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From Albrecht to Krishna

- Interview with Tiit Helimets

by Stuart Sweeney

October 2003

 

Birmingham Royal Ballet biography: Born in Viljandi, Estonia, Tiit Helimets trained at the Tallinn Ballet School. In 1996 he joined the Estonian National Ballet as a Soloist, becoming a Principal six months later. He joined BRB in 1999 and was promoted to Principal in 2002. He is an elegant classical dancer and a superb partner, excelling in such classical roles as Albrecht in Giselle, the Prince in The Nutcracker and Siegfried in Swan Lake, as well as showing a more dramatic side as Romeo and a keen comic bent as Fred Beenstock in Hobson’s Choice.

 

Stuart Sweeney: What are your memories of the National Ballet School in Tallinn?

Tiit Helimets: It was very exciting as it was the first time I became really interested in ballet through seeing performances three times a week in the Estonia Theatre. They also let the little kids take part in productions, so it was thrilling to be on stage from an early age and that’s how I became a fan of ballet.

Is the Tallinn School primarily Vaganova based?

In my time there the teachers mainly came from the Vaganova School in St Petersburg. I’m not sure whether it is still like that, as everything is changing all over the world and it may be a mixture of styles now.

You joined the school in 1987, so you were there during the restoration of Independence in 1991. Did that make a difference in the school?

There were some funny feelings between the Russians and the Estonians. The Estonians tended to stick together more and I made a lot of friends like that. However, kids don’t usually realise how serious things are and tend not to see the worst part. So that period is not a stressful one in my memories, although I know it is for some others.

Were there any particular teachers at the School who played an important part in your development as a dancer?

I had many teachers, but my final teacher Ago Herkül had a big influence, but it was only in later years that I fully realised what he was trying to do. Being a teenager is a difficult time and you don’t always want to do what the teachers want. However, I have remembered what he said and now it all makes sense and I can apply it.

Then you joined the Estonian National Ballet under Mai Murdmaa. Was that a good experience?

She liked me very much and before long she gave me a lot of Principal roles. She also let me work with Viktor Fedortshenko, currently the Ballet Master there, and he was the one who completed me. He had only recently retired and so had current stage experience to share, which gave me a head start. He worked closely with Mai and when she gave me a ballet such as “Swan Lake”, Viktor would say how much time he would need with me and she would always agree - it was a wonderful experience.

Who did you dance with there?

My main partner was Molly Smolen, who was brought over from America by Mai. We danced Romeo and Juliet together and it just happened that we fell in love and got married last year.

What led you to start thinking about moving to another company?

Molly and I had done various things overseas and I was interested to have the chance see what was going on elsewhere. You know we used to get very little idea of what was happening outside Estonia. We started sending out resumés and David Bintley from Birmingham Royal Ballet wrote me back straight away, saying, “I want you here right now. We’re short of principal male dancers, so please come.” He didn’t have a space for a woman, but he liked Molly so much that he offered her a contract as well. We joined as soloists and now we have both been promoted to principals.

Has your positive first impression of David Bintley continued in the same way?

Yes, definitely. He is very big on acting, which was not so important in Estonia and I love that. He sets you challenges and will test you in many different ways for a year or two – comedy, drama, a life story. He will try you out to see what sort of a dancer you are and then continue to give you work to improve your depth.

Was it difficult coming to a new country?

I had been speaking English for only18 months, so it wasn’t that easy, but Birmingham is an international company with people from many countries. They gave me a good welcome and I felt really comfortable. Everyone tried to explain as much as they could so that I could understand - I love this Company.

Birmingham has a reputation for looking after the health of its dancers – is that right?

Yes, we have a wonderful physiotherapy department, which we didn’t have in Estonia. So if you twisted a foot in Estonia, they would just advise you to put some ice on it. Whereas here, you go up to physiotherapy where you can work on the right machines and they often fix you up within a day and make you feel so good. We have free massages, pilates and if you are injured you are very well looked after with a positive attitude.

What are your favourite roles here?

I enjoy the Ashton roles, especially “The Two Pigeons”. Ashton always has a story and uses this free classical way of dancing and I find it easy to adapt your body to the style and very satisfying. Although it wasn’t a critical success, I really enjoyed Lancelot in David Bintley’s “Arthur”.

“Giselle” is also one of my favourites. I danced Albrecht in Estonia, but in the Vaganova style. Here in Birmingham, the acting is more natural with real emotion as compared to the Vaganova method. It also brings out the individuality of the dancers, so nobody looks the same. I have to say that this “Giselle” is the hardest version I have ever seen or performed. All the way through the second Act, Albrecht is hardly off stage plus there are a lot of extra steps. Whereas the Russian version is much more like a pas de deux with plenty of time off-stage, in this version he is surrounded by Wilis and they are not going to let him go. So you have a sense of their power and it's as if you are in a cage and you’re going to be killed no matter what. When the spell does break you have a strong sense of release. It is difficult, but it’s a wonderful challenge.

How do you approach the role of Albrecht?

He’s a flirt who is used to getting everything he wants. He’s quite sure that no one is going to figure it out and he just wants to get her in the sack and then leave her. Unexpectedly, the hunt goes much deeper into the forest than he expects and he is discovered. So, he feels very, very guilty because he really did like her. In the second Act he is so distraught he goes back to ask for her forgiveness and then is captured by the Queen of the Wilis and sentenced to dance to death. But Giselle saves his life and he understands that she has forgiven him; she still loves him and that’s a wonderful ending. I’m sure I will dance it very differently in 10 years time when I have that extra experience, but so far this is my approach for this role.

Was this the first time you had dance “Giselle” with Asta Bazeviciute?

In 1999 I danced with Sabina Lenzi, a very experienced dancer and that was excellent. She was very demanding and I was weaker then, but it was exciting. Asta is a little younger than me and is a fine Vaganova dancer, easy to dance with and our shared experience of the Russian partnering school really does help. We’ve done a number of roles together, but this is the first time in “Giselle”.

Birmingham Royal Ballet’s new work “Krishna” uses Kathak dance steps primarily. Was the title role a demanding experience for you?

It was very difficult and involved adopting an entirely different dance technique. The arms are very particular and closely connected with the eyes. It’s not like modern dance and there is more of the upper body. You tend to be on the same level tapping with your feet and it is very rhythmical and challenging from an acting point of view. We started in March 2003 with practical classes and then I had one-to-one Kathak classes with the choreographer Nahid Saddiqui. So, when we came to the performances it felt comfortable, but it can still improve. It was a wonderful experience and Nahid is so passionate about her work that it gave me a second wind for dancing even when I am tired. And there are things that I can take back to ballet, especially in acting and channelling emotions.

Were you disappointed by the luke-warm critical reception?

The critics expected it to be ballet, and one said it looked like a folk dance. I took that latter comment well as that’s what it is supposed to look like. Audiences have really loved it and said it was uplifting.

Do you have plans to go back to Tallinn?

I’m in contact by e-mail all the time and I do miss Tallinn. But for the present my life is here with Molly and we have bought a flat in Birmingham. I had a wonderful time and gained excellent experience with Estonian National Ballet, but Birmingham Royal Ballet has enabled me to grow, so I am glad that I took the chance to move on. Nevertheless, I would be happy to guest or do a Gala in Tallinn when my schedule here permits.

Looking to the future – what are your hopes and dreams?

I’ve now had the chance to perform a lot of the roles I love and I look forward to doing them over and over again. I’m not just going to leave them on the shelf. However, I would like the chance to do more MacMillan and I’m open to new experiences. I’m fascinated by Mats Ek and the way he fits steps to particular dancers. I’m certainly planning to stay here at Birmingham as long as I’m needed and I’m being used and am allowed to advance as an artist and be challenged.


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