By Stanley Wlodyka
Almost 90 years ago, Vija Vetra peeked through a hole in the wall of a dance studio where ballet classes were taught. Who knows which adolescent boy had carved out the peephole, looking to stoke the fire kindled by adolescent hormones, watching the girls plié and rond de jambe their way into his profane imagination. Vetra, on the other hand, was indulging a different kind of lust altogether. From a family of little means, she could not afford to take a ballet class herself, so she watched as the ballerinas got into first position and followed suit on the other side of the wall, splaying her feet outward “and walked like a duck”. Her friend, who was in the class, helped her dress the part by giving Vetra her first pair of ballet slippers, ones which she had worn already and would have thrown out. “She threw them my way.”
She had no formal training when, at 16, she auditioned to study dance in Vienna, the famed City of Music which Mozart called his playground. Her enthusiasm and innate ability was her ticket out of her home country of Latvia. She kissed her father, mother and sister goodbye, waved to them as the train pulled from the platform, eyes glimmering with, not only the wetness of so sad a so-long, but also with the hope and excitement that comes from embarking on a life-long journey. Little did she know that Hitler and Nazi Germany would erase the innocence from the landscape of her childhood. When the world went to war, it marked Vetra as a refugee, a title she would carry for over half a century, over half her lifetime.
Having survived the war and completed her studies, the prospect of returning home was not an option when the Soviet Union engulfed Latvia. “We lost thousands and thousands of innocent people [who] were sent to gulags in Siberia, starved and worked to death, then thrown into mass graves,” laments Vetra. She found that her options for emigration were limited after trying for the United States and Canada, and was told that she needed a sponsor. She wound up in Australia, which at the time had a largely homogenous culture. Uniformly, Australians emulated their British cousins and had a cuisine that amounted to not much more than “steak and salad”, with little room for variation. “We the DP’s [displaced persons] brought culture to Australia,” asserts Vetra.
Still, it wasn’t always roses for Vija, because she was made to wait for the bouquets that customarily follow a dance recital. She was granted amnesty on the condition that she work for two years in a menial job, as a nurse’s aid in a hospital. Vija had to turn down an opportunity to go on tour with a dance company to South Africa because of this. “That was the hardest time—I was a dancer!”
Her time would come, and, as is common wisdom, a little hunger makes the food taste better. Once the two years were through, she was contracted to tour for two and a half years as an Indian Princess in the musical Kismet. However, she wasn’t trained in Indian dance, an intricate and millennia old form that demands intensely specific articulation of the hands, feet and even facial features. She overcame this obstacle by mimicking photos in a book on Indian dance performed by a man whom Vetra would call her “Guru in Absentia”—such were the times before Youtube videos! She perfected the poses, intuitively found ways of transitioning between them, and was so convincing that Indians in the audience would come up to her after the performance and speak Hindi.
There may be a simple explanation for her natural affinity for such a foreign form of expression. The name “Vija” in Latvian means “garland” (thought to have evolved from “garland of victory”), while “Vetra” means “storm cloud”; in the Indian Sanskrit, the similar “Vijaya” is translated as “victory”, and “Vritra” refers to a figure in Hinduism whom the god Indra defeats and who is personified as a storm cloud. Both in Latvian and Sanskrit, her name tells a story, predicting a life of triumph over the dark clouds of misfortune, whether it be those created by the Nazis, the Soviets, or those that hang over distant shores, when one is called to live the life of a refugee.
Eventually, Vetra would make a pilgrimage to India to undergo proper training and soon would travel the world. After a performance in London, a very special member of the audience approached her. It was her “Guru in Absentia”, the noted dancer Ram Gopal, the man in the photos from whom she received her first lessons all those years ago. He asked her to join his dance company and she jumped at the chance. “In my life,” smiles Vija, “I have experienced many closing circles.”
Dance would eventually be Vetra’s ticket to the United States, as she built a bridge between the East and the West by combining styles and modes from different traditions. In 1960’s New York, she introduced the concept of sacred dance in churches, considered something strange and almost sacrilegious in the States, but an integral part of worship from time immemorial in India. Vija explains, “My prayer is through dance. It is offering my whole self—without any reserve—to the deity.”
At 95 years old, spirituality remains an important part of her life. For more than 40 years, she has traveled annually to an island in Greece, visiting an ancient temple where she swears she served as a temple dancer in a past life. She believes that life’s greatest tragedies, from murder to war, stem from forgetting that humans are mostly spiritual beings, rather than physical ones.
This comes as a surprise, considering that her profession is an intensely physical one, and that after living for nine and a half decades she exhibits remarkable physical strength and flexibility, as well as a mind that is almost impossibly sharp and quick-witted. Inevitably, she is bombarded by the question, “What’s the secret?”, and after ruminating on it innumerable times, she’s boiled it down to a twofold answer. First: Always be as a child. Never lose that sense of curiosity and wonder and appreciation for the small, daily glories. Second: Dance, dance and dance. With music, or without, it doesn’t matter. Just dance.
Vija Vitra is an original tenant of Westbeth Artists Housing and travels every year to Latvia for a command performance. She is the subject of two books and three documentaries, one of which, “The World of Vija Vetra”, is available for streaming on Amazon Prime.