Hands up, anyone who knows anything about Lithuania.
It might not – yet – be a major vacation destination for most Israelis, nor a focus of artistic and cultural interest, but all that may change dramatically over the next few months. The inaugural Lithuanian Story festival is about to begin, with a diversified string of events and shows scheduled to take place around Tel Aviv between March 7 and June 1. The program takes in chamber music, poetry, performance art, electronic and indie music, movies and dance, in what promises to provide a neat intro into what the Baltic country has to offer.
Elena Keidosiute is certainly keen to get some of her home country’s creative endeavor into our collective and individual consciousness. She serves as cultural attaché at the Lithuanian Embassy in Tel Aviv, and is the brains and drive behind the new festival.
She says she and her colleagues are aiming to show Israelis a little bit of her country’s history but also to bring us up to date, too. “That was the main objective – to give Israeli audiences new keywords that would help them to recognize and know Lithuania, especially the contemporary Lithuania.”
Judging by the spread of works that will be presented to us over the next two or three months, Keidosiute stands a good chance of achieving that laudable aim.
Music is a major component of the festival agenda, and it has every reason to be. Like its neighbor Estonia, Lithuania is something of a choral powerhouse.
“Choirs are kind of a Baltic tradition,” notes Keidosiute.
The bond between the three Baltic states – Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia – came in handy in 1989, when around two million people from the three countries literally joined hands in a peaceful demonstration against Soviet rule.
Like Estonians, Lithuanians partly expressed their ardent desire to free themselves of their Soviet masters through music. That will come across clearly at the screening of How We Played the Revolution, an emotive documentary that chronicles some of the shows of Lithuanian rock band Antis and the surging mass public response.
But choral music is the most prominent element of the musical side of Lithuanian Story, with the Aidija Chamber Choir bringing its seasoned vocal skills here.
The ensemble was founded in Vilnius by Romualdas Grazinis, who will conduct the choir’s concerts here. Over the last three decades Aidija has gained a global reputation for presenting the works of contemporary Lithuanian composers, although its extensive repertoire ranges from Gregorian chants and classical works to contemporary music.
“Lithuanians are singing people. We like to sing,” says Keidosiute. “I guess it’s no wonder that, in the late Eighties and early Nineties, when we regained our independence, we had this so-called ‘singing revolution.’ It kind of made sense.”Practically every Sabra, and most olim who have been here for a while and/or have school-age children, know the name Leah Goldberg, and some of her work. Many of the Israel Prize-winning writer’s poems have been put to music, performed and recorded by top Israeli pop and rock musicians.
As Goldberg was born in Lithuania and made aliyah in 1935, she offers a tidy cultural interface between the two countries.
The festival opens at Bialik House (8 p.m.) on March 7 with an evening of previously unpublished Goldberg poems which found their way into a new tome called Hashirim Hagenuzim (The Hidden Poems).
Although she was happy to have relocated here, and was thoroughly immersed in Israel’s cultural life, Goldberg’s body of work contains several references to her country of birth.
“Not all Israelis know she was born in Kaunas [in Lithuania] and lived there for some time, and that some poems of hers actually refer to Lithuania,” Keidosiute notes. “She carried her longing for her former home, although she was so much in love with Israel. That transpires throughout her poetry. I think finding a figure like Leah Goldberg to contain two identities or two homelands in her own life – her poetry is a good medium for starting to talk about two cultures in one person. With our own multi-stratified cultural melting pot, that should resonate well here.
The Bialik House slot also offers an opportunity to get a taste of some rich literary pickings from over there, with leading Lithuanian contemporary poets Indre Valantinaite and Lina Buividaviciute also on the bill.
Elsewhere on the Lithuanian Story roster, there are some intriguing contributions by composer and performance artist Lina Lapelyte and a host of contemporary dance works, in a program at the Suzanne Dellal Center featuring The Agnija Seiko Dance Theater, choreographer Vilma Pitrinaite, the AURA Dance Company and Vilnius city dance theater LOW AIR.
Like with the rest of the festival program, Keidosiute says she wanted to show us as verified an array of Lithuanian dance as possible. She was helped, in this regard, by Suzanne Dellal Center director Yair Vardi, who popped over to Vilnius to catch some of the featured acts there.
“We picked out pieces which are very different from each other,” says Keidosiute. “It kind of encompasses what the Lithuanian contemporary dance scene is about. We have from the very conceptual to butoh. I think they are four very good pieces that you can watch and then have like a wholesome understanding of what Lithuanian contemporary dance can offer.”
Naturally, the inaugural showing here is not designed to unveil everything the Lithuanian arts community has to offer. There is, for example, no jazz in the program.
“That’s something to work on for next year,” Keidosiute laughs, admitting to an ulterior motive for holding the festival – getting people to pop over there. “People here can see the shows in May, and then summer begins and it’s a good time to go to Lithuania. Why not?”