Queen of Dance

  • 2008-05-22
  • Interview by Monika Hanley

Vija Vetra, classically trained performer in Indian arts

World-renowned dancer Vija Vetra 85, returns to the stage, the television and the classroom in Latvia this summer. She has been called "the bridge between east and west" Vija has been taking the world by storm with her dance for over 65 years 's she is now 85 and still dancing. Now after being the subject of Aleksandar Kostic's new documentary "The World of Vija Vetra," she takes a moment and sits down to tell us about her life. 

How did you get your start in dancing?
I have been dancing my whole life and was given a full four year scholarship to go to The Music Academy of Vienna in the 1940s and received an education equivalent to a Masters from Columbia University, where I later taught.
After the war, my family and I were placed in displaced persons camps in Germany where I got to perform as well for other DP's and for the USO. I remember we were paid in cigarettes. Then after the war, my family chose to move to Australia and we were on a boat for 46 days bound for a country where we would begin the rest of our lives. When we got there I didn't want to leave the boat and I'll never forget when the boat's captain, a Norwegian, said that we'd always have a home in Oslo. Those first two years when we had the choice between working as a servant or as a nurse's aid were some of the hardest, but I still found time to dance. 

How is it that a Latvian became one of the most famous Indian dancers in the world?
I was offered a part in the Australian ballet as an Indian princess, and I said I'd never studied Indian dance, but they told me to just figure something out. So I went to the library and got a book on Indian dancing and movement and propped it up and mimicked the steps. I had a sense of affinity for it. After the performance some audience members who were Indian came backstage and congratulated me on my fine dancing and asked me where in India I had studied. When I told them I learned it from a book they were amazed and invited me to India.

I had the opportunity to go to India for the first time in 1961 and one of the leaders I met there said "Latvia will be free," just like that, in 1961 he said that. I gave a performance there. The audience reception was so good and I met with so many wonderful artists and leaders who encouraged me and who made me feel like dancing was what I was meant to do.

As Latvia under communist rule didn't have their own embassy, no matter where I went, on five continents, I registered at the Indian embassy. And they already knew me because I also represent India in my dances and I was very well known for that.

After a few successful ballet and opera shows, I was offered my own show on Australian television and my career took off from there. I went to the United States to perform and teach at various universities and I had a recurring role on Mister Roger's Neighborhood. But the life of an artist has its ups and downs, sometimes you have money, sometimes you don't but you never stop moving. Dance is linear, it's 3D and dancing, like life, keeps in constant motion, and that is what I teach.

What projects are you currently working on?
I wrote a book together with novelist Nora Ikstena but I mostly wrote it and put in some essays. I really wanted to call it "Roots and Wings," but the publisher said that there were too many books with the word "roots," so they didn't want to repeat it and so the title was "Soul and the Dance."

I wanted to call it "Roots and Wings" because it's what I dance about. The roots are my homeland, here in Latvia and the wings, I have flown throughout the world. I really am a homing pigeon, every year I return to Latvia and I perform and teach dance. But mostly in the National Theatre. Imants Ziedonis invited me the first time in 1990 and as he was the director of the Culture Fund, invited me from America to teach and to have performances. 1990 was my first performance here on the big stage and a very important time for Latvia.

What about the future of Latvia and the youth?
Percentage-wise Latvia has incredibly talented people in all walks of art. I'm happy about the youths' emotion and enthusiasm for art, for dance and for music.  I have taught thousands all over the world about the wonders of dance and the expression of movement and there are so many positive signs of people coming together that I look forward to the future.

What are some important dates to remember for performances and exhibits this summer?
Well, the first, of course, are the classes. Every Wednesday from 6-8 p.m. I give classes at the Riga Technical University on the second floor. And the class is going on now and I start with Tai Chi. Then I go on to Indian classical dance. Later I teach flamenco. The master classes go on until June 11. My students and I will also have concerts in Liepaja on May 29 and May 30 in Ventspils. 

On June 18 at 7:00 p.m.  at Ave Sol there will be a concert entitled "Ancient Life Songs" it will be my anniversary concert.