Latvian Song and Dance Festival Draws Enthusiastic Crowds to Hamilton

“Tie kas dzied un dejo ir vienmēr jauki, humora pilni!” (“Those who sing and dance are always jolly, always full of humor!”) These are the words of Olita Lagzdiņa, describing why she was excited to bring her two children’s folk-dancing troupes, Sienāzīši and Varavīksne, all the way from Longford, Ireland, to this year’s Latvian Song and Dance Festival (Dziesmu Svētki) in Hamilton, Canada. If Lagzdiņa is right, then Hamilton may have been the world’s happiest city this past weekend, as approximately 500 dancers, 400 singers, numerous musicians, actors, tradesmen, and spectators poured into the city. In total, roughly 3,000 people from at least six countries on two continents gathered to celebrate Latvian song and dance, and meet friends old and new. From the very first step of the performers’ parade in Sidrabene’s Vasaras Vainagu Svētki (Folklore and Family Day) at 11 o’clock Tuesday morning to the very last strike of the piano keys during the unofficial post-farewell-dance sing-along at 4 o’clock Monday morning, this was truly an event to remember.

By all accounts, the festival was a tremendous success. But how, exactly, does one define a successful Latvian Song and Dance Festival? According to Juris Ķeniņš, who serves as the chair of the board for the Latvian Song and Dance Festival Association of Canada and was also this particular festival’s vice president and music committee leader, a festival organizing committee has four primary responsibilities.

The first is to ensure that the festival meets a certain artistic standard, with quality performances and events worth attending. This year the festival hosted about 40 separate events of stunning variety. From folk dance lessons with Latvian band Folkvakars to the Concert of Latvian Chamber Music and Opera, from the theatrical production of Rūdolfs Blaumanis’ classic comedy “Skroderdienas Silmačos” (“Wedding at Silmači”) to the Massed Choir Concert, from children’s arts-and-crafts activities to a rock concert at Club Absinth with band Penzionāri, this Song Festival had something for everyone.

Variety is one thing, but quality is another. In an informal poll, most spectators had trouble picking a favorite event, claiming that every one was fantastic, and none was lacking. Yet certain standouts were cited: “Nottawasaga,” an original piece by Andrew Downing commissioned specifically for this year’s festival and performed at the Concert of Latvian Chamber Music and Opera, received rave reviews, with listeners particularly intrigued by the interesting combination of instruments (a result of Downing’s experience with jazz music). The final three songs of the Massed Choir Concert—“Saule Brida Rudzu Lauku,” “Rožu Vainadziņš,” and “Dziesmu Pinu, Deju Pinu”—were cited as “truly amazing” by both audience members and participating singers. And everyone at Dziesmu Svētki fell in love with the young children of Longford folk-dance troupe Sienāzīši, who demonstrated dance ability well beyond their years and, not surprisingly, won the audience-favorite award at the New Choreography Contest.

A festival organizing committe’s second goal, according to Ķeniņš, is fiscal responsibility. It’s no secret that the 2007 festival, in Indianapolis, lost money, a common worry for potential host cities. But unlike their American neighbors, Canadian-Latvians work under the auspices of the Latvian Song Festival Association of Canada, a blanket organization that ensures that funds from one festival can be used for the next, thus covering potential losses. It’s the nature of the beast, after all, that some festivals lose money and others gain it. The last Canadian festival, held in Hamilton in 2009, earned a $40,000 profit, providing a decent safety net for this year’s organizers.

A key to a financially successful festival is an accurate estimate of attendance, which naturally leads to a more accurate budget. The general rule, according to Ķeniņš, is to estimate a 10 percent drop from festival to festival due to the natural shrinking of the active Latvian community in North America. But while a decrease may be natural, multiple attendees expressed concern at the lack of people at events. “I was a little disappointed in the turnout,” admitted Namejs dancer Aleks Israels. And Daugaviņa dancer Kristaps Roze, who served on the New Choreography Contest committee, pointed out that in the U.S., the theater for the new-choreography competition would have been packed, but in Hamilton was half full.

But these apparent attendance issues should not be discouraging. Ķeniņš explains that while some events, such as the Massed Choir Concert and the Folk Dance Spectacle, brought in fewer spectators than expected (1,400 attendees and 1,700 attendees, respectively), other events, such as the Concert of Sacred Music and the Concert of Latvian Chamber Music and Opera, exceeded expectations. In the end, according to Baiba Bredovska, the chair of the organizing committee for this year’s festival, the approximate count of 3,000 attendees matched the committee’s estimates.

It’s too early to speculate whether this festival was financially successful, however, as it will take time for the dust to settle on the festival’s books. Standing in the hotel lobby on the morning after the festival, a tired yet smiling Bredovskis explained that while most people now count this festival as complete, the organizers who have been working tirelessly for the past three years still have six months or so of post-festival tasks to wrap up before they can officially rest.

The third responsibilty of organizers, according to Ķeniņš, is to ensure that spectators have a pleasant experience. This is partially taken care of by quality entertainment, though Ķeniņš cautions that something considered “good” may not necessarily be something audiences will like. And there is more to the festival experience than entertainment. Hotel costs, for example, figure into every festivalgoer’s budget; a benefit of hosting the festival in Hamilton—an hour’s drive from Toronto—was that hotels cost less, on average, than those of a larger city. Another benefit of Hamilton was that, though the festival’s 40 events spanned 12 venues, all were easily accessible by foot, eliminating travel and transportation headaches.

In addition to show quality and logistics, participant happiness also depends on a sense of inclusion—a harder-to-pin-down, but significant, reason many people journey to Latvian song festivals. Signe Pujate, the deputy director of the Latvian National Centre for Culture, stresses, “Dziesmu svētki tiešām vieno cilvēkus” (“Song festivals truly unite people”), and “Mēs esam viens otram vajadzīgs, latvietis latvietim” (“We need each other; one Latvian needs another”). But Pujata also says it’s important, and a positive aspect, that this sense of unity doesnnot come with a sense of exclusion; many festival participants are not Latvian by blood, but come to experience the culture of their friends and loved ones. Liana Jūrmalietis, who grew up with her Latvian father and German-Canadian mother in a small Canadian town with no other Latvians, says that because she does not speak Latvian and did not have a chance to engage with other Latvians growing up, she can feel like an outsider when dealing with the Latvian community. But music is a universal language, and Jūrmalietis, who attended seven events in Hamilton, has found it an effective way to reconnect with other Latvians: “These festivals are wonderful for people like me, who don’t speak Latvian, to get a taste of the culture.”

Another potentially excluded group, and perhaps the most valuable in terms of carrying on a Latvian heritage and legacy, is children. Festival chair Baiba Bredovska explains that when her own children were young, her family never attended song festivals, because while she could have dragged along her kids to concerts, there really was little to interest and engage them. She’s proud to have introduced many children’s activities this year, including arts-and-crafts projects on the rooftop terrace and a children’s ball. Hopefully this trend continues, so that more families choose to make the trip.

Finally, Ķeniņš states, the fourth and most important responsibility of festival organizers is to take care of the performers, because without them, there would be no performances. He suggests that performers often have the hardest jobs at the festival, pointing as an example to the dancers, who are expected to be at rehearsals at 8 a.m. for two or three mornings straight after virtually no sleep. While it would be impossible to pay the way for a thousand performers, it is possible to make the stay more comfortable and affordable. In Hamilton, troupes from Europe were found affordable housing at a nearby university and shuttled to events. Volunteers provided rehearsal-time meals, and sweating dancers received an endless supply of water during practices and shows. And all performers received a coupon that gave them the opportunity to visit other festival events, where schedules allowed.

For most performers, these perks are sincerely appreciated, but peripheral. Most come for the love of the experience, the ability to engage with friends, and the sheer joy of singing and dancing. Namejs dancer Andžs Ubelis’ happiest moment was when his troupe nailed one of its most difficult dances, “Uz Dalderi Dancu Griezu.” Organizing committee member and Dižais Dancis dancer Benita Lase beamed at seeing her own choreography, “Lanckarons,” performed in the Folk Dance Spectacle. Zinta Amoliņa and Lionels Zando both enjoyed dancing with lovely people, excitedly adding that their festival experience has been “fantabulous!” Kristīna Ģiga, who sang in the Massed Choir Concert, watched the Folk Dance Spectacle with some anxiety. She usually participates in the folk dancing, and was itching to be on the dance floor. To her, it would feel strange to come to a Latvian song festival without actually performing in any of the events; having the opportunity to sing and dance with other Latvians seems to be the best thing about song festivals, and as long as that opportunity exists, performers will be happy.

In the end, the organizers fulfilled their four responsibilities, and this year’s festival was a tremendous success, studded with enthusiastic voices, hopping feet, and smiling faces. Attendees young and old, from as far away as Stockholm and as near as down the block, from rock stars to opera singers, left Hamilton this week with a bittersweet sense of satisfaction, content but already longing for the next opportunity to sing and dance together. “Ja jūs nebijāt svētkos, tad ļoti žēl,” says Bredovksa. “Jūs pietrūkāt.” (“If you were not at the festival, then that is a shame. You were missed.”)

One thought on “Latvian Song and Dance Festival Draws Enthusiastic Crowds to Hamilton”_en

  1. To Kristaps: Unfortunately a number of people who wanted to go to the New Choreography performance were under the impression that the event had been sold out and that no more tickets were to be had. Seems like they were sold out at the hotel, but that people were not told that tickets could also be purchased on site at Hamilton Place.

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