国際交流基金 The Japan Foundation Performing Arts Network Japan

Presenter Interview プレゼンターインタビュー

Aug 25, 2022
Birutė Letukaitė ©Remis Ščerbauskas



Through the Throes of War and Its Soviet Past –
The fascinating journey of contemporary dance in Lithuania

Birutė Letukaitė (AURA Dance Theatre)

Lithuania (population: 2.7 million people) is the southernmost of the three Baltic countries (Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania) that were part of the former Soviet Union. The country’s independence was restored after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1990. Serving as artistic director of the AURA Dance Theatre in the country’s second largest city of Kaunas, and founder of the AURA International Dance Festival that has continued since 1989, is Birutė Letukaitė. As a pioneer of contemporary dance in Lithuania, we asked her in this interview about her activities and the dance scene in this Baltic country.
Interviewer: Takao Norikoshi (dance critic)

Kaunas, Lithuania, is a city where there was a Consulate General of Japan during WWII, And the Consular Agent, Chiune Sugihara, stationed there is famous for having issued “life-saving visas” to Jews in Nazi occupied Lithuania during the war. Furthermore, Kaunas functioned as the provisionary / temporary capital of Lithuania after the former capital of Vilnius was occupied by Poland 1919-1940. From 1941 Lithuania was occupied by Russia until the country’s liberation in 1991.
This city of Kaunas was designated a European Capital of Culture (*) for 2022, and for this a roughly year-long program of arts and culture events is planned under the name “Kaunas 2022” (*). One of the events held as part of this program was the “Japan Days in Kaunas ‘WA’” that ran from April 24 to May 1 (an event celebrating the 100th anniversary of the establishment of the Japan-Lithuania Friendship agreement, which consisted of about 30 programs introducing a wide range of Japanese arts and culture, including haiku poetry, tea ceremony, traditional Jiuta mai dance accompanied by folk songs of the Kyoto/Osaka region, Japanese contemporary dance, manga comics, anime animated films and more). I was privileged to participate in this event as a lecturer. Taking this as an opportunity, I want to learn about the Lithuanian dance scene.
The AURA Dance Theatre (hereinafter AURA) that you serve as Artistic Director for was also involved in five programs of the Japan Days program, including the opening and closing events and collaborations with Japanese artists.
Yes. AURA members have appeared in a variety of the events of "Kaunas 2022." In "WA," Professor Aurelijus Zykas of the Department of Japan Asian Studies at Vytautas Magnus University, who is a researcher of Japanese culture, approached us, and we invited Ryu Suzuki from the Japan and Mei Mayu, a Japanese Butoh dancer active in Finland, to collaborate in the creation of a new dance.

In Lithuania, Chiune Sugihara’s (humanitarian) achievements are very well known, and since 2018 “Sugihara Week” has been held to introduce Japanese, Jewish, and Lithuanian culture. Cherry blossoms were planted on the island of Nemnas in Kaunas, and at the opening of Sakura Park, the dancers of AURA performed the dance to the Japanese song Hallelujah that I choreographed. Another composition that I choreographed to this song was during the unveiling a plaque for Chiune Sugihara whom saved lot of Jewish people by giving them Visas to Japan during WWII.
As for Ryu Suzuki, who stayed for about a month and choreographed a new work, we hear that this was his first experience creating a work overseas.
At AURA, we greatly value the sharing of such opportunities. Ryu Suzuki is a very good dancer, and I felt that he was very friendly and had a high level of communication skills, as well as a clearly defined worldview. Moreover, Ryu Suzuki performed his solo work in 2017 during International Dance Festival AURA which is organized by me.

The History of Dance in Lithuania

Can you tell us about the history of contemporary dance in Lithuania?
Before Lithuania’s independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, dance was basically either folk dance or ballet, but some artists had also come in contact with Western modern dance. Broadly speaking, you could say that I am from the third generation of Lithuanian contemporary style dance.
The first generation was introduced by Danute Nasvytytė (1916-1983), wasn’t it?
Yes. Danute Nasvytyte went to Berlin and after graduating from a dance school there in 1939 she came back to Kaunas (Lithuania) , which was then the temporary capital of Lithuania. She toured all over Lithuania doing solo dance performances. She opened the first expressionist style dance studio in Kaunas The dance style she acquired in Germany shocked and surprised many people here, and many young women flocked to her studio.

However, in 1940, when the Soviets first invaded Kaunas, they closed down Danute’s studio. But the following year, in 1941, Nazi Germany invaded and reopened her studio! The studio existed until the end of World War II, and its performances continued.
That sounds like a symbolic story of how Lithuania was at the mercy of war in that period.
But there is more to the story. In 1944, the Soviet Union invaded again. Many people moved out of the country. Because when they invaded in 1940, they sent thousands people involved in culture, the intellectuals, and educators off to Siberia. Danute fled to Germany and then to Australia in 1952.

After establishing her base in Melbourne, she founded the first expressionist style dance group, named the Dana Nasvytis Creative Dance Group, and then she also established a dance school. Ballet was the mainstream in Australia, so I imagine it was the first time that people there saw dance in a style like hers. Although it was at the amateur level, she remained active until 1983 when she died because her heart stopped , choreographing fascinating works for many ballet dancers.
In 1944, the Soviet Union re-invaded, and the country was forcibly incorporated into the Soviet Union as the Lithuanian Soviet Socialist Republic. What was the treatment of Lithuanian artists like at that time?
After D. Nasvytyte migration, her students in Kaunas tried not to let the new dance that Danute had brought to Lithuania die out at that time. However, the Soviet Union banned all Western European culture. All dance studios in Eastern Europe countries are closed down. They were then converted into ballet schools and traditional dance groups. After that, things like ball room dance emerged, but dancers were not allowed to dance freely in contemporary styles anymore. However, amateur [contemporary] dance groups continued to be active and were able to keep performing by constantly changing their venues.
A representative example of this is one of D. Nasvytyte student Kira Daujotaitė (1921-2013), who could be call a leader of the second generation of Lithuanian contemporary dance, couldn’t she? Kira studied German expressionist style dance under Danute from 1939 to 1944 while studying French at the National University of Vytautas Magnus after graduating from a girls’ physical education school in Kaunas.
Kira founded an amateur expressionist style dance group in 1944 in Kaunas, which was later re-named Sonata Dance Company (hereinafter Sonata) in 1969 (active until 1984). This was a groundbreaking dance group in the history of Lithuania. When I was 16 years old, I saw the 27th anniversary performance [of Kira’s group], which was now the newly renamed Sonata company, in a theater and was not fascinated by it.
After Lithuania was incorporated into the Soviet Union, were such dance performances not banned?
The Soviet authorities were not very strict concerning amateur performances. However, I originally came from a background of gymnastics competitions, so I didn’t really like most of that kind of dance, with its piano pieces, its costumes like Greek-style tunics, dancing barefoot and with very slow movement. I was lack of expression and variety. I was not impressed by calm music and naked feet.

Especially since many of their performances were small enough to be held in just one room of a building. But I found myself very much fascinated by free style dance and personality of Kira Daujotaite , and so I joined the group. Kira told me about things like Lithuania’s independence, and about Isadora Duncan. Little by little, she talked to me about a lot of things. I stayed on as a member of her group for 12 years.
Kira had attended a summer school taught by Greta Palucca, who was a star of German expressionist style dance.
I heard that she first found a book by Greta Palucca in a bookstore. Reading it, she found a strong similarity with her own style of movement, so she wrote a letter to Palucca. When she was told about the summer school Parukka held in Dresden, Germany, Kira approached the Ministry of Culture and was able to participate in it.

I thought that the kind of dance we were dancing at the time was unique to Sonata, so the idea of going out of the country to learn about dance came as a shock and inspiration to me. In Sonata we danced as everyone danced befor WWII, 40 years were passed after it and the world already danced differently.
What was Greta Palucca’s school like?
We were 6 girls and our teacher Kira Daujotaitė wnet to Dresden, to the international dance school. There I was able to learn a lot of different dance styles and methods, such as that of Martha Graham, Horton Technique, the technique of Jose Limon, Merce Cunningham technique, jazz dance and more. Finding out that there were so many different types of dance in the world really opened up new horizons for me. By comparison, Lithuania during the Soviet era seemed like a prison, and there was none information about contemporary dance at all. It made me want to seek out more and more new knowledge and new experiences. I decided to search for my own path in dance, and that led me to write a letter to Palucca as well, and then to go to Dresden as Kira had. I think it is safe to say that all of my knowledge about dance came from what I learned from that experience.

AURA Dance Theatre

So, in the history of Lithuanian dance, if Danute Nasvytytė represents the first generation and Kira Daujotaitė is the second generation, then you consider yourself the third generation?
That’s right. Kira’s Daujotaitė’s dance group was the only one not only in Lithuania but in whole Sovite Union. There were people like Kira who continued to teach dance on the amateur level, and she also went on teaching the generation younger than me. But after a while, Sonata started to feel old to me. I wanted to do what I felt could be higher quality dance, and so I left the Sonata in 1980. In 1982, I had my first performances of pieces that I had choreographed myself, including Pavasaris, music by A, Vivaldi and Pabudimas. This is the beginning of the history of AURA.

I approached an amateur modern dance group in Kaunas [for advice], then I put up posters around the city to recruit dancers, and when I gathered enough dancers, I managed to establish a group. It was a completely amateur organization where the dancers worked at their own jobs, studied in schools or universities in the daytime and came to our rehearsals at night, and they would receive no pay for the dancing they did. We rented a culture house with a stage and audience seating for 400 to give our performances under the name of a Modern Dance Group Choreograph Miniature Evening.
So that initial passion has continued for a long time, hasn’t it?
The influence of the Palucca School was huge for me. I saw that there was dance that existed outside of Lithuania, and that there were dancers there with great technique! I kept pushing on to catch up with that outside world and to become a true part of this world of dance. I didn’t want to be separated from it like part of an old archive, but to strive ceaselessly just to do what we had to do to keep progressing. We kept running ahead to do what we felt we had to do.

Everything else, children, family, motherhood, it all came second to that driving passion. In the beginning, it was a matter of dancing with any girls who came to our group, but now we have grown into a professional municipal dance company. I keep wondering who will protect this dance we have established if I don’t do it.
When did you start calling the company AURA?
There were strange rules in Soviet times. No one was allowed to name their own company! A jury would come from Vilnius, a competition would be held, and only a group that was recognized as excellent would be allowed to adopt a name. What’s more, you couldn’t even choose your own name. Instead, the judges voted to decide on a name they felt was appropriate.
That is truly surprising, isn’t it? What was it like in the case of AURA?
They were very tolerant with me and they allowed me to choose the name myself. They told me that my company proved itself excellent, so it can be given a name. When I thanked them and said that I’d like to name it AURA Dance Theatre, they accepted the name. That was in 1990. Our first performance as a professional company was the result of an invitation to the first contemporary dance festival held in the Estonian capital of Tallinn. It was held in a large theater called the Estonian Ballet Theatre.

There was a person who knew us in the Ministry of Culture in Vilnius, and it was that person who sent us to the festival. AURA’s performance was a great success. Someone from Vilnius, a dance critic and ballet dancer Rūta Krūgiškytė who was at the festival, and she was very surprised by our performance and came to talk to me, saying, “How amazing to find such a high-level dance company from Kaunas!”

Participants of the festival, choreographers, dancers could not believe that we were amateur, not the professionals. That’s impossible!” she said, and she made us a list of people who could help support us. She also sent messages to many artists and journalists telling them that we were a company that needs to become professional and deserves the help to achieve that status.
That is a dramatic story, isn’t it? Clearly, she couldn’t just stand by without doing something for your cause.
She drew up a project proposal and went around the municipality (a political area where a local self-governing corporation has been established) with me to show officials that AURA was an outstanding dance company. We were determined that Lithuania needed a professional dance company, and we worked together get one established.

Those efforts went on for five years, and finally in the 1995 the Kaunas City Municipality Administration agreed to give AURA Dance Theatre the status of a municipal theatre (dance company). At first, the budget was about 10,000 euros a year, but eventually we became recognized as professional artists. It was a small company with no facilities or anything yet, but this was a really big step forward for Lithuanian dance.

Currently, as the only municipal dance company in Lithuania, AURA has an annual budget of 350,000 euros and employs 19 staff members, one rehearsal director, and 10 or 11 full-time employed professional dancers, with me as the leader. AURA operates an old building in oldtown where is rehearsal study, office, small residency, place for costumes and small theatre for kids’ performances. Today, it is part of the city’s organizational structure and is deeply involved in cultural administration. Birutė Letukaitė received the Premium Award and the Golden Stage Cross Award from the Lithuanian Ministry of Culture in 2003 in recognition of its great influence on modern dance in Lithuania and the Baltic region. And in 2013, AURA received the awards (Premium Award and Golden Stage Cross Award) for the second time in recognition of its many years of contribution and as well as award of the President (Officer’s Cross) and award of Santaka (Kaunas Municipality) in 2022.

We also performed Aseptic Zone or Lithuanian songs (2003) in various parts of the world and won the Best Choreographer Award at the international dance festivals of Vitebsk in Belarus and Kalisz in Poland. AURA do perform in all the contents and various festivals.
Are there any other companies in Lithuania that receive public funds?
The city of Klaipeda has a dance company founded by a former dancer that is called Agnija Šeiko, and although it is not a municipal company, it is still supported by public funding from the city.
I have seen dance performances by AURA, and all of your dancers have high-level skills and expressiveness, and each one of them appears to have a strong individual character.
All of our dancers are chosen through auditions. Today, most of the dancers are from foreign countries and there is only one Lithuanian. This is the result of prioritizing the quality of the company. I want dancers who have personality, strong physicality, technique, and ones who can improvise for a long time without it getting boring.

The Japanese ballet dancer Natsuho Matsumoto came from London to audition for us, and she then joined AURA. She is a great dancer with strong personality. She also has a very nice smile, a good body, and she can dance pointe, do contemporary dance and improvise as well. She has become a “super” contemporary dancer in the last three years. Unfortunately, she will soon move to a German company, but I think she will be an important performer wherever she goes. We are now looking for a Japanese dancer to replace her. I definitely want more Japanese dancers to come and audition for us.
There is a national ballet company in Lithuania, but do they have a repertoire of contemporary works?
I don’t know about their program in detail, but they seem to concentrate on ballet and neoclassical . Sometimes Lithuanian students take contemporary and modern dance lessons at school, and some come to take our classes. Basically, however, contemporary dance is not something that the National Ballet dancers learn on a daily basis.

In Lithuania, almost everyone starts ballet at the age of six, but contemporary ballet starts when they are about 14 years old, and also it is all girls. So, in most cases it is the people whose technique and physique are not suited for ballet that will go into contemporary dance. Contemporary dance department as opened in 2010 at Lithuania’s National MK Čiurlionis School of Art by former AURA’s dance Lina Puodžiukaitė- Lanauskienė whom studied dance in USA.
What is the relationship between contemporary dance and other forms of physical expression, such as folk dance, hip-hop, and circus?
One of the works I choreographed was Sprendimas, Game Changer (2018), in which all the dancers wore large, very confining costumes designed by Guda Koster of the Netherlands in the first part of the dance. Then in the second part they were able to escape from those burdensome costumes. For that second part, in order to express the freedom that the dancers then felt, I commissioned composer Antanas Jasenka to compose some hip-hop music for them to dance to. That said, I still didn’t think I could express that sense of freedom well by using hip-hop movement. It is difficult to deal with for me.

AURA International Dance Festival

The AURA International Dance Festival was initially founded in 1989 as the International Modern Dance Festival.
I started it as artistic director, but I didn’t have any money or any knowledge about running a festival, All I had was the enthusiasm. I didn’t know what to do, but I knew that I just wanted to start one.
However, 1989 was still the Soviet era for Lithuania. The country declared the restoration of its independence on March 11, 1990, so it must have been difficult to launch your International Modern Dance Festival less than two years before that.
You are right. The first edition was held in a small cultural house. From abroad, I invited the Jerzy Birczyńsk Company from Krakow, Poland, which had won a prize at the Bagnolet International Choreography Competition. I don’t know much Polish, but they described themselves as a company doing contemporary ballet. That first edition was also attended by pantomimes from Latvia and several people from Vilnius in our country. It was held on a small scale over three days.
What was the reaction of the audience?
Audiences of every generation knew about Sonata, but it seems that it was a surprise to the generation older than me that a young group like us had started doing modern dance. As for the young audience, they had already been supportive of us.
In 2011, you changed the name of the festival to “International Dance Festival AURA.”
Since 1989, we had been holding the “International Modern Dance Festival” every year, and since the AURA Dance Theatre was the mother organization of the festival, everyone had naturally been calling it the “AURA Festival.” So, I eventually changed the name accordingly.
What is the funding like for your festival?
The funding varies from year to year, but usually the Ministry of Culture of the Republic of Lithuania provides about 85,000 euros through the Lithuanian Council for Culture and the city of Kaunas provides about 25,000 euros, for a total of about 110,000 euros. In addition, we are thinking about how we can get support in the form of donations from corporations and grants or subsidies from embassies.

For example, Kibbutz Contemporary Dance Company (Israel’s leading dance company, producing many large-scale works) were invited, and the Israeli Embassy in Lithuania provided us with a grant of $2,000. We are also considering various related projects.
In 2018, before the COVID pandemic, you invited participants from foreign countries like Canada, Israel, Italy, the United States, etc., and in all 10 foreign companies performed in the AURA festival. There was also a showcase program named the “4×6 Dance Tour” for six young artists. What are your criteria for choosing the works that you invite to your festival?
Rather than being overly avant-garde, I choose works that I think Lithuanian audiences can love, works that will make the audience say, “It was really good. Thank you,” after watching them. This is because I myself have been watching contemporary dance for many years and I am gradually losing my love for much of it. Even if there is a conceptual work with an idea behind it that I might find interesting at first, I usually get bored with the performance after five minutes or so. In the past, films lost their audiences because of this same trend, and I believe that if this situation continues, contemporary dance may follow the same path.
Do you think that the work of young artists is becoming too conceptual?
I think it’s something simpler, I think they simply don’t know enough about how to use their bodies. The Ballet Department of the Lithuania’s National MK Čiurlionis School of Art, is a school for ballet professionals, so I don’t know what their approach is concerning contemporary dance. But a 19-year-old young man who aspires to become an artist and graduated from that school after writing a thesis on conceptual performance came to our company and said, “I’ve never danced before, but I want to learn to dance.” This suggests that there is the idea that as long as it is a conceptual work, they can perform it themselves even if they don’t have any dance experience.

However, dance must always be physical expression that is fresh and contains new techniques. It’s a very weighty and difficult job to find and develop such a dance style, but young people are now coming to the dance scene without having learned this fact.
As is the case this time, AURA is also active in commissioning outside choreographers.
Sometimes I have knee trouble, but the company needs new stimuli all the time, so we do actively bring in outside choreographers. Although he is not a choreographer, in the past I’ve invited Roku Hasegawa (editor-in-chief of Dancework, critic, and performer) from Japan to give lessons and lectures on Butoh.
What is the relationship between your festival and the other Baltic countries?
Before independence, it was difficult to go abroad (outside the Soviet Union), so exchanges between the three Baltic countries were actually more frequent then. We weren’t involved, but someone from Estonia named Priit Roud was holding a festival for the three countries. After independence, however, everyone’s consciousness turned outward and they wanted to go farther abroad. Nonetheless, we have invited the leading Estonian company “Fine 5 Dance Theatre” (a company formed in 1992 by five dancers: Anu Ruusmaa, Katrin Laur, Tiina Ollesk, Oleg Ostanin and René Nõmmik) to our festival numerous times.

Also, in Riga, Latvia, there is a dancer named Olga Žitluhina, who organizes everything related to Latvian dance. She organizes festivals, conducts dance education at universities, and she is working to establish a new dance education department at one university. When she had her own company, we also invited them to our festival.

In Closing

What has the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic been for you in Lithuania?
The Covid-19 pandemic brought the cancellation of all international flights. Some of our dancers returned to their hometowns on the last available flights because they were scared. Eventually, only four remained in Kaunas. We were quarantined here and had nowhere to go. I gave him a task to make short dance videos. Also, during quarinte we showed performances from our archive online. I uploaded the videos on the Internet and Facebook of the four dancers dancing at home on their beds, in their hallways and kitchens.

We also scaled back the festival and invited Fine 5 Dance Theatre from Estonia and companies from Lithuania to participate in it. The world stopped, but our festival didn’t stop.
What about the Ukraine crisis? At the time of this interview, two months have passed since the invasion, and there is no prospect of a solution. Lithuania has been one of the leading nations in the EU to voice its support for Ukraine, and the Ukrainian flag is flying everywhere you walk in the streets here. Lithuania is also a member of NATO, so I think it is unlikely that the war will spread to your country ….
It is truly a terrible situation. We remember very well what the Soviet regime once did in Lithuania. The bad thing is that people get tired of a prolonged war and eventually get used to it. Efforts must be kept going to end the war.
Do you have any other specific plans for AURA or the festival going forward?
I would like to show AURA’s performance in Japan. In 2017 my piece „Abu2” was shown in Tokyo Session House. It would be great to get a bigger space next time.

*1 European Capitals of Culture
Originating from a proposal of the Greek Minister of Culture, Melina Mercouri, the European City of Culture program started in 1985 with Athens as the first City of Culture, after which European Union (EU) cities were designated in the EU countries for a period of one calendar year during which they organize a concentrated series of cultural events. In 1999, the program’s name was changed to European Capitals of Culture. The program drew attention for its potential for promoting tourism and urban development in the selected cities and the number of cities chosen each year was increased, with each organizing a year-long schedule of diverse arts and culture events. The designated Capitals of Culture for 2022 are Kaunas, Lithuania, Esch-sur-Alzerre, Luxembourg and Novi Sad, Serbia.

*2 Kaunas 2022
Starting on January 22, 2022, this program continues for roughly one year with approx. 40 festivals, including the “ConTempo” international performing arts festival, more than 60 exhibitions, including the Yoko Ono retrospective “Exit it,” over 250 stage events, over 250 stage concerts, all held in the city of Kaunas and the surrounding Kaunas area.