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Uustants 7

'Out of Functions', 'Hetaira', 'The Last Hairy', 'Artistic Approach 3.1', 'Proto Koll' and 'Aortas Partitur'

by Stuart Sweeney

March 18-20, 2005 -- Tallinn, Estonia

Uustants, Estonia’s new dance platform, has proved so successful with both local audiences and overseas bookers that it has shifted up a gear from a biennial to an annual event and this year’s incarnation was eagerly awaited, with a number of premieres and works in progress by leading artists. The organisers, Agency 2.tants, ensured that everything ran like clockwork. After the performances they were always on hand to guide overseas visitors to local watering holes and show people around beautiful Tallinn. Given their proven management skills, perhaps the Agency 2.tants team should be running the United Nations, although I will raise a couple of caveats about the arrangements this year.

With established artists, those making their way, and student participation, Uustants can sometimes feel like London’s Resolution! festival, with the good, the bad, the indifferent and including some pleasant surprises. Around thirty companies took part over 54 hours, including an indigestible 6-hour Marathon on Sunday evening. It would have been fairer to audiences and artists if this latter event had been split between the afternoon and evening. It is only possible to report on a selection of the performances over the weekend and the various works in progress deserve more time before they are subject to critical scrutiny - apologies to those who don’t get a mention.

Mart Kangro, Krõõt Juurak and the Rumanian, Manuel Pelmus, opened the festival with “Out of Functions”, based on a new dance making system from the German choreographer, Thomas Lehmen. Lehman’s earlier project, “Schreibstuck”, developed in Tallinn with Kangro, was an international hit, with groups from a number of countries creating 45 minute contributions, based on a set of strict thematic and positional instructions. Each performance included three companies performing their segments in an overlapping sequence and viewing reports from others indicate that it all works a treat.

The programme notes describe Lehmen’s new structure as “…a set of cards which allows one to lay out scores, tasks, systems or just to be inspired.” However, I found this particular implementation much less interesting than “Schriebstuck”. The three strong performers in “Out of Functions” take it in turns to dance or relate episodes and reminiscences from their lives. Individual scenes are arresting: Kangro whirling his arms at increasing speed until his hands are a red blur; Pelmus reviving a variation from his days as a ballet dancer. Nevertheless, the episodic, sequential structure did not generate the chance felicitudes or overall harmony of “Schreibstuck” and I knew little more about the performers at the end of the 30-minute sequence.

Nele Suisalu, known as "kuriniku" to readers of, is a final year student at Tallinn Pedagogical University’s Department of Choreography, but shows a maturity and clarity of expression that goes well beyond student level. Much of what we saw in Estonia could be termed conceptual dance, but Suisalu is one of a group influenced by the Tallinn-based Fine 5 Theatre, that retains a strong interest in expressive movement.

Her solo, “Hetaira”, oozes sensuality and longing, as you might expect from this Greek word for “an ancient Greek courtesan or concubine, especially one of a special class of cultivated female companions.” Costumed in a long flowing dress, her character, like Imelda Marcos, is a shoe worshipper and several pairs make an appearance, but one pair is her true love. The performer illustrates this obsession with sinuous and interesting movement - one moment with rapier arm lunges and at others inverted with choreography for her legs pointing to the heavens. An earlier trio by this young choreographer also made a positive impression, and Suisalu is clearly one of the most promising young dance artists in Estonia.

“The Last Hairy” is the outcome of a close collaboration between directors Oksana Titova and Taavet Jansen, designer Jaanika Teresmaa, dramaturge Juhan Ulfsak and the dancers Oksana Titova and Päär Pärenson. This 45-minute exploration of beauty and relationships was one of the recent hits in Tallinn, and I was pleased to have the chance to see it again. Visual aspects were very strong, with Oksana Titova emerging and retreating to an exquisite, pure white bath with elegant concave surfaces. The unexpected also played an important part, as the beauty of Titova’s elegant gowns and ballet-trained movement was subverted, first by her sudden baldness after one of the many black-outs and later by a metal arm. The obsessive nature of beauty worship was exemplified by Pärenson’s besuited suitor. In one scene he kisses Titova’s metal arm and then, after another black-out, he is still kissing her arm, but Titova has deserted it and is standing by a wall. Pärenson is a great mover and this work gives him the chance to show off his smooth spins in street shoes and his distinctive floor work. One observer found the narrative obscure, but I was content to pick up general themes and enjoy the piece as a visual feast with strong dance performances.

You can’t get much more conceptual than Krõõt Juurak’s solo, “Artistic Approach 3.1” - for much of its 40-minute length it features a lecture/demonstration on probability theory. Apart from a short sequence of awkward hop-skips around the stage, dance movement was rarely overtly on show, but this was one of the most thought-provoking pieces over the weekend, addressing themes of audience expectations and interaction with the artist. Initially, the usual entrance to the auditorium was blocked and we were sent backstage and silently shepherded by Juurak with traffic signals, first onto the stage and then to our seats. The bossiness continued with gestures directing sections of the audience to stand up and sit down and we all dutifully obeyed. Juurak then addressed us: “Hello. Can you see me. I know you’re there”, and so on, with perfect timing and modulation. This Estonian audience, and I suspect English ones would be similar, had no idea how to react, as we are usually meant to sit quietly and be performed at. Eventually she screeched: “HELLO,” and a few souls responded, much to her and our relief.

We were then introduced to probability theory and a few illustrative experiments developed, including a final coup de theatre, which I won’t give away. We didn’t even get the chance to applaud, as after an assurance that she would carry on, Juurak went off-stage and didn’t reappear. An intriguing experience, highlighting and subverting the conventions underpinning our theatre experiences.

From the final evening Marathon, Tiina Ollesk, of Fine 5 Dance Theatre, danced a compelling duet with an uncredited student, showing that she remains one of the most technically accomplished Estonian dancers. Sandra Zaneva is a graduate of Fine 5 Dance School and her 30-minute “Proto Koll” showed much promise, even if it was a little over-long. Risto Kubar and Alissa Snaider performed Zaneva’s choreography with great assurance and power. Mari Mägi gave us an extract from “Aortas Partitur”, created by the dancer and Kitt Johnson, in which Mägi used extraordinary physical manipulation to great comedic effect. With her naked back to the audience she flexed her arms and shoulders to our astonishment and I look forward to seeing the full work from this innovative performer.

A number of the works on show over the weekend featured the spoken word, some in English with an eye on international accessibility, but several had near-continuous Estonian text and the overseas guests were left chasing round after the performances to learn more about what appeared to be interesting productions. For the future, Uustants and the artists would be doing themselves a favour if some English were to be provided so that overseas bookers and critics could give the works full credit.

A seminar on the future development of Estonian dance also took place as part of Uustants and a friend whispered translations to me. There have certainly been changes since a similar meeting two years ago: funding for Agency 2.tants has been tripled and this contemporary dance centre is now treated using the same funding formulas as the national drama theatres. Nevertheless, in this country where a significant part of the Government budget is spent on the Arts, it is clear that contemporary dance remains a poor relation. As this dance style is now the second most frequent Estonian export in the Arts sector and is a success story, newly created in the post-Soviet period, there are strong arguments to support an expansion of Government support. At the end of the meeting, all sides were encouraged to hear Tonu Lensment, the well-respected Theatre Advisor at the Ministry of Culture, talk about his hopes to eventually extend funding for contemporary dance to other organisations, alongside Agency 2.tants.

Can one draw any overall conclusions from this weekend platform? Across Europe, the two strands of the art form, conceptual and “dancey”, both have their devotees among fans and administrators. Thus, in the UK, “dancey” rules the roost, whereas my impression is that in Belgium and Germany it is the conceptual which dominates. Both forms are alive and well in Estonia, but probably the conceptual has attracted more attention in recent years. Looking back over my article, the conceptual strand is under represented compared with the balance of work on show, as the pieces with much Estonian text or works in progress tended to come in this category.

Nevertheless, my guess is that the “dancey” material will receive greater attention in Estonia over the next few years and that will have benefits for audience accessibility and the development of technique. Overall, there is no question that a great deal has been achieved and that Estonia is firmly on the European contemporary dance map, both for its artists and as a destination for foreign companies to tour and also research and create work. I look forward to seeing how the current Estonian artists and their successors develop in the years ahead.


Edited by Staff.

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