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Contemporary Lithuanian Dance

Contemporary dance in Lithuania is still quite young but it is constantly undergoing change and developing rapidly. Despite financial difficulties and a minimally developed infrastructure, the numbers of independent choreographers and dance companies have been growing steadily.
Lithuanian contemporary dance has its origins in the work of the expressive dance pioneer Danutė Nasvytytė and the rhythmic gymnastics studio that she established during the interwar period in Kaunas. During the 50 years of the Soviet occupation, all expressions of modern art were suppressed, and only two forms of dance were tolerated, classical ballet and choreographed folk dancing. Thanks to Kira Katerina Daujotaitė, who had studied under Danutė Nasvytytė, the Sonata studio was established in Kaunas in 1969. She continued the traditions of expressive dance that had come from Germany and it was this that could be considered the first expression of contemporary dance in Lithuania. However, it was only allowed to exist by remaining in the realm of amateur dance. During the Soviet period, the criterion for becoming a professional was the possession of a higher education qualification. Contemporary dance it could be said was not even considered an art form in the USSR, and so expressive, modern and other forms of contemporary dance were not taught. As a result, there was no path to 'professionalism'  in this area.

Thus, the first contemporary dance choreographers, who now make up the older generation of choreographers, officially came from the world of amateur dance. The New Lithuanian Dance Project, which was organised in 1996 at the initiative of Audronis Imbrasas, the Director of the Lithuanian Dance Information Centre, established the previous year, could be called the first platform for independent contemporary choreography. The project was used to showcase a dozen works by Lithuanian choreographers. It became the foundation for the further development of contemporary Lithuanian choreography.

Aira Naginevičiūtė, who learned the basics of dance at the Sonata studio in Kaunas, and completed her studies in the teaching of choreography in Klaipėda, became the first contemporary dance choreographer to win a prize from the Ministry of Culture. She puts on dance productions that are large in their scope and complex. According to the dance critic Vita Mozūraitė, her productions are the closest in Lithuania to dance theatre. In 1998, a new course was introduced for actor-dancers at the Lithuanian Academy of Music and Theatre, for which Naginevičiūtė was invited to teach improvisation and contemporary dance technique. Since 2003, she has been running courses for students studying dance, and also teaching improvisation and composition.

The dancer, choreographer and teacher Vytis Jankauskas came to contemporary dance from breakdance, a style of street dance, and strives to remain true to pure dance. In 1997, he established the Vytis Jankauskas Dance Company, with a professional contemporary dance studio operating alongside of it. The theatre does not limit itself strictly to artistic-creative endeavours, but, in collaboration with other NGOs, it also initiates and carries out various educational projects in Lithuania and abroad.

The choreographer and teacher Birutė Banevičiūtė was the first person in Lithuania to earn a PhD in education with a dissertation on dance, which was called ‘Education of Dance Skills in Early Adolescence’. Therefore, it is no surprise that in recent years her work has been devoted to children and young people. She established the Dansema Dance Theatre in 2007, which encourages a culture of professional contemporary dance, and is aimed at young audiences. It also organises a festival called Dansema, which is the only international contemporary dance festival in Lithuania for children and young people. It puts on performances of professional contemporary dance for children, and takes an interest in promoting them both in Lithuania and abroad. In addition, it organises seminars for dancers, choreographers and dance teachers.

Although most contemporary dance is concentrated in Vilnius, the strongest contemporary dance company is in Kaunas, Lithuania’s second-largest city. AURA, which is the only municipal dance theatre there, was founded in 1979. Its founder, the choreographer Birutė Letukaitė, who was a student at the Sonata studio, continues and develops the traditions of contemporary dance in the city. The dance theatre has been organising an international dance festival, also called AURA, since 1989. There is a studio connected to the theatre, which has trained some of the best dancers in Lithuania. In addition, Aura works with choreographers from abroad, and in this way it has built up a strong and varied repertoire, which has won more than 50 awards, on a municipal, national and international level.

The first generation of choreographers to graduate abroad began to return in 2005-2006. This includes Loreta Juodkaitė, who graduated from the Salzburg Experimental Academy of Dance in Austria, Agnija Šeiko, who has a BA in choreography from the Rotterdam Dance Academy in the Netherlands, and Lina Puodžiukaitė, who studied at the Arts Institute of the University of South Carolina, and has an MFA in dance from Hollins University in partnership with the American Dance Festival at Duke University.

Loreta Juodkaitė, who is blessed with a particularly supple expressiveness, is currently the independent Lithuanian choreographer and performer who works abroad the most often. Her performances could be characterised as having a connection with ritual and her choreographic lines as having ever-changing, but sculptural forms. Agnija Šeiko’s work is of an interdisciplinary nature. By collaborating with sculptors, video artists and composers, she broadens the understanding of performance space and contributes to choreography with a unique mix of movement and objects. In this way, she creates her own aesthetic. The Klaipėda-based artists’ group Fish Eye, which she heads, plus the international contemporary arts festival PLArTFORMA, much of the programme of which is devoted to dance, have contributed to decentralising dance in Lithuania. There are several other young choreographers working together with Agnija Šeiko in Fish Eye, which also established its own dance studio in 2009.

Lina Puodžiukaitė brought American modern dance traditions to Lithuania. After returning, she worked for a time at the Kaunas dance theatre Aura. She has been Head of the Department of Ballet at the National M. K. Čiurlionis School of Arts since 2011.

Along with independent groups and projects, we should also mention the companies of Anželika Cholina and Gytis Ivanauskas, which are the most successful commercially. These two dance theatres have maintained close links with theatre. In the case of Anželika Cholina, there is a strong connection with ballet traditions. Both companies attract full houses; however, they are not always appreciated by critics.

The work of the Lithuanian Dance Information Centre has had a huge impact on the emergence and spread of contemporary dance. Along with the gathering and dissemination of information, which is typical of this kind of organisation (it has a dance library and video archive in the Infoteka at the Arts Printing House, an online database, and informational publications), it has also organised the Summer Dance School for beginners and professionals since 2000. It has organised New Baltic Dance, the biggest international contemporary dance festival in the country, since 1997. This annual event attracts stars such as La La La Human Steps (Canada), Cullbergballet (Sweden), Carte Blanche (Norway), Aterballetto (Italy), the Kibbutz Contemporary Dance Company (Israel), the Random Dance Company (UK), Ariadone/Carlotta Ikeda and Ballet de Lorraine (France), among many others. Thanks to the Lithuanian Dance Information Centre, the local public had the opportunity to become acquainted with the work of Pina Bausch (Germany). In addition, there is a separate part of the festival devoted to Lithuanian contemporary dance artists, introducing their newest and best works.

Thus, at present, the centres for contemporary dance are divided between Vilnius, Kaunas and Klaipėda. There is one professional studio in each city, dancers and choreographers are trained at university level, and each city has at least one international festival putting on performances of contemporary dance (in Vilnius, there are two). In total, there are eight independent dance companies and one municipal dance company in Lithuania, and performances are put on by a number of independent young choreographers. Despite the rapid development of dance and growth in professionalism, it is still a little too early to identify any national traits of choreography, as it has been around for less than 20 years. The local school of dance is still forming and constantly absorbing new influences. However, despite the competition posed by theatre, which benefits from a long tradition, contemporary dance artists have built up a regular and demanding audience, thanks to international festivals, dance studios and the work of dance companies.

Goda Dapšytė