After Baltic Bubble Riga: Nationalism in contemporary dance


From March 13 till 16, 2013 Latvia (?ertr?des Street Theater) was hosting Baltic dance platform Baltic Bubble Riga 2013. Even if not discussed directly the questions of identity and also national identity were in the air. What is different among all Baltic countries? What is similar? Are there also other things besides funding systems making us Latvians, Estonians or Lithuanians even in such nationally “neutral” art form as contemporary dance?  Thinking about that made me remember that in December 2012 during the Polish Dance Platform in Poznan Lithuanian dance critic Monika Jašinskait?  gave me her text about two dance solos (one Lithuanian, another Polish)  dealing with the subject of nationalism. So now after the Baltic Bubble Riga and before the deadline of the grant named “National Identity” at the State Culture Capital Foundation seems the right time to publish Monika’s article. National identity definitely is getting more and more topical issue in different contexts. Let’s see where it goes – towards narrow minded national slogans or towards true search for who we are and what happens with us. 

Inta Balode

Nationalism in debuts of contemporary dance

Monika Jašinskait?

Originaly the text was published in weekly newspaper “Šiaur?s at?nai”

“Folklore is incompatible with postmodernism” – I heard recently in one Vilnius bar. I doubt whether this statement cannot be denied but the fact is that nowadays nationality is not in vogue. At least in Lithuania. After a short period of revival twenty years ago when traditions of our ancestors helped us to express our political position (we sought to separate, to demonstrate that we are different), more than a decade we express our political will by trying to integrate (we want to show, that we are alike).

So nationality is (not) significant to politicians. And to culture? This summer I participated in Mobile Academy of Dance Criticism (Mobilna Akademia Krytyki Ta?ca) session in Poznan, Poland. One night, together with several Polish and one Byelorussian girl we found ourselves by the monument to Adam Mickiewicz. Here the declaration “Mickiewicz is ours” was born, which brought us together, instead of stirring a conflict. Are we not patriotic? What does it mean today to be national, to declare dependence to one or another nationality?

Two modern dance creators encouraged me to raise this issue. It was in their works that I found convincing and sincere attempts to talk about it. First is Lithuanian Aust?ja Vilkaityt?, who presented the sketch of her show “Dear Lithuania” („Lietuva brangi“) in the New Baltic dance festival (Vilnius) in May, and invited to its premiere in June. The second is Polish Agata Maszkiewicz, who created performance “Poland” (“Polska”) three years ago and this July brought it to Malta festival dance programme (Poznan). The titles of the performances chosen by their authors suggest the idea of nationality charge. Why and how do they speak on this subject?

Having looked through the descriptions of both performances you can clearly notice biography parallels of both authors. Vilkaityt? studied in Experimental academy in Salzburg, participated in students exchange programme in Helsinki, and finished her dance studies in Theatre faculty of Island Art academy in Reykjavík. Maszkievicz finished her dance studies in Dance Art institute in Linz. She took part in various projects organized outside Poland. She has won the ImPulsTanz festival dance WEB grant in Vienna, according to the ex.e.r.ce programme spent a couple of months in National choreography centre in Montpellier.

It is obvious that both artists formed themselves in international area without the usual surroundings of their family, friends, people with similar cultural experience and speaking their native language. New social relationships formed in strange surroundings raise a lot of various questions, connected with identity and with nationality. “Dear Lithuania” (2012) and “Poland” (2009) are the choreographers’ first self-dependent performances, created just after finishing the studies.

As usual, the projects of the starting choreographers are solo performances. One more similarity: they are both conceptual works, put together from independent parts, and both convey the intended not only by movement, but also by other means of expression. In Poland such performances are not rarity – not only dancers, but also the audience open to conceptualism. This is especially obvious in Poznan, which accepts and even waits for stage art novelties most likely because of the alternative Malta festival organized here for a couple of decades. In Lithuania, the situation is different: we are getting used to conceptual art in art galleries, however for the theatre audience it is still a mystery. Conceptual works of choreographers are rare, that is why Vilkaityt?’s performance is exceptional in the context of Lithuanian dance.

Anyone who is at least slightly aware of bigger issues in Lithuania or Poland can easily notice that both choreographers have chosen the subjects connected with the major social events of the time for their works. In Lithuania, the year 2012 is devoted to commemorate 150th birth jubilee of Jonas Ma?iulis-Maironis, a Lithuanian national poet. He was a neo-romanticist, national herald, and the author of the poem “Dear Lithuania” which later became one of most important Lithuanian song. His works are heard and seen so often, that a thick layer has totally hidden the original colours and meanings of Maironis’ poems. In 2009 Poland was introduced as the hostess of the European football Championship of 2012, so sport has become the country’s representation arena on international level. Both events for the choreographers have become their starting points.

Spectators gathering to the “Dear Lithuania” already see a performer in a man’s costume on the stage. She stays here till the end of the performance and while using different media she re-enacts various ideas related to nationalism and expresses her personal attitude towards them. Demonstrating a video recording of the TV show “Alchemija”, Vilkaityt? identifies herself with professor of history Egidijus Aleksandravi?ius who encourages finding new words to talk about patriotism. Quoting Maironis’s story about his garden she incites to look at the poet as a person, without the grandeur of romanticism, that typically transforms him into a hero. Chanting a popular neo-nationalist chant and at the same time violently jumping through the stage, the dancer is seeking to attract attention to conservative attitudes, usually supported by nationally engaged people, and identify it with narrow-mindedness which limits growth and advancement.

The dancer of “Poland” appears on the stage episodically, playing with spectators’ mood and expectations. The game with the audience’s reactions is recognizable in each part of the work. Tragicomic sports incidents recorded in the videos make everybody laugh, though little by little it stops being funny, sympathy for the unhappy and even indignation that somebody’s painful misfortune may become entertainment can be felt. The dancer turns up in the second episode of the dance performance wearing a track-and-field athletics suit covered in national colours; on the stage as if a slow recording her body repeats the moment of sportsmen’s unsuccessful touch with the ground.

All pieces of Maszkiewicz’s work are as if different attempts to present herself whoever that ‘she’ would be: a person, an artist, a sportsman or a state. The performer frisks the steps of national Polish dance; smiling nicely she tells anecdotes of black humor not conformed to traditional morals; physically disappears but ideologically she transfers into the video animation of deplorable aesthetics where a singing sportswoman arouses contradictory feelings in the audience: they are forced to listen to a horribly performed pleasant pop-song.

The works of both choreographers are aimed at totally different audiences. I doubt whether Vilkaityt?’s work could be understood outside Lithuania: here are a lot of codes and important issues of local culture which even with the help of precise translation would hardly reach the foreigners’ mind. Having chosen an unfashionable subject the young choreographer builds the performance for a narrow audience of Lithuanian dance. Moreover, she communicates with her spectator with the help of un-recognized language of conceptual art! It is dangerous, but daring and welcome.

Vilkaityt? creates the conditions when the success of the performance partly depends on the Lithuanian brothers’ attempts to open their minds, to accept the general cultural experience, but not to stop there and to move on and create something new. In the case of failure the aim of the author is not achieved and both the performance and the traditional national culture are devaluated. For this choreographer nationality is like a common cultural denominator, characteristic of a certain group of people. Today it can be applied like any other cultural phenomena, national or meta-national. What aim it would get and the direction it would lead, depends on us only.

Maszkievicz (who is living in France at the moment) can show her work “Polska” everywhere in the world. The performance does not contain any special codes of Polish identity that would alienate foreign spectators. The performer is connected to Poland by the costume or folk dance but it is very simple to substitute them with Lithuanian, French or any other – just like in anecdotes names of people or places, or even nationalities may be substituted. So Maszkiewicz looks at nationality as if from outside, while the Lithuanian, on the contrary, from inside.

In the Polish choreographer’s performance cultural issues are not analyzed, and nationality is significant only as a part of personal identity. In international community people often ask “Where are you from?” – this means something. The answer in this case is like connecting some known stereotype and sticking the label on to a particular individual. There are a lot of such stereotypes around. The Polish choreographer does not make a tragedy out of them; for her nationality, like any other label – sex, profession, hobbies – can stand as a brand quality label, that is only dependant on the attitudes evaluating it.

Watching performances by foreign artists, whether they are dance or drama works, one may notice self-irony, connected with the ability to critically look at oneself. In “Poland” humor turning into irony arouses from the situations, which in one way or another are connected with the woman who is Polish, a dancer and wears a sporting costume. Such humor directed towards herself helped the choreographer not only create a performance enjoyable to watch and win the viewers’sympathies, but also to avoid didactics and the subjective evaluation of the phenomena. Together with presenting facts and encouraging reflection, the artist allows the spectator decide for himself what to do with these – to understand, to accept, or just to have fun.

Bold self-irony could be also found in the sketch of Vilkaityt?’s performance. The descent from the heights of romantic spirituality to the rather cynical reality of nowadays and the attempt to speak the language of today I consider as the choreographer’s most significant step forward. But in the premier of “Dear Lithuania”, the artist wiped out the footprints of ‘mistaken path’ and firmly leaned upon national tradition of art without humor. Seriously presenting the situations and her own evaluation, the Lithuanian artist does not induce to think them over, in this way risking once again as she provokes her spectator to choose one position of the two – whether to share the author’s opinion or not.

As you see, nationality has not yet come to an end. It exists and affects even contemporary dance: the art that is neglecting traditions, very young, and dynamic, almost vanguard. Whether nationality is fashionable or not, it influences our everyday life in the shape of general cultural experience and forms the picture of our identity. Vilkaityt? and Maszkiewicz touch different aspects of nationality: one seriously tries to get deep through the prism of culture, and devotes her stage work to her nationals, while the other one ironically analyses stereotypes connected with identity and makes the performance clear to the world audience. Both artists have adopted international dance experience however, the “Poland” author seems more open to the world than the “Dear Lithuania” choreographer who, while criticizing conservative traditions, becomes the hostage of closed cultural tradition herself.

For some time now Lithuanian schoolchildren have been choosing foreign universities for their future studies. However, soon the time will come when they start coming back. It is interesting how they will see nationality. Will they be able to bring new ideas or will they be held by the hundred-year-old stone walls?