North American Song and Dance Festival Feels Influence of Troupes from Latvia

One year ago, my folk dance troupe, Washington DC’s Namejs, flew to Riga to perform in the Latvian Song and Dance Festival there. It was our very first time as a troupe traveling to the world’s premier Latvian dance event, and we were understandably excited and grateful for the opportunity. Upon arrival, we were surprised to find that we drew a lot of attention. Our changing rooms, located in a very public area and labeled with a big sign reading “Latviešu Diasporas Kolektīvi” (“Latvian Diaspora Troupes”), were constantly peered into and visited by Latvian passersby. Friends lining the festival parade route informed us that the long-cheering crowd perked up when the foreign troupes came by, with children asking their parents, “There are Latvians outside of Latvia?” The very first rehearsal began with the virsvadītāja (rehearsal leader) calling us out in front of everyone for having traveled so far. And we were peppered with requests for print and TV interviews, including a five-minute-long segment on the evening news. An headline read: “Šogad ārzemju latvieši svētkos ir īpaši pamanāmi” (“This year, Latvians from outside of Latvia are especially noticeable”).

One year later, here at Canada’s Latvian Song Festival in Hamilton, it feels like I’ve stepped through the looking glass. The festival has been under way for a couple of days now, and the large presence of groups from Latvia has been unmistakable. Nowhere was this prevalence more obvious than in the Jaundeju Skate (New Choreography Contest), which took place on Friday afternoon and had more submissions from Latvia than any other country. Out of twenty three dances, ten were performed by troupes from Latvia. Out of the 11 troupes participating in the contest, five were from Latvia. (The U.S., Ireland, and host country Canada each fielded two.)

The numbers will be a little less skewed at Sunday’s Tautas Deju Lieluzvedums, the festival’s all-inclusive main dance show, which will feature 18 North American troupes (nine Canadian, nine American) and 12 European (seven Latvian, four Irish, one German). Still, the proportion feels very different from last year’s festival in Latvia, which featured only six North American groups, making a tiny ripple in a pool of several hundred Latvian ones.

How surprising are these numbers? Are North American festivals seeing a sudden influx of non-North American groups? It turns out that no, not really. One of Hamilton’s dance festival leaders, Selga Apse, noted with a shrug that the last festival in Canada (in 2009, also hosted by Hamilton) had a similar number of Latvian troupes. When asked if there’s any explanation for the strong Latvian presence, she shrugged again, explaining simply that invitations to the festival went out to every known Latvian folk dance troupe around the globe, and these are the ones that signed up.

Having participated in a Song Festival on a foreign continent, I was curious to see how the European troupes were being received here. According to them: very well. The people I interviewed were most surprised by how extremely, overwhelmingly, and generously welcoming the local Canadian-Latvian population has been. The visitors quickly added that they were by no means anticipating a negative reception, but that they were expecting to be left to figure out the ropes on their own. Instead, they gush, the locals have taken them under their wing to ensure that their time in Hamilton goes smoothly. Edžus Arums, of dance troupe Katvari from Limbaži, said, “Mēs jūtamies aprūpēti” (“We feel cared for”) and that he was surprised by the “uzņemuma sirsnību” (“sincerity of the event”).

Indeed, among visiting groups, many if not most of which are performing in North America for the first time, there seems to be a widespread respect for the cultural preservation accomplished by post-WWII emigres to North America. When asked what he would most like to say to readers of Latvians Online, and specifically to readers who have been living in North America since fleeing Soviet occupation, Arums said, “Gribu pateikt paldies par to kas ir saglabāts, kas ir palicis tīrāk, kas pie mums nav. Par atvērtību paldies. Un, nu, gribēt lai turpināt” (“I want to say thank you for what has been preserved, what has remained clean, which we do not have. And, well, I’d like it to continue”). Arums assured me that Latvians are well aware of Latvian activity in North America, and of how exiles have worked to maintain and pass down knowledge about customs that were not easy to celebrate for decades in Latvia. He urges Latvians from all backgrounds and locations to work together to continue restoring and preserving their heritage.

Arums is not alone in his assessment. “Jums tiešām šeit ir maza Latvija,” (“You really have a little Latvia here,”) marveled Olita Lagzdiņa. Lagzdiņa is the leader of Sienāzīši and Varavīksne, two Latvian dance troupes in Ireland consisting of children and teenagers. Lagzdiņa went out of her way to find a Latvian festival for her young dancers, and stumbled upon this year’s event in Canada by searching the internet and hoping a dance festival would appear. A teacher by training, she founded a Latvian school in Longford, Ireland. Working primarily alone, she spends every afternoon with about 15 students ranging from ages five to 13. It is important to her to teach them about their Latvian heritage, despite living far from their homeland. What North American Latvians have built over the past couple decades, Ireland’s Latvians are now attempting to re-create from scratch. For Lagzdiņa’s band of popular young dancers (their 20-minute set on Thursday night was extended to 40 minutes due to audience enthusiasm, Lagzdiņa reported proudly), this visit to Canada is not so much about seeing a foreign country as it is about connecting with other Latvians and seeing how they live and operate around the world. She stressed that already in only a few short days the children of Sienāzīši and Varavīksne had grown more proud and confident in their Latvianness, and had improved as dancers.

It stands to reason that European groups would be excited to visit local Latvians. The road from Europe to North America is a long one, beginning months prior to the start of the festival; for most travelers it comes with challenges, financial and otherwise. In both North America and Europe, finding enough dancers who can afford the transatlantic trip can be problematic, and participants often drop out or join in at any moment. The troupe Katvari, for example, originally had 34 dancers signed up, but in the end only seven men and nine women could make the trip. Half of the members of Varavīksne dropped out in April, prompting Lagzdiņa to hastily find replacements, including a few dancers with no Latvian blood. Miraculously, these teenagers who had never danced a polka until three months ago are now participating in a legitimate Latvian Song Festival, and keeping up splendidly. In the end, the troupe was able to save enough funds to send eight children and six chaperones, mostly relying on personal donations and savings, as well as a door-to-door campaign (through which young dancer Dāvis Glāznieks brought in an impressive 450 euros in donations).

Other ensembles have been more fortunate. After receiving its invitation, Ačkups, the dance troupe of Rīga Stradiņš University, realized right away that, being made up almost entirely of students, they would need some help. They reached out to the community and were overwhelmed by the response, receiving support from the university, private sponsors, and the government culture fund. Perhaps most impressively, they put their project on Latvian fundraising site, which has visitors vote on projects they think deserve support. Ačkups won the competition. As a result of these efforts, Ačkups brought an impressive 28 dancers plus one troupe leader to Hamilton, making it one of the biggest groups to participate. And they couldn’t be happier about it. “Mēs visi baudam katru minūti,” (“We are all enjoying every minute,”) said smiling Ačkups dancer Dārte Ose before dashing to the stage to rehearse the group’s jaundeja, Vilnis Birnbaums’ “No Tautas Dvēselītes” (“From the Soul of the People”).

After hearing the enthusiasm with which these dancers talk about the trip, it’s impossible not to get excited right along with them. The love they have for their culture, for this opportunity, and for their hosts is palpable, and reminds me of the enthusiasm with which my troupe traveled to Latvia last year. In Hamilton, the more dancers, the merrier the show; by all accounts, the European troupes are much beloved by local festival attendees, some of whom sat outside all day to watch international groups perform solo sets on the rooftop terrace. “I think it’s great that they are here!” said one dancer from Toronto troupe Daugaviņa.

In addition to enthusiasm, the troupes from Latvia have brought a noticeable difference in dance style, perhaps most clearly differentiated by polish and professionalism. Birnbaums, a veteran choreographer who has worked extensively on both continents, explained that dance in Latvia is a machine: run through the Ministry of Culture, dance is a professional job. Latvian dance in North America, on the other hand, is run entirely by volunteers in their free time. Said Birnbaums, “Ziemeļamērikā netrūkst potensiāls, bet ir varbūt vajadzīgs atbalsts” (“North America does not lack potential, but it maybe needs more support”). Many troupes in Latvia rehearse on a near-daily basis at a near-professional level, spending as much time on general dance technique as on learning choreography. Canadian and American troupes tend to rehearse once a week or less, carving out free time outside of work, school, and other obligations, and combining experienced dancers with complete beginners. Furthermore, the dances themselves have evolved differently on each continent. In North America, the general focus is on preserving authentic Latvian elements, whereas in Latvia the dances are elaborate stage presentations, often resembling ballet. This discrepancy is often described as “traditional dance vs. stage dance.” I, personally, prefer to think of it is as “folk dancing vs. folk dancing.”

Perhaps it is best to not view this as a discrepancy, but an opportunity. Edžus Arums admitted that he was relieved to see so many stage dances at the New Choreography Contest. The reason, he said, is that in Latvia there are two main focuses in Latvian dance: preserving folk and ethnographic authenticity, and using these authentic elements to create something new. In North America, where for decades Latvian immigrants focused on passing down knowledge forbidden under Soviet rule, conservation has been taken very seriously, and has been done very well. But in Latvia, where conservation was difficult, inspiration and evolution have flourished. The key, then, is to put the pieces together to form a better, stronger Latvian dance. Arums notes that one can already see a lot of stage-dance influence in new North American choreography. But diaspora Latvians can, in turn, share their preserved traditions and heritage.

As for those attending the Canadian Song Festival, Lagzdiņa’s advice is to go to every single event, absorb every minute, get together with every dance leader you can find, and absorb as much as possible. If we continue to bring together Latvians from around the globe, and continue to share and learn from one another, we will always be one, strong people.

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