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Autumn in Tallinn

- modern dance and ballet in Estonia

Stuart Sweeney

December 2003 -- Tallinn, Estonia

Image: ZOO/Thomas Hauert in “Verosimile”


Autumn comes early in the Baltics and by the end of August it is already time for warm gloves. Nevertheless, there are compensations including the chance to see cutting edge modern dance in a mediaeval walled city. Priit Raud, the Director of Tallinn’s Augusti TantsuFestival, told a local magazine, “Here the opportunity is given to experiment and have some fun,” which sounds like a good recipe to me.

Although not stated overtly, this year’s Festival explored various themes including the relationship between dance and performance art and the interaction of artists and audiences. A work that tackled both these areas was Hooman Sharifi’s Impure Company in “As if your death was your longest sneeze ever”. Initially we gathered round the edge of a side room while the performers proceeded to beat the living daylights out of sheets of corrugated iron. The visual and aural violence left me feeling impassive and confused, as if we had observed an abusive crime and, as many do in real life, refused to take action.

The accompanying booklet of essays addresses a range of themes such as war and liberty, and asks, “What kind of rules do we have?” This question played a central role when we moved into the main performance space. Seated in groups of three or four, the dancers moved around in jerky, off-balance moves just stopping short of barging into us. When the action paused with the dancers on the floor, we were left wondering what we should do. On this particular night we signally failed to challenge or test the rules. One brave soul asked what we were supposed to do, but perhaps the point was what did we want to do. At one stage the dancers threw little bags into the air each containing a chocolate and a message – my favourite was, “When you reach America it will be just chocolate and dance.” Our inhibited group even wondered whether we could eat the chocolates. I was told that the audience the following night was more lively, throwing the bags around, discussing the work in the pauses and a retired ballet director joined in the movement from her chair.

At the end, with the lights right down, we stood or moved around in the centre as the dancers moved among us and your intrepid reporter essayed some rudimentary improvisation with individual dancers. While the themes from the essays were not always clearly reflected in the performance, it worked as a happening and the opportunity to explore the performer/audience relationship, even if in our case it was mainly to highlight our passivity. Perhaps some of us will be more ready to challenge and explore next time. So was it dance? Hooman Sharifi said he wasn’t sure, but pointed out that his finance comes from the Norwegian Arts Ministry’s dance budget.

John Jasperse Company - “just two dancers”

The John Jasperse Company’s “just two dancers” also engaged physically with the audience, but in a different way with a series of platforms in the tiered audience space. As Jaspers and Juliette Mapp moved from the stage up, around and behind us, individual mirrors enabled us to watch the dancers without neck strain. This exploration of space and its two-dimensional reflection used smooth, sometimes almost balletic balances and strong port de bras, varied with more frenetic movement to create a rich visual experience. In the final sections the two dancers came together for an emotionally charged meeting, sometimes aggressive, sometimes dependent. Almost as interesting as the performance was the reaction of the audience and the local critics. Some found it a strong dance work, while others complained that it lacked concepts and proclaimed that, “…dance is dead, so what’s the point?”

Paz Rojo’s nude solo also challenged conventions. Again the audience was driven from the safety of a conventional auditorium to sit on the floor surrounding a white, rectangular stage lit from two corners. Initially a film of Rojo was projected onto a circle on the floor and then she entered the space. The sometimes-awkward steps, jumps, stamps and undulations performed in silence contrasted with the classical beauty of her naked body. Difficult balances and the assured movement left us in no doubt of her dance abilities. After the performance, she told us how she was attempting to return to the most basic level of dance, focussing on corporeality. The catchy title of the piece, “It’s my ass you’ve been thinking about”, comes from a pop song, but has little to do with this pure, unerotic work.

Priit Raud confessed that the opening piece, ZOO/Thomas Hauert in “Verosimile” was chosen to please the dance lovers and it succeeded. In a mix of group contact improvisation, more formal ensemble work, duets and solos, and songs in Italian, a language that none of the performers understands, ZOO’s superb dancers were always a delight. Antonio Montanile’s twenty-minute debut piece “QUDUO” was suggested by his company Director Carolyn Carlson and the themes, based on Pascal’s ideas concerning time according to the programme, were not easy to fathom. But his fluent movement quality with spins as fast as Akram Khan made for an enjoyable work.

Katrin Essonson turned to her own history of injuries from dance and sport for “…jusqu’ ici, ca va bien…”. In one section she used a microphone to pick up the sound of her body joints in movement and later we saw manipulations and distortions of her powerful physique, interspersed with x-rays of the fractures. This intensely personal show sustained interest for most of its one-hour length, apart from some overlong sports based sections.

A disappointment was Two Fish in Angela Shubot’s “Christiane Müller, Gabriel-Max-Strasse 2, 1. OG links”. In this “empty stage version” of the piece, first performed in an apartment setting, neither the dance vocabulary nor the development and interaction of the characters caught my attention. However, a high spot of the Festival was the brilliantly lit one-man show “Chocolate Pushkin” by Russian rock singer, musician, actor and great mover Pjotr Mamonov. My Russian friends told me that the text was sharp and funny, but although I didn’t understand a word, this charismatic artist captivated the audience, including me, for 90-minutes without an interval.

The 2003 TantsuFestival posed a range of questions about the future of dance with a debate between conceptualists and pure dance lovers. I suspect the disagreements won’t be resolved, but I hope that both avenues continue to be explored in this Baltic outpost for new dance.

“Coppélia” by Mauro Bigonzetti - Estonian National Ballet, Photo by Harri Rospu

The second half of the Estonian National Ballet’s Autumn season features a new production of “Romeo and Juliet” with choreography by the Artistic Director Tiit Härm, but initially the performances included a revival of Mauro Bigonzetti’s excellent “Coppélia”. The Italian choreographer returns to the original story “The Sandman” and transforms the fluffy plot of the traditional ballet into a dark tragedy. Here, the doll falls in love with Nathanael and Coppelius is a sinister and powerful figure clad in black leather. The new choreography includes quirky ballet for the villagers and modern dance for those in Coppelius’s realm. However, some audience members were disappointed to find that it was a new interpretation and it might have been fairer to give the ballet another title, such as “The Sandman”.

The ensemble sections feature vibrant steps and skilful use of space and symmetry. Vladimir Arhangelski and Eve Andre are delightful as the carefree couple in the early stages and moving as Nathanael’s obsession leads them step by step to the final tragedy. Anatoli Arhangelsky delivers an intriguing reading of Coppelius as a malign intellectual in contrast with Erwin Green’s physically powerful portrayal. Marina Chirkova is heart breaking as the half-human Coppélia, dominated by Coppelius and puzzled by her attraction to Nathanael. The latter’s final jump of despair provides a jarring coup de theatre and the sets by Maurizio Varamo in the style of M. C. Escher create a vivid, otherworldly atmosphere.

Thus, across a range of styles Estonia continues to provide interesting experiences for dance lovers and as one local commentator said, “I hope that eventually people will not come to Estonia and then see what the dance is like, but will come here to see dance.”

This article was first published in Dance Europe magazine Dance Europe Home Page

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