New Baltic Dance Festival’s spearhead: ‘Dance has so many faces … and no limits’

  • 2016-06-15
  • Geoffrey Laperrousaz

Audronis Imbrasas is the Lithuanian organiser of the festival New Baltic Dance, taking place annually in Vilnius since 1997. In May 2016, the festival gathered in Vilnius 19 companies and choreographers from all over the world. In 1992 his created Lithuanian dance information Centre, a non-governmental organisation, evolved into a major independent and contemporary arts body in Lithuania. The Baltic Times met this outstanding Baltic cultural figure for an interview.

Could you tell me more about your career please?

I’m a former ballet dancer myself. I graduated at the Choreography Department of M.K Ciurlionis Arts School, in Vilnius. I stopped dancing in 1989 when Lithuania was separating from the Soviet Union. I was a dance critic for ten years. Then I moved to management. I started to do professional trips, including an internship with the French ministry of Culture in 1993, so I travelled in France, and in the United States.

What did you discover during those trips?
I was impressed by the modernity of ballets in Paris. It was a cultural shock. I tried to see all the performances. I thought it was my obligation to bring them back to my country. In the USSR, dance was limited to ballets of the 19th century. I wanted to bring trends from Western culture, artistic genres that didn’t exist here. I started to organise projects with the French cultural institute.

What kind of establishment is the Lithuanian dance information centre (LDIC)?
The contemporary art centre is a combination of forces. It is a creative industry with priority for contemporary performing arts. It is a venue that functions as the major part of the Vilnius independent and contemporary performing arts sector. Almost 350 public events are taking place here per year. It’s very active. It mostly contains theatre and dance but it is also opened to new fields and new forms as circus. There are also music and cinema events. This is a venue for performances, and a creation house which produces in different ways. Basically it has been producing young theatre directors and choreographers. It is also a place for incubating arts organisations which have their offices here. We try to fill gaps of the state culture policy and the city council policy with different solutions. If activities are already done in a sector we don’t replace them but when we consider there is a gap in society, as there was for circus, we try to fill it.

What is the goal of the Arts printing house?
With four colleagues we initiated the printing house. When we started, the cultural field was limited to State theatres in Lithuania. There was not any venue for the independent field. In 1991 the first companies appearing were from Oskaras Korsunovas and Eimantas Nekrosius. If they wanted to do performances they had to rent out the stage of the National drama theatre or another state theatre. It was expensive. There was no policy to compensate the cost. Our idea with this house was to have a space in Vilnius which would be opened for new appearing independent companies of performing arts, and opened to new genres. For example we started the New circus festival, a festival of contemporary circus which takes place in Sept. 2016.

How did the idea for New Baltic Dance festival come about?
When we started in 1995, we had gained independence five years ago. Many things were collapsing. Tensions still remained with Russia. It was like the Great Revolution in France in 1789. When I was communicating with my colleagues we had the idea to establish Baltic networks in theatre, dance, or even create Baltic radio. This idea was a bit paranoid or ironic. We wanted to create co-operation between Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Nordic countries, and Poland. In autumn 1996, I was visiting a contemporary dance festival in Vitebsk, in Belarus. I saw quite good performances from Estonia and from Russia. I thought we should try to launch the New festival in Vilnius. I asked to the companies: “Would you come if we started the festival?” They said yes and the first festival took place in March 1997. In 2015, 20 foreign countries where represented in our dance performances.

Is there any co-operation between the Baltic States in the dance field?
We are communicating very well among the three countries. Almost every year one or two Latvian companies and Estonian ones come to the New Baltic dance festival. Many Nordic and Baltic companies have presented their first professional piece in our festival. Usually, famous companies from France, Canada, and the US consider us as one region. They would like to do a tour in one week in the three Baltic countries. That’s possible sometimes, but we can’t do the same festivals and bring the same companies to all three capitals. We communicate with Estonian colleagues or with the Baltic ballet festival in Riga. Sometimes we bring the same companies together but not often. We know each other very well. We’ve been running some projects together. For example there is the network, Kedja, a Nordic-Baltic dance network. Yet, I’m a bit frustrated because there are not so many co-productions between our three countries. Maybe because all of us intend to have companies from outside the Baltic States. As communities we help each other a lot. At the beginning when I started the LDIC, in 1990, Latvian dance companies wanted to raise this status also. I was voicing for them, for the Olga Zitluhina Dance Company for example, by talking to the Latvian ministry of culture.

Which choreographers do you personally like?
So many! I moved from ballet to contemporary dance. I see sometimes 20 to 25 productions in three days. I find nice things in small details. I like the performance of the Icelandic group Lazyblood. I like Yoann Bourgeois, a French circus dancer. I also like Karine Saporta, Mats Ek, a genius choreographer of the 20th century. Russell Maliphant, Ohad Naharin, Wayne McGregor, Eduard Lock, Bill T. Jones. Just to be honest, those names changed the dance world.

How did you enter the dance field?
It was my destiny! Sometimes people are moved by small details. They choose between many paths. In the former Soviet Union, only few families had a television. We didn’t. I remember when I was eight years old. I was at the neighbour’s home. I saw something that caught me… It was ballet. I didn’t know what it was. People I didn’t know were doing things that I didn’t understand on the screen. I think now that they were Lithuanian dancers. When I came back at home, I said to my mom who worked in agriculture: “Mom, I want to do that.” We lived in the town of Jonava. In this city that sounded like the small guy I was, I wanted to go to the moon! It was a profession which would not find anyone to know what it was here. But that was my dream. And it happened. After some talks with mom, I entered the Ballet school in Vilnius, one or two years after this event. The ballet school was accepting 10-year-old children.

Did your mom accept your desire?
She’s not alive anymore so I don’t know if she really accepted. I moved at 10 years to Vilnius. That was my destiny. Now I work in the contemporary art field because I know what ballet is. My will is to change my society and to change my country bringing modern forms of culture. I didn’t say that contemporary dance is better than ballet. I just didn’t agree that part of my society had to see only the classical Soviet ballets.

What are the challenges for Lithuanian dance companies today?
The challenge is how to survive because most of the dance field functions in the market conditions. Of course most of them get grants for making new performances, but how to survive between projects? That’s a tricky issue. Except the State ballet, or the Kaunas dance theatre that is subsidised by the city, no company is subsidised by the State. Otherwise all the dance companies have to function as project-based. They apply, they get money or they don’t get. It’s like a lottery. There is no system of subsidies for administration costs. No orchestras here would imagine functioning like that. There are 13 state drama theatres in Lithuania, and no dance theatres. On a State level there are no venues for independent companies.

Do you receive financial supports from the government?
Maybe it’s ambitious to say, but the system of financing for culture in Lithuania has developed with the New Baltic dance festival. Actually the LDIC is one of the first independent organisation in the country. We are one of the active voices for changes in cultural policy, by talking publicly, by writing articles, by lobbying, by encouraging people to be active. When we started the festival there were no formal programmes of the Ministry of Culture to apply for support. The same is happening now in Ukraine where there are only State theatres. There is not any money for the independent field. At the beginning the Ministry of Culture said that they would give us the support after the festival. We did the festival without any money, we got it after.

How much do you receive from the state?
This year we received 115,000 euros from the State and almost 16,700 euros from the City of Vilnius. Companies have grants in their countries too. The financing has gradually developed. Since 2006 there has been a list of major festivals in Lithuania which receive support. It is updated every three years. In 2014 all festivals got answers at the end of March. It was too late! You can’t contact all the companies four weeks before the festival to invite them. It’s not normal, but for festivals in spring it functions like that.

How could you explain this situation?
The Ministry of Culture thinks it’s not a problem. Some mistakes and wrong decisions have been made in the cultural policy. The state budget implies that all the money has to be spent until the end of December. Then a new period starts.