When thinking of contemporary dance in the former eastern bloc, it’s hard to ignore the fact that for many decades body movement was an important biopolitical target. Modern and contemporary dance were too ‘free’, too ‘individualistic’, and so artificially restrained. This doesn’t mean that dance was out of such control in the capitalist part of the world, rather that its ‘choreopolicing’ strategies were quite different.
If by the end of the 20th century, dance initially associated with freedom in the market economy became an emblem of neoliberal precarity that was criticised both in theory and on stage, in post-socialist countries dance, somatics and critical choreographic practices became a means to rescue individual bodies from totalitarian collectivity, to perform self-expression and learn self-care, speak of historical and social issues and invent new forms of togetherness. Indeed, at the second Baltic Dance Platform (19–21 May 2022, Tallinn, Estonia) I sensed a common trait: dance as an area of social responsibility, its critical and social potential taken seriously and deeply explored, though the range of topics and aesthetics was as broad as the concept of contemporary dance itself.
The platform presented nine performances, sixteen pitches and three workshops from Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia – countries with much in common, though with different perspectives in dance education, creative approaches and aesthetics. Many of the artists from Estonia and Lithuania had studied or currently work in western Europe, while most of the Latvians are graduates of the dance programme at the Academy of Culture, which clearly leaves a mark on their aesthetics and working methods, although does not fully determine them.
If you crave simplified generalisations from the platform, here we go. The Estonians worked in a more ‘brainy’ way, juggling cutting-edge visual trends, somatic awareness and cultural theories. The Latvians were more ‘confessional’, focusing on personal topics and vulnerability of stage presence, and trying to reach out to a broader audience. The Lithuanians were more furious and politically charged, dealing with rebels, outcasts and gestures of resistance; even when working in a seemingly formalist approach, they would try to analyse and deconstruct embodied ideologies.
In short – I loved the showcase. And to back up my observations with examples I made a selection of performances and pitches that help me analyse how new Baltic dance deals with aesthetic problems, socially and politically charged topics, intimacies and embodied social choreographies.
Repeat to embody, remember, transform
Dance techniques sink into the body, becoming a skill through repetition (just like any movement habit that shapes our self-perception and identity). Political and economic ideologies always impose ‘proper’ ways of moving: be it the rationalised movements of an industrial worker or the smooth scrolling of news feeds on smartphones. Contemporary dance, as a laboratory of thinking, can expose these unseen processes, shedding light on deeper political and economic conditions that invisibly manage our behaviour. As a method, repetition is always twofold: it starts with fixing something familiar and leads us towards a transformation. So it helps us see the obvious as strange, and the natural as constructed.
This is how a ‘formalist’ approach to dance making can at the same time explore social conditions. That’s exactly what happens in workpiece by Lithuanian-born, Swiss-based Anna-Marija Adomaitytė. Visually simple and choreographically precise, this performance deals with the embodiment of industrialised contemporary service labour. Dressed as a fast-food restaurant worker, Adomaitytė performs on a treadmill, a moving object that combines references to two different labour cultures. On the one hand, it is reminiscent of production lines, an invention of the industrial era; on the other, it’s a machine that allows a contemporary subject ‘to go on’ towards the better version of the self, which nowadays has become our main asset. Small and hectic gestures of service expose anxiety, trauma and traces of violence. Adomaitytė’s choreography is minimalistic, consisting only of sharp turns of the head and torso, with fixed bent arms that seem to indicate an imaginary encounter (with a client? a fellow robot? a ghost of the authoritarian regime?). The body becomes a surface of repetition, like a serving machine that keeps working even when the restaurant is closed. That’s how our flesh stores kinetic memories and embeds emotions.
Another Lithuanian devoted to formalism, Dovydas Strimaitis, who works between France and Belgium, takes repetition into a more playful domain in Hairy, pitched in Tallinn before its June premiere in Paris. The general approach is similar: something seemingly innate to the life of the body becomes exposed in its social functioning through repetitive movements with minimal changes. Embodied labour may be a familiar topic in dance – but think about the tangled issue of hair. Strimaitis smartly notices that our hair is a nest of tensions between agency and control. It’s a body part that can’t move on its own, but at the same time can indirectly influence our self-perception and identity. Combing the cultural and political contexts of the life of hair, tapping into its role in free movement, as well as heavy metal rock and other subcultures, Strimaitis creates a strict repetitive score, ‘choreographing involuntary movement, controlling the uncontrollable’. Also… it’s hilarious! This kid will go far.
Other pitched works exploring movement patterns stored in the body include Latvian Agate Bankava’s Where are you when I am sleeping and Estonian Sveta Grigorjeva’s FAKERZ. Here, repetition works in a different, non-formalist way: as a means of recollection and establishing a distance from movement patterns. Both pieces spin around similar issues: relationships between the body and a dance technique. Bankava’s is an emotional dialogue with her own body that went through numerous dance training programmes. She pitches it in what I would call a ‘Latvian’ way: performing part of the piece in an open conversation with the audience, vulnerably present in her movement and recollection. Thus, live commenting, irony and speech itself become means of creating distance from her experience. Grigorj`eva deals with an almost theoretical question: how to separate a technique from the performer and fake it, thus exploring it as something unfamiliar, even uncanny? Using somatics in a preparatory process to unlearn mastered techniques, she presents her performance in a conceptually packed theoretical lecture. These are two almost polar opposite ways of dealing with similar issues.
From intimate to social, or Meet the family!
Towards the end of the festival, one of my colleagues wittily remarked: ‘Don’t you notice how many artists deal with family issues or refer to family members?’ True, I thought: half the festival was packed with shows ruminating on mothers, fathers, brothers, romantic partners and relationships with children. Some were explicitly personal pieces, others used intimate problems to speak of social contracts, or used family issues to reach out to other communities, underlining the social function of dance.
Examples of the first tendency were three pitches from Latvia: Installation in Dance and Photo by Olga Žitluhina (head of the above-mentioned educational programme), and two by her colleagues – Vilnis Bīriņš’ Brother, and Gundega Rēdere’s debut solo One. Though representing the earliest and the latest generations of new Latvian dance, there were similarities. All three works are personal, dealing with romantic love and intimacy (Installation), relationships with a family member (Brother) or the performer’s own soul (One). All have little distance from their own methods of production, work in a confessional way, and treat dance as a means of direct emotional expression. Though it’s interesting that the piece by Rēdere, the youngest participant, deals more with ‘spiritual’ and somatic connections to her own body and attempts to reach ‘direct’ contact with the audience simply by being present in front of them. That risks placing too much pressure on the performer’s skills – but if someone is eager to give it a new spin, especially with recent turns towards ‘spiritualism’ and ‘authenticity’ in society, why not see how it could develop?
The second tendency comprised pieces that use personal issues to speak of the social and the political. In M(Other) Raimonda Gudavičiūtė performs with her 8-year-old son, playfully ruminating over their connection, intimacy, power relations and gender roles, and sharing her experience of being both an artist and a parent. The piece successfully balances personal attitude to the topic with a critical distance towards mother-son relations, shedding light on the changing hierarchies between child and parent. The two performers take turns in being movement experts, learning from each other and managing to walk the fine line between being ‘professionals’ and being a family. Deep emotional involvement comes from their breathtaking kinetic experience, embodying lots of care and fun. I would also pay tribute to the dramaturgical craft: the hour-long show flies by, and will work for both professional adult viewers and general audiences with kids.
Dance for an object and child, by Vilnius-based Arts and Science LAB, takes a more critical look at parenting and related social expectations, but also openly states: it’s okay to stay child-free. Less a dance performance than a well-crafted multimedia theatre piece, with reality-show inserts and talented actors, it nevertheless has beautiful movement sections in which the motion of rocking a baby builds into furious exhaustive and repetitive dance.
Jana Jacuka’s solo Routine of Fear is based on personal experience of child abuse and social expectations around womanhood. Though femininity in dance has lately been presented as both a stereotypical limitation and a means of empowerment, this show can seem more ambiguous about its position. Does it cherish an image of a victimised woman and her surrender to societal expectations, or does it underline the performer’s power in telling her story in public? I think that any feminist statement should be considered inseparable from the local context it’s produced in, and so leave that for discussion in the Latvian community. In any case, the show certainly has strong moments that resonate with the current wartime situation that of course became the main political background of the whole showcase. One scene recounts the sexual abuse of Jacuka’s grandmother during the second world war, deliberately not specifying whether it was committed by the enemy or by the liberating army – thus underlining the banality of sexual violence, always used as a weapon but very rarely getting the same attention as other war crimes.
Finally, the third tendency, mostly presented during pitching sessions, is to reach out to spectators outside the close professional circle and think of the social function of dance. Examples include Kristīne Brīniņa’s project Trajectories of Childhood, which invites five parents from the Latvian town of Liepāja to embody their children’s styles of movement; or Siim Tõniste and Üüve-Lydia Toompere’s supersocial, a performance that tests participants’ views in situations of social pressure; Vilma Pitrinaitė’s research project RBL, exploring the figure of the rebel in a group of teenagers; Agnietė Lisičkinaitė’s HANDS UP, reflecting on the ambiguities of protest culture and opposing viewpoints on pressing social issues; and Theo by Lukas Karvelis, on the experience of addiction performed in urban spaces, usually at bus stops.
Good old dance theatre gone bad and new
I bet most of the audience who came to the famous Kanuti Gildi Saal on the first day of the showcase will remember it for a particular scene: a female performer, dressed in eco-rags and probably in her late 40s, joyfully throwing up a mysterious aquamarine fluid, again and again. How could so much liquid fit in a human stomach? Her mastery borders on circus trickery. The moment happens towards the end of the show – after a series of fake endings, in fact, which had spectators wondering how many more scenes would arrive to test their patience. Eden Detail, a performance by two Estonian-born SNDO graduates Jette Loona Hermanis and Johhan Rosenberg, was certainly the culmination of the festival’s first day.