By Stanley Wlodyka Jiménez
Vija Vetra, a dancer living at Westbeth, is exceptionally proud of her country of birth, which isn’t India, in case you made that assumption after having watched her perform. It’s surprising that she should feel so Latvian at her core, considering that she spent only a fifth of her life in that Baltic state, leaving when she was just a teenager. It’s a testament to this idea that first impressions can last a lifetime. It follows, then, that Latvia must be an incredible country since, at 97 and a half (she insists that the half be counted) Vija has lived more life than most have.
As with a lot of things, Vija’s perception of aging is different from the average viewpoint. For one, the minute her birthday arrives she starts counting toward the next one, so eager is she to reach the next milestone. That’s because she believes she accumulates wealth with the passage of time. However, despite the massive fortune of nearly a century of life, Vija still can find herself surprised. Asked whether, in all her life, she’s witnessed something akin to the spread of COVID, she answers without hesitation, “Never ever, and I don’t think anybody else has either. Because it has taken over globally. This way—it has never happened.” Considering the variety of experiences she’s had, that is saying something.
Vija has lived on five continents, given a command performance for the queen of England, and studied under arguably the most celebrated practitioner of Indian classical dance in history. She’s the subject of two books (which you can find on Amazon) and three documentaries. With all that life, the only period that was more traumatizing for her than the current one was World War II, when she was a young woman studying ballet in Vienna.
During that time she found herself trapped in a building that was bombed by the Russians. With little air and less hope for survival, Vija considers her unlikely salvation from the rubble to have been her first encounter with the supernatural realm. She believes the fact that she is alive today to tell the tale is a miracle.
She fled Vienna with scores of other civilians anxious about the advances of the Red Army, and remembers with a chill the scene of her escape at the train station. It wasn’t at all certain that the train would even leave the station, but when the pistons began to pump, the desperate crowd leapt into action, crawling through the windows and climbing up on top of the train, anything to get out and away.
“The masses pressed into me so much I thought that my ribs would crack, and before I knew it I was inside the train.” And even if she was able to gather enough breath to breathe a sigh of relief, it was short-lived. Safely outside of Vienna, that trainload of civilians was targeted by American bombers. Running for her life, away from the stalled train in the middle of the countryside, she recalls, “The flyers came down so low until they could see we were not a military train. We were just people trying to get away.”
It was in this way, running into the forests of Bavaria, that her life as a refugee began. After the war, her native Latvia fell under the rule of the Soviets. Scores of her fellow countrymen were removed to forced labor camps in Siberia where most of them eventually died. For the next 45 some odd years, she returned only once to her homeland before the Iron Curtain fell, to give a performance in 1979 in a theater filled with Communist officials. After the performance, her friends, family and even acquaintances were questioned by secret police. The Soviet government considered her an American Mata Hari—a dancing spy.
Though she’s never shown up on any government’s payroll, one would have done well to recruit her as she’s learned a lot about humans through dance. At 97 (and a half), there’s one thing that she’s quite certain about: people are basically the same everywhere you go. Vija believes that environmental factors affect the way communities behave and are ultimately responsible for the differences that can be observed between one group and another. This is blaringly obvious when the trained eye considers regional dance styles. People who live in the mountains create dances that reflect the elevation, desert dwellers spin in ways that recall sandy vales of wind, and inhabitants of villages by the sea will incorporate moves reminiscent of the casting of a fishing net.
It’s all firmly based on logic, and for Vija it couldn’t make more sense. She was taught by her Indian dance master that the supreme Indian deity Nataraja created the universe through a cosmic dance. This divine directive helped her accomplish her life’s work. In the U.S., aside from teaching generations of dancers their power in a classroom environment, she was a pioneer of sacred dance—the act of dancing as a mode of worship in religious settings like churches. For her, dance has always been a way of elevating the soul to a higher plane.
The changes we’ve seen in recent months have been, admittedly, a challenge for Vija. Normally, she makes an annual trip to her homeland to perform for audiences filled with notable Latvians, including the president of that Eastern European country. It’s always something to look forward to, and (a secret to her incredible longevity) something to work toward. This year, however, everything has changed. “Performance is something special, because you give it to the people. You share of yourself. So being in quarantine as I am, I feel left out and depressed,” Vija laments.
Despite today’s unprecedented challenges she does manage to find blessings to count. An original tenant of Westbeth Artists Housing, which this year celebrates its 50th anniversary as the largest artist residency in the world, she appreciates the network of support that this community provides for her. For example, she’s able to stay safely quarantined because the man who lives on the floor above her at Westbeth gets her groceries for her and a few of the other seniors. “I’ve never met him before and I don’t know what he looks like, because when he comes half his face is covered.”