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Interviews with Tiit Härm and Priit Raud

The state of dance in Estonia

by Stuart Sweeney

In May 2004, Estonia joined the European Union and Stuart Sweeney interviewed two of the leading figures in the Estonian dance world about the current state of the art form in this Northern European country and the impact of EU membership.

Estonian National Ballet – Interview with Tiit Härm

Following a distinguished dancing career and then a period as ballet master with a number of companies around Europe, Tiit Härm returned to the Estonian National Ballet as Artistic Director in 2001. I asked him about his initiatives since taking up his current position: “Principally I aim to develop the creativity of the dancers, so that they can explore their own individual styles and possibilities. I have also extended the repertory with modern ballets, such as Mauro Bigonzetti’s “Coppélia”, and I have created two full-length works for the Company – a psychological version of “Swan Lake” and a new production of “Romeo and Juliet”. Most recently we have premiered a Mixed Bill of ballets, all new to the Company, for the first time in many years. Thus, we now have in place a mix of modern and neo-classical works and now non-narrative pieces as well as story ballets. Also, by using a range of choreographers, we are extending the plastique of the dancers.”

We then discussed his plans for the repertory: “The Finnish choreographer, Jorma Elo, now with Nederlands Dans Theater, brought his “Red For Me” as part of the Mixed Bill. He has a unique way of using the upper body and arms and I am keen for him to create a work for us. March 2005 will see the premier here of the evening length “Shannon’s Daughter”, based on the film, “Ryan’s Daughter”, set to Sibelius by Youri Vàmos. It’s a personal drama in the choreographer’s own neo-classical style and will provide exciting opportunities for the dancers. In future seasons we will bring “La Sylphide” to commemorate the Bournonville anniversary and we are also in discussions with Ji?í Kylian and John Neuemeier.”

The conversation turned to the Opera House orchestra, which I often find disappointing, especially given the high quality of much Estonian music making. Härm was diplomatic: “One important aspect is to introduce a range of composers in the new repertoire and demanding music to inspire the orchestra.”

I asked about the links with the Estonian Ballet School, directed by Enn Suve and with famous alumni such as Agnes Oakes and Thomas Edur: “We have excellent relations with the School and work closely with them, using their students in our smaller roles. We recruited five men from the School last year - usually it takes 2 or 3 years for them to develop fully, but through intensive work by our repititeurs and challenges on-stage, we can already see rapid development.”

“In general, this year our dancers have many opportunities with several new casts introduced into the repertoire. They know the Opera House has faith in them and I believe that the artistic atmosphere has changed significantly. In addition, we now have rehearsal facilities to match the best in Europe, including new studios, floors and video technology.”

I asked about the major problems facing the Company: “Money is always a problem! In particular, I want to be able to pay the dancers more, as salaries range from €400 to €1000 and that is simply not enough compared with the rest of European musical theatre. Picking up this point, I wondered about the risk of losing artists to other companies: “Our leading dancers are very professional and could fit into many companies around Europe. However, as long as we can provide good opportunities and an atmosphere fostering personal development, then we can offer other benefits.”

“Our greatest problem is the stage, which is one of the smallest of all the opera houses in Europe. You can imagine the difficulties that arise for dancers and choreographers and the problem of fitting in scenery for the new work we want to bring here. We are discussing the possibility of a new auditorium on the empty land at the back of the building, but there are issues with heritage groups as this is such an important building in Estonian history. But something must be done if we are to realise the full potential of the Company.”

Finally, we turned to the question of whether membership of the European Union would have an impact on the Estonian National Ballet: “Partly as a result of the publicity surrounding accession to the EU, Tallinn is receiving more and more visitors from Europe and some come to the ballet. In addition the closer links have helped us to increase our touring programme around Scandinavia. Although it is only six months since Estonia joined the EU, we are now members of organisations such as Opera Europa, which facilitate the exchange of information on areas such as education and development. So, yes, I am optimistic about the future and the benefits from EU membership.”

Estonian ballet time line

1918: St. Petersburg ballerina Sessy Sevun-Smironina is appointed Director of Dance at the Estonia Theatre with four dancers.
1922: First full-length production, “Coppélia”, directed by Viktorina Kriger, who also dances the lead.
1920s and 30s: Alongside Russian ballet, the German Ausdrucktanz style of Wigman, Laban and Jooss is also a significant influence on ballet productions.
1939: First professional ballet performances directed by Ida Urbel in Tartu's Vanamuine Theatre. The company continues to the present day.
1944: Soviet Union forces reoccupy Estonia.
1946: Belgian Anna Exston is appointed Director of the ballet school and over a period achieves international standards.
1954: "Swan Lake” by Vladimir Burmeister is one of highlights from this decade.
1960s and 70s: Fresh beginnings with a group of new dancers and choreographers.
1974: Mai Murdmaa is made Artistic Director of the National Ballet and this radical dance maker achieves international success.
2001: Tiit Härm becomes Artistic Director.
2002: Estonia National Ballet stages Mauro Bigonzetti's "Coppélia" and Luciano Cannito's "Cassandra".


Contemporary Dance – Interview with Priit Raud

During the half-century of the Soviet occupation, modern dance virtually disappeared. However, since the Restoration of Independence in 1991 there has been a dynamic rebirth. One of the original contemporary dance companies founded in the early 1990’s, Fine 5 Dance Theatre, continues to stage new work, including a recent version of “Rite of Spring” and also performs an important role in dance education.

Agency 2.tants is another pioneering organisation that remains a vital force and I asked the Director, Priit Raud, about recent developments: “Over the past few years, contemporary dance has been accepted in Estonia alongside the established art forms. For instance, there are now regular, analytical newspaper reviews and we feature in a monthly TV programme dedicated to dance.”

“In addition, dance artists are working more professionally and with growing confidence, so that they no longer feel the need to compare their art with what is happening elsewhere. Certainly, there is more international recognition, with our performers appearing regularly in Germany, Holland and so on. Nevertheless, the trend is that people want to stay here, rather than move permanently to other countries. There are a number of reasons for this; for instance, the facilities we have in the Kanuti Gildi Saal, where they can take class and rehearse and perform their work. In addition, promoters outside of Tallinn are finding money to take new work to the provincial theatres. So, whereas at one time a new piece might attract only four performances in Estonia, now it might be ten.”

We discussed the influences on Estonian contemporary dance: “The German influence is still the most important and our artists are sometimes criticised, wrongly in my view, for making work specifically for that market. Overall, the conceptual style is more common than what you might call pure dance works, but the scene is increasingly diverse with, for instance, Portuguese artists coming here to work with our people. We certainly have artists working in an original way, such as Renate Keerd and the group, ZUGA. The Estonian Dance Platform in March 2005 should be especially interesting with new work by leading dance makers such as Teet Kask, Juri Nael and Mart Kangro.”

We turned to the main problems facing contemporary dance: “Certainly money is a major concern; currently, no one receives regular funding for producing work and they must apply to a special fund, which is very time consuming and uncertain. However, in the Ministry of Culture’s draft budget for 2005, the grant for Agency 2.tants will be increased three times and if that happens it will be an important step forward, as we will be able to support a full programme of commissions, including Fine 5 Dance Theatre, as well as the conceptual artists. While they are working on these new productions, the dancers will earn €400 per month, but that’s still less than the national average.”

“Another problem is technical equipment, especially lights. When I see what the state theatres receive, I am envious. Once I even saw lights, that we would love to have, used just for decoration in a foyer. We do have friends in the theatres who help us out, but it would be nice not to have to chase around for basic equipment.”

I asked Raud whether membership of the European Union would make a difference: “Over the past years we have already developed strong relationships with a number of organisations elsewhere in Europe, but we can see new possibilities for co-operation. Since accession in May, we have joined two international groupings applying for EU money. However, perhaps even more important is the political dimension, as we can now lobby at the EU level. For instance, Agency 2.tants has been invited to join institutions like The Place and Centre National de Danse in the new Network of European Dance Houses, which will help to provide a powerful international consensus for the art form with, hopefully, a knock-on effect with Estonian politicians. A relatively high percentage of Estonian government expenditure already goes to the arts and it is difficult to convince our politicians to increase this further. Thus, there is an urgent need to look at how this pot of money is spent and, if the new art forms are to have a fair chance, some hard decisions will be necessary where established organisations are not achieving high standards.”

Update: Recently, Agency 2.tants has learnt that its annual subsidy from The Ministry of Culture will be increased significantly plus a special grant for lighting and other technical equipment. Nevertheless, it is acknowledged on all sides that further substantial increases are necessary to put contemporary dance on the same financial footing as other art forms in Estonia.


Modern dance time line

1913: Elmerice Parts founds an aesthetic gymnastics studio in Tartu using ideas from Isadora Duncan and others.
1920s: Duncan's influence remains strong and supported by staff from the modern dancer pioneer’s studio in Moscow.
1926: Rudolf Laban's student Gerd Neggo (1891 – 1974) opens a studio in Tallinn.
1930s: Several modern dance studios operate in Tallinn and Estonian artists travel overseas.
1944-1991: The Soviet occupation severs links to modern dance.
1991: The first Estonian contemporary dance company, Fine 5 Dance Theatre, is founded.
1992: Dance Information Centre is opened and later becomes Agency 2.tants.
1997: Uus Tants (New Dance Platform) held for the first time.
2000: First August Dance Festival, featuring both international and local artists.
2002: Kanuti Gildi Saal in Tallinn opens as a contemporary dance house.

Originally printed in Dance Europe, January 2004

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