In 1977 Liitoja graduated from the University of Toronto with a Bachelor of Music in Performance degree. Five years later he switched careers, abandoning the goal of becoming a concert pianist to begin establishing himself as the most radical theatre-creator in English Canada.
Liitoja’s direction is all-encompassing. He co-designs the space, sound and lights. He has evolved a DNA aesthetic – one committed to environmental staging – that is recognizable throughout his work, whether it’s HAMLET (an eight-hour interpretation), a piece tackling AIDS issues (SICK), or sensory journeys inspired by the poetry of Ezra Pound.
In the mid 1990s, DNA spent five years creating a major new cycle inspired by the great theatrical visionary Antonin Artaud. The effects of that research still inform the work, challenging Liitoja to push his own artistic boundaries and to find new avenues of creative expression. In 1995, he premiered his first proscenium show in Estonia – a hybrid of ballet and poetry, an exploration of the soul.
Over the past decade the arts community has begun to notice Liitoja’s innovative choreography. In 1994 Patricia Rozema requested the “Iron Dance” from POUNDEMONIUM for her award-winning film, “When Night Is Falling”; and REMNANTS (for solo ballerina) toured to Calgary for the High Performance Rodeo in January 2000.
Liitoja’s work as playwright (THIS IS WHAT HAPPENS IN ORANGEVILLE and THE LAST SUPPER) has been recognized with a a jury prize for Innovation in Theatrical Writing at the Festival de Théâtre des Amériques in 1987 and Chalmers Award in 1994. His most controversial play, PAULA AND KARL, premiered at the international Six Stages Festival in 2001.
Liitoja’s first installation opened in August 2002 – the final event of DNA’s twentieth anniversary season. Soon after, THE OBSERVATION was invited to the Free Fall festival, a national festival of experimental theatre.
Subsequently Liitoja has focused on ballet, apprenticing under James Kudelka (former Artistic Director of the National Ballet of Canada) through the 2003-2004 season. In 2004, using female dancers from the National Ballet’s corps de ballet, Liitoja created his first full-length - and radical - ballet, I KNOW AND FEEL THAT FATE IS HARSH BUT I AM SO LOATH TO ACCEPT THIS to acclaim and standing ovations. His second ballet, I OF THE BEHOLDER - ballet bagatelle (2006), again radical and girls-only, was considered "so dark and original and witty" as well as "rigorous, disciplined and surprisingly refreshing for something so harsh."
DNA next created two works which, not intentionally, turned out to be companion-pieces in which Liitoja and Associate Artist Magdalena Vasko’s roles were reversed.
SHE ALONE (2007), was a haunting portrait of a woman in distress. A solo performance by Vasko, performed for a small audience that sat outside a room with cut-outs in the wall and door, this text-free intimate work was truly site-specific. Liitoja was in charge of pre-show “processing” and later protecting the voyeurs.
The other work was WIT IN LOVE (2009), a performance installation concerning philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, based on a text by Sky Gilbert. This time Liitoja was the soloist, encircled by the audience in DNA’s kitchen, taking on the roles of narrator, Wit and his obstreperous brother. It was Vasko who was in charge of audience-instruction and positioning as well as the source of Wit’s revelation. WIT was remounted in March 2010 as part of the Theatre Centre's Free Fall '10.
As if to demonstrate he was not exclusively girl-crazy Liitoja conceived a new ballet, still radical but for guys only. RED LIGHT GREEN LIGHT (2014), inspired by the childhood game, encompassed the widest range of human feelings. Perhaps the “deafening” gunshots separating the emotion-expressions made the Dance Current reviewer “feel trapped” as the “tension was palpable; the energy, dark”. While immune to the conception’s Oulipian harsh rigour, she saw the dancers as “remarkably accomplished technicians subtly expressing modulations in emotional tonality” concluding “their individual movement signatures are very clear and each dancer is revealed in his distinctiveness; a departure from the ballet form’s usual preference for homogeneity”.
Hillar has recently devoted his energies to writing. His detailed recollection of co-designing WIT, published in a book on Gilbert’s creations, Compulsive Acts (2014), made one reviewer suggest it “should be compulsory reading for any aspiring set designer or performance artist”. Most recently Liitoja has gingerly dipped his toes in the burbling waters of podcasting.
In fall 2017, Liitoja received the inaugural Canadian Acker Award for lifetime achievement encompassing decades of ground-breaking, cutting-edge, risk-taking creation.
Magdalena Vasko was born in Radom, Poland. From 1991 to 1998 she trained in the National Ballet School in Gdansk, Poland. Vasko was awarded at the National Ballet Competition in both 1995 and 1997 and also received the Ministry of Art Scholarship in 1997 and 1998.
At the Prix de Lausanne Competition (1997) she was invited by Mavis Staines (Director of the National Ballet School) to come to Toronto and be a student at the NBS. Vasko accepted this offer and graduated in 2000, winning the Peter Dwyer Scholarship.
Vasko joined the corps de ballet of the National Ballet of Canada that same year and danced with the company until 2004. During this time she performed in a wide range of ballets, from the classical SWAN LAKE to Balanchine’s JEWELS. She also created roles in Kudelka’s THE CONTRACT and Matjash Mrozewski’s MONUMENT.
Upon leaving the company in 2004, she freelanced with various companies including Opera Atelier, Ontario Ballet Theatre and OMO Dance.
Vasko's first appearance DNA was in the FATE Ballet (2004); she also performed in THE LARGE GLASS (2005) and I OF THE BEHOLDER - ballet bagatelle (2006). In 2007, Vasko co-created and mesmerized in the disturbing SHE ALONE, her first solo performance.
After assuming the position of Associate Artist in May 2008, Vasko’s role has greatly expanded. From being one of the cogs in the DNA machinery she began to work with Liitoja in a more organic fashion as co-creator in all aspects of the new work - now designing space and sound, now directing, now choreographing - while never giving up performing, albeit in less taxing roles.
Helping amiably to dispense with endless practical issues necessary to keep the all-but-dormant DNA awake, Vasko stoically endures the vocab-torment that precedes those evenings when Liitoja reads aloud from his latest writing, listening most attentively while looking forward to the ensuing fine food and wine.
In 1997 he co-founded his own company, Theatre Viscera, which went on to be one of the most innovative independent theatre companies in Toronto for half a decade.
During this period he wrote, directed or collaborated on a wide variety of work with a diverse range of established and emerging theatre and dance artists.
Throughout this time his devotion to Liitoja’s vision has only deepened as to this day he continues to midwife all DNA’s strange exultations, ballets and installations.