Performances for Infants by [i]Dansema[/i] and Birutė Banevičiūtė

By Monika Jašinskaitė 2019-03-09
Birutė Banevičiūtė and her dancers - Mantas Stabačinskas and Marius Pinigis. Photo by Dmitrijus Matvejevas
Birutė Banevičiūtė and her dancers - Mantas Stabačinskas and Marius Pinigis. Photo by Dmitrijus Matvejevas


This January, the path of over 35 thousand kilometres was covered by Dansema Dance Theatre. The performances of the theatre where shown in the Czech Republic, the USA, India and China. No doubt, this is the most touring Lithuanian contemporary dance troupe, targeting also at the title of the most travelling national theatre. For ten years, Dansema has been the only dance theatre in Lithuania creating performances for children. During the recent years, Head of the theatre and choreographer Birutė Banevičiūtė has managed to convince the audiences both in Lithuania and abroad that not only children but also infants can watch her performances.

The works by this dance artist evoke pleasant emotions not only in the youngest appreciators of art but also in their parents. Certain principles lie behind these seemingly simply structured stagings not requiring virtuoso performance. This is the calling card of choreographer Banevičiūtė. “Having been creating for children for ten years - out of which five years have been devoted to infants - I can say that I do have my system,” the choreographer says in her interview for magazine Krantai. “It's based on theoretical literature about the understanding of art, developmental psychology, my own experience as a dance teacher at the art studio Diemedis, and practical workshops for children after Dansema performances.”

As the artist claims in the portal Media forumas, everything started in 2006, when Cultural Attaché of Sweden in Lithuania Torsten Schenlaer introduced the experience of his country to Lithuanians and invited our choreographers to the international contemporary dance festival for a young audience Salto! in Malmö. Banevičiūtė recollects that, “When I created for adults, I felt the urge to express my thoughts and feelings. When I started creating for children, I pushed away my artistic ambitions. My biggest aim was to help children understand what we do. I feel really grateful to Torsten for this. He revealed important things about creating for children. Of course, I also read a lot about this and I was interested in psychological as well as physical development of children. So, naturally, absolutely different things became of great significance. When creating for children, a choreographer becomes a psychologist.” 

One of the conditions for success of Dansema is similar psychological and physical development of children in different corners of the world. Thus, the experience acquired in Sweden and Lithuania could be applied virtually everywhere around the globe. “During our tours in various countries, I've noticed that the reactions of children under three are the same. It doesn't matter if it's Shanghai, Berlin, Kiev or Washington. The peculiarities of psychological development of children don't differ that much. The only possible differences can be associated with the cultural and communication peculiarities of their parents,” Banevičiūtė says in the portal “We are often asked how such abstract dance can be presented to children. We don't personify rabbits or foxes. And our costumes are abstract. But children understand everything. Judging from what they do during a performance, how they repeat our movements or play with the set after a performance, we can say that they do notice and understand everything. This is one more proof that dance is the only universal language. It is understandable irrespective of cultural or age differences.”

When Banevičiūtė started creating for infants, she had to change the attitude of the audience. In her interview for the newspaper Lietuvos žinios, she says, “Speaking about the theatre for infants, the attitude of parents is that small children don't understand anything. This naturally arouses questions - if they claim that a child doesn't understand anything, why do they bring them to the theatre? A lot of adults, not necessarily parents (possibly teachers, educators and even some theatre enthusiasts), consider that children 'can' start going to the theatre when they are five, i.e. when they 'already understand.' Yes, a five-year-old can speak their mind and express their attitude after a performance, but children do understand from the very start - it's us who don't recognise the signs of their understanding.”

Banevičiūtė has paid great attention to the research on infant reactions. “You can't dance to children in the same way you do to adults,” explains the artist in the portal Media forumas. “The technique is identical but choreography is different. When together with the dancers we created performances for children, our aim was to repeat the movements that are familiar to infants and children. I've noticed that when the small spectators climb on the stage or return home after our performances, they try to move, do somersaults and throw pillows in the air like our dancers do.”

One of the most important tasks when creating performances for infants is to catch their attention, whereas their reactions, according to the choreographer, come naturally. Due to different stages of psychological and physical development of children, Banevičiūtė tries to define the age group of the children her works are aimed at as accurately as possible. Theatre critic Ramunė Balevičiūtė supports such an approach in magazine Kultūros barai, “Theatre helps to know yourself as well as the world better, and cognition in theatre can only occur through learning or experiencing the beauty and diversity of the world. The cognition needs and limits are defined by the age of children. Therefore, it is very important that theatre creators know the peculiarities of different age stages.” In her article, the author evaluates that the interactive dance performance-laboratory Twinkles (Lith. Šviesiukai) by Banevičiūtė corresponds exactly to the interests of the audience.

Even though the performances by Banevičiūtė are for infants, they also bring a lot of joy to parents. In the interview for the newspaper Lietuvos žinios, the choreographer observes, “I can tell from my own experience that parents often see their child in a completely different light when they come to the theatre. It is very important for parents to know how the behaviour of their child changes in different environments as this also encourages them to look for suitable circumstances to create positive environments.”

While creating a safe environment to the smallest spectators, the choreographer tries to change certain habits of their parents. In her interview for the portal, Banevičiūtė emphasizes that, “Parents around the world as well as in Lithuania tend to urge their children to react. Without any pressure, I seek to show that a child needs time. After several seconds, they do show their reaction, which comes as a big surprise to their parents. Parents said the performance had left a big impression on them as they had seen their kids reacting in a different way than at home. Parents want their children to obey adults. They don't give them enough time to settle down, realise and think things over. I believe this is the problem of modern parents.” New experiences of parents in Dansema performances contribute to the changes of this situation.

Such strong dancers as Marius Pinigis, Agnė Ramanauskaitė, Mantas Stabačinskas and Giedrė Subotinaitė dance regularly in performances by Banevičiūtė. Speaking about the performance of stagings for infants with magazine Krantai, the artist mentions that, “On the one hand, performance does not differ in any way: professionalism of dancers is still very important in terms of technique. In general, technical dancers are one of the pillars of a successful performance. On the other hand, it is very difficult to dance in such a performance because performers are always very close to the unpredictable audience and they cannot hide behind choreography. It is highly probable that during a performance, choreography will have to be changed in response to a situation, for example, if, all of a sudden, a child emerges in the place where a dancer has to swing a leg or do a somersault. So, dancers try to stick to improvisational mode and they have to see everything around them.”

Banevčiūtė created her first work for infants Puzzle (Lith. Mozaika) in 2012. In her interview for magazine Krantai, she says that this performance, “was born from the image of geometrical forms and colours. Children of this age always notice such things and perceive them without even knowing their names. Normally, small children understand everything - they can identify shapes and colours, but they don't possess the vocabulary to name them. In Puzzle, we combine parts of different shapes, constantly change them so that at the end of the performance whole structures of one colour are made. This represents an entire story to infants; a traditional narrative, plot and symbolic meanings are not important to children under three. That's why the performances for this audience are more abstract. One more key aspect in the creation of Puzzle was the wish to help children identify the movements of the troupe dancers. To do this, we employed the movements typical of separate age stages of children, i.e. crawling, swaying, rolling, sitting and etc. As a matter of fact, the entire choreography of the performance is based on the movements of children. But this is in no way an imitation of children - the troupe dancers on the stage do not pretend to be small children.”

In 2016, the performance was presented at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. In the daily The Times, critic Donald Hutera wrote that in Puzzle, a spectator “/.../ finds three adept dancers in short-sleeved, knee-length onesies cavorting with and, in some cases, from inside an assortment of big, spongey objects covered in primary hues. Puzzle is more active and even chaotic, albeit gently so, that the previous show (Colourful Games - M.J.) but in both cases the soundtrack shifts smoothly from up-beat rhythms to more soothing sounds. And here, once again, there is an unforced and unselfconscious expertise at work that allows the cast to genuinely connect with those watching.”

The second Dansema performance for infants Colourful Games (Lith. Spalvoti žaidimai) was created in 2015. In the interview for magazine Krantai, the choreographer says that the performance developed through the observation of the reactions of children in Puzzle. “I saw that in such a situation, some children find it very difficult to move in just one place - they want to go on the stage and to participate in the performance action. In general, the following three groups of the small spectators can be singled out: those who wish to engage in the action immediately, those who stay still for some time and then join in, and those who can sit without moving through the entire performance. Looking at different reactions of these groups, I've decided that in Colourful Games we should allow children to take part in the action at their own pace. As soon as parents start to discipline or keep their children from climbing on the stage, tears and anger erupt. It would be so nice if the small spectators didn't undergo such emotions; especially, when funny and pleasant experiences are being created for them. That's why there are separate parts of dance and participation of children in Colourful Games.”

Speaking about the International Independent Festival for Young Audiences KITOKS (DIFFERENT) taking place in Vilnius, critic Aušra Kaminskaitė writes in the weekly 7 meno dienos, “The performance Colourful Games by Lithuanian Dansema Dance Theatre is worth mentioning. It's so fascinating to observe how some parents try to control their little ones, the others allow them to do whatever they wish, and still others urge their frightened infants to react; there are also parents who “know” well why their child is crying but employ completely ineffective methods to soothe them. Before the performance, choreographer Birutė Banevičiūtė encourages parents to allow their children to do whatever they want to, as long as this doesn't pose threat to the kids, the dancers and the set. And this is the situation, where the discoveries of parents begin. After the performance they often share proudly these discoveries with one another and the choreographer. In other words, such performances inevitably become an educational programme not only for the little ones but also for the accompanying adults.”

In 2016, Colourful Games was also presented in Edinburgh. In the daily The Times, critic Donald Hutera writes that, “Part of the pleasure of Colourful Games is watching little kids having what may well be their first immersive theatrical experience. Lasting for a relaxed minutes, this simple but sweet performance presents movement in a circus context. Giedre Subotinaite, a dancer with a lovely presence, uses a variety of big top-themed props - from a small tent out of which her legs can pop, to ribbons, hoops, red noses and balls - to attract an audience of tykes and the adults accompanying them. Audience members of any age are welcome on to the stage. The interaction this leads to are playful and varied, running a gamut of shyness and curiosity to squealing delight.”

In Lithuania, Colourful Games has been awarded the National Golden Stage Cross in the category of the Best Performance for Children. Also, the choreographer was invited to transfer her work to foreign stages - Colourful Games was presented at the Hessian State Theatre of Wiesbaden (Germany) in 2016, and at the Dakh Theatre in Kiev (Ukraine) in 2018.

The most recent creation for infants by Banevičiūtė is her performance Twinkles (2017). In magazine Krantai, the choreographer says, “Twinkles was inspired by the reactions of children during Colourful Games. Some of them need too much time to engage in the action and only toward the end of the performance they start to experience the pleasure of participation and game; and we tell them to come back because we have a different game to show. It was a pity to interrupt that investigation process of children. That's why in Twinkles - the performance about the sources of light - we had an idea to create such a situation, where children could come on the stage whenever they pleased and stay there as long as they wished. So, in this performance, the audience is seated in the action so that they don't have to cross the boundaries of the hall and the stage, and to make the involvement cosier.”

In the portal, theatre critic Rūta Oginskaitė writes about the performance, “Twinkles by Birutė Banevičiūtė created for the smallest ones is an actively interactive... what? It can't be referred to as a performance; it's more a variety of communication or game, some sort of new experience as dancers Mantas Stabačinskas and Marius Pinigis act among the twinkles and children on the stage. They act with great precaution, observing their unpredictable partners, provoking and protecting them; so busy and in scurrying in all directions like ants. And these two big people - not parents and not scary strangers - are game partners, who can light a lamp or unexpectedly make a headstand. In truth, the dancers are like guardian angels and great wizards, but at the same time, their roles are sort of complimentary because the stage is burling with the action of the little ones. It must take a lot of great talent and tantamount experience for the two acknowledged dancers to behave in such a subtle and yet intriguing way.” 

Critic Donald Hutera, who writes for the daily The Times, has rightly summarised the activities and achievements of the Lithuanian choreographer, “Dansema's productions are structured experiences that help introduce brand-new spectators to art and entertainment.” It is encouraging that together with the performances by Banevičiūtė shown to the youngest audience, more and more dance creators hear about her ideas - since 2017, the choreographer has been conducting educational projects “Dance for Babies of 8-14 Months” in various foreign countries.

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