Ballet Master Helēna Tangijeva-Birzniece's (1907–1965) Contribution to Latvian Ballet
Helēna Tangijeva-Birzniece is a key personality in the history of ballet in Latvia. In her early career, she was a talented ballet dancer − one of the first to represent Latvian ballet in Western Europe. As a choreographer, she both respected heritage and embraced contemporary trends. She taught a number of Latvian ballet stars and left a strong mark on mid-20th century generations of dancers. Tangijeva-Birzniece interpreted Latvian folk dance in her choreography. She was one of the first directors of the national Dance Festival and certainly left an influence on folk dance culture in Latvia.
Tangijeva-Birzniece was born to an aristocratic family in St. Petersburg, Russia where she received a classic Russian ballet education. Having finished the Petrograd School of Ballet (1924), she had the privilege of being taught by Olga Preobrajenska (1871−1962), Agripina Vaganova (1979−1951, founder of the world renowned Vaganova ballet technique and training system), as well as Jekaterina Vazema (1848−1937) who also taught the legendary Anna Pavlova (1881−1931).
From 1924 to 1927 Tangijeva-Birzniece was a soloist at the St. Petersburg (formerly Leningrad) Opera and Ballet Theatre. After marrying Latvian diplomat Aleksandrs Birznieks (1882−1961), she moved to Latvia and was a soloist at the Latvian National Ballet from 1927 to 1937.
Tangijeva-Birzniece had a remarkable technique, and her talent was particularly obvious in single-act ballets and miniatures. Among others, she danced the role of Aina in the first ever Latvian ballet − Jānis Mediņš’s (1890−1966) “When Love Wins” (Mīlas uzvarā, 1935).
In the 1930s, she was among the first of Rīga’s ballet dancers to perform in Brussels, Antwerp, Helsinki and Stockholm, making a name for Latvian ballet around the world.
Having contracted tuberculosis, Tangijeva-Birzniece was unable to realise her full potential as a dancer, however, invested her talent into other professions in the field of ballet.
Tangijeva-Birzniece was quick to launch her teaching career. From 1925 to 1927, she taught at the Leningrad School of Ballet, and went on to open a private ballet studio in Latvia, which she managed with short breaks from 1928 to 1944. At the same time, she was also a teacher and the artistic director of the ballet school of the Latvian National Opera. After World War II, from 1945 to 1965 she taught at the Riga Academy of Choreography, raising a number of new generations of dancers.
Tangijeva-Birzniece was a choreographer for the Latvian National Opera from 1934 to 1937, chief choreographer between 1945 and 1952, 1956 and 1965, and a choreographer for the Musical Comedy Theatre of the Latvian Soviet Socialist Republic between 1952 and 1956.
As a choreographer, Tangijeva-Birzniece produced six classic ballet edits, nine full length ballets, six single-act ballets, and a number of dance operas and operettas. Her grandest classic production was the 1936 version of Adolphe Charles Adam’s (1803−1856) “Le Corsaire” (Korsārs) with scenography and costumes by Ludolfs Liberts (1895−1959).
The production was inspired by the St. Petersburg Mariinsky Theatre and followed Russian ballet traditions. “Le Corsaire” was Tangijeva-Birzniece’s choreographic debut, which brought her and the Latvian dancers a wave of success. The guest performances at Stockholm’s Royal Opera received a standing ovation, and Tangijeva-Birzniece received the “Literis et artibus” gold medal.
In 1974, Tangijeva-Birzniece produced her first Latvian ballet “Laima” with music by composer Anatols Liepiņš. In it, she combined classic ballet with Latvian folk dance. One of Latvia’s best ever ballerinas Anna Priede (1920−2007) was in the lead role. Tangijeva-Birzniece had an influential role in Priede’s career.
The “Gatves deja” and “Rucavietis” dances from the “Laima” ballet have gone down in Latvian folk dance history and remain prominent in the repertoires of folk dance groups, as well as the programme of the national Dance Festival.
One of Tangijeva-Birzniece’s most noteworthy choreographic achievements is the 1958 production of Maurice Ravel’s (1875−1937) single-act ballet “Bolero” with its Spanish temperament.
Two of her miniatures also remain historical highlights. Both are based on the music of key Latvian composers − Jāzeps Vītols’s “Precious Stones” (Dārgakmeņi) and Emīls Dārziņš’s “Melancholy Waltz” (Melanholiskais valsis), which is itself included in the Latvian Culture Canon.
In 1957, Tangijeva-Birzniece produced composer and “king of waltz” Johann Strauss’s “The Blue Danube” (Pie zilās Donavas), which has since been staged repeatedly. In 2017, the Latvian National Opera and Ballet produced a special edition of “The Blue Danube” in honour of Tangijeva-Birzniece’s 110th birthday.
Many of mid-20th century Latvia’s best ballet performers studied under Tangijeva-Birzniece and danced in her productions. Among them Anna Priede, Mirdza Griķe (1915–2008), Velta Vilciņa (1928–1995), Ināra Gintere (1934), Ausma Dragone (1942), Ināra Ābele (1943), Sarmīte Jakse, Arvīds Ozoliņš (1908–1996), Haralds Ritenbergs (1932) and dancer and choreographer Aleksandrs Lembergs (1921–1985), himself included in the Culture Canon.
Tangijeva-Birzniece invested a lot in the development of professional dance culture in Latvia. As the head of the Latvian Soviet Socialist Republic’s National Song and Dance Ensemble, she worked on new productions such as “Latvian Dance Series” (Latvju deju svīta), “Mini Dance” (Sīkais dancis), “Ačkups” and “When Did You Become So Beautiful, Girl” (Kur tu augi daiļa meita).
Tangijeva-Birzniece was the director of the first Dance Festival in 1948 and went on to become its honourable director in later years.
Since 1996, an award is issued in Tangijeva-Birzniece’s name to honour achievements in ballet. In 2007, in honour of the dancer, ballet master, teacher and choreographer’s birthday, film director Roberts Rubīns produced the documentary “Tangijeva. Bravo”.
Translated by Lelde Beņķe
Gunta Bāliņa on Helēna Tangijeva-Birzniece creative contribution in the Latvian Culture Canon, 2008. (in Latvian)
Prima ballerina Helēna Tangijeva-Birzniece's and her ballet school student's performance on 2 May 1943. National Library of Latvia, collection of Small Prints. (in Latvian and German)
Baiba Beinaroviča on Helēna Tangijeva-Birzniece's creative contribution to the Latvian ballet art field in the Latvian Culture Canon, 2017. (in Latvian)
Gunta Bāliņa on Helēna Tangijeva-Birzniece creative contribution in the Latvian Culture Canon, 2008.
Tangijeva. Bravo! [DVD]. (2007). Dokumentālās filmas idejas autore un producente Regīna Kaupuža, režisors Roberts Rubīns. [Latvija]: Latvijas Baleta un dejas ģilde. Latvijas Nacionālās bibliotēkas Audiovizuālais krājums, Fdvd/1976.
Par baletmeistares Helēnas Tangijevas Birznieces veidoto baletu „Rigonda” (komponists Romualds Grīnblats (1930-1995)). Fragments no kinožurnāla „Padomju Latvija”, Nr. 31 (1959). Latvijas Nacionālā arhīva Latvijas Valsts kinofotofonodokumentu arhīva audiovizuālo, foto un skaņas dokumentu digitālā krātuve „Redzi, dzirdi Latviju!”.