An enigmatic weaver of stories, dancer Vija Vetra has nearly a century of tales. From meeting Queen Elizabeth, to being dubbed the one who ‘sang Latvia to freedom’, at 92, Vija Vetra is still writing her saga.
Upon entering her apartment after any given dance performance, one sees encounters that mandalas have been made,: meditative circles of flowers, representing the universe in Hinduism and Buddhism.
“I never throw any flowers away,” she says, “I make my mandalas, they dry, and then, before I leave, I set them free in the Daugava River, to return to nature.,” she went on.
How is it that a Latvian became one of the most famous Indian dancers in the world?
Vija Vetra once explained that it all started in Australia, where she was accepted as a refugee after World War II.
“I have been dancing my whole life and was given a full four year scholarship to go to The Music Academy of Vienna in the 1940s and received an education equivalent to a Master’s from Columbia University, where I later taught.
After the war, my family and I were placed in displaced persons camps in Germany where I got to perform as well, for other DP’s and for the USO. I remember we were paid in cigarettes. Then, after the war, my family chose to move to Australia and we were on a boat for 46 days bound for a country where we would begin the rest of our lives. When we got there, I didn’t want to leave the boat and I’ll never forget when the boat’s captain, a Norwegian, said that we’d always have a home in Oslo. Those first two years when we had the choice between working as a servant or as a nurse’s aide were some of the hardest, but I still found time to dance.”
“I was offered a part in the Australian ballet as an Indian princess, and I said I’d never studied Indian dance, but they told me to just figure something out. So, I went to the library, and got a book on Indian dancing and movement, propped it up and mimicked the steps. I had a sense of affinity for it. After the performance, some audience members who were Indian came backstage and congratulated me on my fine dancing and asked me where in India I had studied. When I told them I learned it from a book they were amazed and invited me to India.
I had the opportunity to go to India for the first time in 1961 and one of the leaders I met there said “Latvia will be free,” just like that, in 1961 he said that. I gave a performance there. The audience reception was so good and I met with so many wonderful artists and leaders who encouraged me and who made me feel like dancing was what I was meant to do.
As Latvia under communist rule didn’t have their own embassy, no matter where I went, on five continents, I registered at the Indian embassy. And they already knew me because I also represented India in my dances and I was very well known for that.
After a few successful ballet and opera shows, I was offered my own show on Australian television and my career took off from there. I went to the United States to perform and teach at various universities and I had a recurring role on Mister Roger’s Neighborhood.”
Vija Vetra, true to her philosophy of having roots and wings, speaks eight languages, in addition to extensive world travel.
Part of the WestBeth Artists Community in Greenwich Village, New York, Vija Vetra resides in a building with a lot of history. It was once the Bell Laboratories Building. “So much happened in this building,” she explains, “the first color TV was made there, phonograph, talking movies, and it was a site for part of the Manhattan Project for building the atom bomb.”
In her own words, after spending her whole life embodying the spirit of movement, she wouldn’t have it any other way.
“The life of an artist has its ups and downs, sometimes you have money, sometimes you don’t, but you never stop moving. Dance is linear, it’s 3D and dancing, like life, keeps in constant motion, and that is what I teach.”
Photos courtesy of Vija Vetra’s personal collection