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New Baltic Dance 2005

by Stuart Sweeney

May 3 -9, 2005 -- Lithuanian National Drama Theatre, Vilnius, Lithuania

New Baltic Dance festival is the most important annual event in the Lithuanian contemporary dance calendar and with 15 domestic and visiting companies taking part this year was well worth a visit. On the first evening, as I stood in the foyer of the Lithuanian National Drama Theatre, the main centre for the festival, a dance administrator from Poland told me that our impressive surroundings were a sharp contrast to conditions back home. However, this excellent venue, acting as a hub for the festival activity, hides the reality of Lithuanian dance – poor state funding and a shortage of performance venues for the rest of the year.

Audronis Imbrasas, Director of the Lithuanian Dance Information Centre, the organisers of the festival, has done excellent work promoting the art form in Lithuania and the cherished project of a new dance centre will open its initial phase later this year. However, a lecture by a visiting German dance administrator, Anne Neumann Shultheis, as part of the festival’s dance seminar programme, highlighted the differences in approach to funding contemporary dance in her own and the host countries, which can be summarised as feast and famine.

It’s not that the arts are under-valued in Lithuania as the National Ballet, for instance, receives excellent support. Rather, it’s that contemporary dance is the very poor relation. We all know that this situation is common around the world, but in a Lithuania keen to shake off the legacy of the 45-year occupation, one might have assumed that this post-Soviet art form would receive special attention. Nevertheless, with audiences in the high hundreds for many performances in the festival, it’s clear that contemporary dance is making its mark and I hope that full recognition from national and local government will follow soon.

The festival opened with the internationally renowned Jo Strømgren Kompani from Norway and “The Hospital” promised much with its macabre theme of a medical centre deserted by its patients -- where the three female staff take it in turns to injure themselves to provide perverted applications for their healing skills. The three actor/dancers set up the situation intriguingly, stopping expectantly as an aircraft or helicopter is heard, but ever disappointed. However, after some twenty minutes, the production begins to meander and eventually ends with the three in girlish adulation of an earlier, heartthrob visitor. Others appreciated “The Hospital” more than I did, but neither the movement nor the scenography provided sufficient interest in my view.

Later the same evening, Dada von Bzdülöw Theatre from Poland presented the duet “Magnolia”. The programme notes gave a background of varied weather conditions in an unnamed country and the effect on magnolias and the population. On stage we saw two fine performers exploring their relationship, which required them to change their costumes every few minutes, perhaps a metaphor, at a stretch, for the weather, but which also worked as a symbol of the way we project ourselves. Polish dance seems to buck post-modern trends with movement based material and there was no doubting the strong technique of Katarzyna Chmielewska and Leszek Bzdyl, who also choreographed the work, as they moved from initial shyness to seductive tango and eventual separation. I travel to the Bytom Festival this year and “Magnolia” whetted my appetite for Polish dance.

The next day brought two solos choreographed and performed by Urs Dietrich from Bremer Tanztheater. In both pieces, his extraordinary control and suppleness had me on the edge of my seat. In “Herzkammen”, Dietrich is confined to a square of light, which he slowly explores prowling around on the ground. Frustration mounts and his movements become more violent and eventually, after ten minutes, he is on his feet and, at the end, breaks free. “Chronisch” sees Dietrich moving smoothly backward for much of the work. Although a solo, back-projection of a figure, which the programme tells us represents a previous ego or doppelganger, provides a second focus. After some minutes, another shadow figure appears on the screen, and then many others, some of them dwarfing the dancer. Although simple, this device works well and combines with Dietrich’s fluent movement. The programme mentions that this dancer was awarded the German’s Critics’ Award 2004 and I can understand why.

Overall, the Lithuanian presentations seemed stronger to me than the previous year. Aura Dance Theatre’s “Aseptic Zone or Lithuanian Songs” by Birute Letukaite features an authoritarian figure striding around the rectangular edge of the stage for much of the performance. The dancers perform in the centre and their movements illustrate their anxieties in a series of ensemble, trios and solos and in one a dancer confronts the authoritarian figure, but to no avail and he is left in control at the end. With its theatricality and interesting movement, “Aseptic Zone” held my attention throughout, with the first half particularly gripping.

“The Little Prince” with choreography by Birute Baneviciute and dramaturgy by Birute Mar was much more successful than “The Soldier’s Tale” from the same partnership, seen at last year’s festival. With a brilliant white set and Mar narrating as The Prince sat astride a white globe attached halfway up the wall, the performance was a delight. Particularly striking was Nerijus Tauskas, a ballet teacher and previously of the Lithuanian National Ballet, playing The Snake, I believe, although I must confess never to have read the original book. Slim, erect and grey-haired in a long black tunic and trousers, Tauskas looked beautiful and moved gracefully, usually anchored to one part of the stage. With serpentine arms and great poise, he showed once again, the contribution mature dancers can make even when their days of grands jetés are long gone.

The biggest hit with the local audience was Nigel Charnock’s one-man show “Frank”. Totally improvised with a few tunes and props as landmarks, this outrageous cabaret saw Charnock dancing, singing, playing the harmonica and talking, talking, talking. Children, critics, Lithuanian complicity in the murder of 200,000 Jews in World War II - no theme was off limits for his scathing commentary. Clambering over seats in the auditorium, throwing sweets at the audience (one clipped me painfully on the ear) no one was safe. His frenetic dancing was at its best to a recording of Billy Holiday song and his own singing was clear and sweet. All had much fun.

The Finnish Company, Nomadi, brought two pieces. “Flow” was a 30-minute solo, which the programme notes told us “leads to the inner parts of the mind”. Performer and choreographer, Arja Raatikainen, moved sinuously around the stage, suggesting Asian dance forms and for a while the attractiveness of this style held my attention. However, by the end of “Flow”, my main impression was of surface prettiness rather than innovative movement or intriguing content. “Lucid Dreaming” entered a world of dreams where narratives can be manipulated. Sadly, neither the movement nor the themes drew me in and I was relieved when the 40-minute work ended.

With a parallel series of lectures on German dance history by Patricia Stöckemann, there was much to appreciate at this year’s New Baltic Dance – long may it continue.

 

Edited by Staff.

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