theatre, through which she promotes the culture of contemporary dance aimed at young audiences. She puts on professional contemporary dance productions for children, supervises the dissemination of contemporary dance in Lithuania and abroad, and organises seminars for dancers, choreographers and teachers.

Although most contemporary dance is concentrated in the capital, the oldest dance theatre is in Kaunas, Lithuania's second city. The Kaunas Dance Theatre Aura was established in 1979. Its founder, the choreographer Birutė Letukaitė, who first learnt dance at the Sonata dance studio, continues and develops contemporary dance there. Since 1989, Aura has organised an international dance festival of the same name, and has developed some of the best Lithuanian dancers in its dance studio. Aura collaborates regularly with guest choreographers, which helps to create a strong and varied repertoire. It has been recognised by over 50 municipal, national and international awards. Moreover, the Kaunas Dance Theatre Aura is the only dance theatre in Lithuania with an international troupe of dancers.

The first generation of choreographers who acquired an education abroad returned to Lithuania in 2005–2006. Loreta Juodkaitė graduated from Salzburg Experimental Academy of Dance in Austria. Lina Puodžiukaitė studied at the University of North Carolina University Arts Conservatory, followed by Hollins University and the American Dance Festival MA programme. Agnija Šeiko returned with a BA in choreography from the Rotterdam Dance Academy in the Netherlands.

Juodkaitė, who is gifted with an outstanding plastic expressiveness, was noticed by dance critics and producers and became popular with audiences immediately on her return to Lithuania. In 2013, seeking to create independent productions, she established the Lora Juodkaitė Dance Theatre. However, she has lately been working mostly abroad.

Puodžiukaitė brought the American modern dance tradition to Lithuania. She worked for a while at the Kaunas Dance Theatre Aura, and later ran the Department of Ballet at the National M. K. Čiurlionis School of Arts. She is currently head of the Contemporary Dance Association.

Šeiko, following her studies abroad, returned to work in Klaipėda, where she not only established a dance theatre, but also trains future dancers and choreographers. Over just five years since its beginning in 2012, the Padi Dapi Fish dance theatre has become the contemporary dance troupe with the most diverse repertoire in Lithuania. The theatre she established, based on the FishEye artists' group that has existed for over 15 years, brings together active dancers and choreographers, who mould the diverse face of Padi Dapi Fish together. Its repertoire features site-specific dance performances/excursions, dance productions for children, and full-length contemporary dance shows in different forms. Interdisciplinarity is characteristic of Šeiko's creative output. Through collaboration with sculptors, video artists and composers, she expands the notion of the dance space, and enriches choreography with a unique fusion of movement and objects, and movement and heritage, thereby creating a distinctive aesthetic world. A new generation of choreographers, Dovilė Binkauskaitė, Inga Kuznecova, Petras Lisauskas and Darius Berulis, work together with Šeiko at the theatre.

In 2017, Low Air Urban Dance Theatre, one of the country’s youngest professional dance companies, received the title of Vilnius City Dance Theatre. This urban dance company was based on the successful debut duet Feel Link (2011) by the choreographers Airida Gudaitė and Laurynas Žakevičius. It was the first professional attempt in Lithuania to connect the aesthetic worlds of street dance and contemporary dance. Low Air have a rather diverse repertoire: from stage duets to performances in open spaces, from productions that fuse the language of dramatic theatre and street dance to The Rite of Spring. The theatre's dance studio actively brings together a community interested in dance, performs a social function, and raises the next generation of dancers.

The younger generation of dance artists do not create troupes or theatres, but work as independent choreographers, and have lately been forming duos. Apart from the already-mentioned Low Air Urban Dance Theatre with a dance duo at its centre, Marius Pinigis, another dancer and choreographer, also chooses to perform brilliant duets with various dancers and choreographers. The result of his collaboration with Mantas Stabačinskas is ID: D&G (2014). In 2016 he created (g)round zero with the street dance artist Marius Paplauskas. The B and B Dialogue duet (B ir B dialogas, 2016) by the young dancer-choreographers Agnietė Lisičkinaitė and Greta Grinevičiūtė was also well received. These young artists share their observations of the world and themselves through categories of the original and the replica, and set off on an ingenious search for authenticity by using their avatars B and B. Their latest work, which they created on a residency in the USA, is entitled American Dream.

In 2013, the dancer and choreographer Rūta Butkus established the dance theatre comma8. However, she creates mainly mono-performances and shows marked by a distinctive and characteristically stark aesthetic. An aesthetic that is close to logic and the visual arts characterises the work by Austėja Vilkaitytė, who also often chooses the solo form.

The younger generation of Lithuanian dance artists search for new ways and a new language to express themselves. They increasingly often rely on words and visuals, as their performances are enriched by textual monologues and impressive movement dialogues with action on screen. They tend to reflect the surrounding world, they do not shun humour, and they are less interested in the deep and universal philosophical contemplation that was characteristic of the first generation of choreographers in independent Lithuania.

The current centres for contemporary dance in Lithuania are Vilnius, Kaunas and Klaipėda. There are university courses for dancers and choreographers and at least one professional studio in each of these three cities, and each city holds an annual international festival (New Baltic Dance in Vilnius, Aura in Kaunas, and Plartforma in Klaipėda). There are ten independent and two municipal dance companies in Lithuania, and over a dozen independent choreographers. Despite the rapid development of the field and its growing professionalisation, it is still too early to attempt to define national features of Lithuanian choreography, as contemporary dance here is only slightly over two decades old, and its development is just starting to become more dynamic. Dance is still in the formative stage, absorbing more and more new influences, while professional dance functions on a flood or low tide principle. However, it should be noted that in spite of the competition with theatre, which has a long tradition in Lithuania, creative dance artists have not only successfully established their place in Lithuania‘s performing arts, through international festivals, the vigorous long-term activities of dance studios, and the input of independent companies, but have also developed a demanding and faithful audience.