By J. Taylor Basker
Escaping both the Nazis and the Soviets, Vija Vetra fled to Austria, and then become a refugee in Australia. Born February 6, 1922 in Riga, Latvia, her family did not want her to be a dancer. But running away from home at age 16 to an aunt in Austria, Vija secretly trained in classical ballet and modern dance.
In Australia Vija became the epitome of Indian dance, where she had her own dance TV series, and performed in East/West concerts around the world. She was received in India by Prime Minister Nehru and Indira Ghandi, was the principal dancer in the musical “Kismet,” soloist in a performance for Queen Elizabeth ll, and appeared in “Carmen” in London. In 1970 she remained in the US following one of her tours, due to many offers to perform and teach. She received numerous awards from the Latvian government after it gained independence from the Soviet Union, and visited her native country annually, performing and teaching master classes there since 1990.
Interrupted by the COVID pandemic, Vija’s last Latvian performance was in June 2019, when she marked 76 years of performing. At nearly age 97, she was likely the oldest performing dancer in the world. On February 6th she will enter her 100th year. She is featured in three documentaries and two books and has been named a Westbeth icon; one Westbeth resident actually saw her perform in “Kismet” in Australia! She plans to return to Latvia as soon as possible. There are still posters and prepared PR waiting for her there.
The young woman who survived, though nearly crushed to death on the last refugee train out of Austria, was a seed that escaped imprisonment and flowered into a dancer, choreographer, teacher and an inspiration.