Short History of 20th Century Dance in Lithuania

by Jurate Terleckaite

August 2003

Performances of ballet were recorded in the court of the Lithuanian Empire in the sixteenth century when Lithuanian culture was dominant in Central Europe. This culture was, in its turn, suppressed or modified by slavonic influences – especially since the occupation of Lithuania by czarist Russia in 1795.

Lithuania became independent of Russia after the Revolution of 1918. Reflecting this momentous political change, culture in Lithuania became more sensitive to its specifically national identity. The National Lithuanian Theatre opened on 31 December 1920 with a production of “La Traviata” which included the ballet scenes. “Copellia” was the first full length professional ballet performed by Lithuanian dancers. This had its first performance on 4 December 1925. The Lithuanian Ballet company was still influenced by Russian emigrant choreographers, such as P.Petrov and N.Zvereff, and dancers, such as V.Nemchinova and A.Obukhoff.

However, as the company developed its own traditions, local dancers, such as O.Malejinaite, J.Jovaisaite, and B.Kelbauskas, became soloists. This period was marked by highlights such as the tour to Monte Carlo and London in 1935 with performances of “Copellia,” “Swan Lake,” “Les Sylphydes,” “Raimonda,” and “Divertisment.” “Raimonda” was performed for the first time in Western Europe. In London the 32 performances were at the Alhambra Theatre. Commenting on “Raimonda” the Daily Sketch critic wrote that “The Lithuanians offered London an evening of joy…with beauty, colour and dramatic impulse.”

During the Second World War Lithuania experienced invasions by both Nazi and Soviet armies. Many dancers emigrated to Western Europe and USA and the ballet company was closed. After the war the company was re-formed. Reflecting Soviet occupation the repertoire focused mainly on Russian classical ballet e.g. Svetlana and Red Flower by Russian choreographers (e.g. F.Lopuchov, M.Moisejev). Ballets by Lithuanian composers and choreographers such as J. Pakalnis and J.Juzeliunas were also produced although the aim of these was partly to promote Soviet propaganda. These `hybrid` productions were a combination of classical dance and national folk dance traditions, and were performed by Lithuanian dancers (e.g. G.Sabaliaukaite, T.Sventickaite, A.Ruzgaite, H.Kunavicius, H.Banys).

By the 1970`s the repertoire began to be more adventurous with productions based on the music of J.Gruodis, A.Rekašius, D.Sostakovic. In 1990 Lithuania regained its independence. Foreign choreographers were invited to create works and there were new opportunities for dancers such as J.Valeikaite, E.Spokaite, M.Bauzys to participate in international companies and competitions with Egle Spokaite winning gold medals in 1994-1996.

The modern company has toured in countries as varied as Sweden, Egypt, Japan, the USA, and Argentina. Since 1994 the company has been invited annually by Mstislav Rostropovitch to perform “Romeo and Juliet” in a variety of overseas locations, such as the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., and the Barbican Centre in London, in recognition of their skill. The 2002 season in Vilnius included “Swan Lake,” “Copellia,” “Don Quixote,” “Zorba the Greek,” “Carmen,” “Sacre Du Printemps,” “Myths of Syziphus” and “Red Giselle” (the last three being new productions).

As well as re-interpreting traditional ballet with new choreography there is a lively interest in modern dance. The annual international contemporary dance festival, Naujasis Baltijos Sokis (New Baltic Dance), takes place every spring. Companies such as CanDoCo, Random Dance Company, Jasmin Vardimon Company and Air Dance company from Britain have participated in this event indicating the growing trend towards an international dance style.

Edited by Jeff

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