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A Tale of Two Cities (and Three Festivals)

Tallinn Music Festival, Augusti Tantsufestival and Helsinki Festival

by Stuart Sweeney

August - September 2005 -- Helsinki, Finland and Tallinn, Estonia

Helsinki and Tallinn are separated by only a 100-minute journey across the Baltic Sea and I wonder whether any two other capital cities are closer together. In early autumn this proximity presents a feast for culture vultures with no less than three arts festivals vying for attention. Thus, I was able to sample choice morsels from both these Nordic countries, when I was last in Tallinn.

The remains of Saint Brigitta’s Convent on the edge of Tallinn are sufficiently beautiful and romantic to make one understand why 19th century English landscape gardeners built ready-made ruins to enhance the vistas for their wealthy patrons. This year, the high walls of the convent played host to a short music festival and one of the highlights was Carl Orff’s “Carmina Burana” with the orchestra and soloists from the Estonian Opera House and dancers from Fine Five Dance Theatre. I have seen David Bintley’s successful work using this score and I believe there are other ballet versions. However, this production convinced me that contemporary dance, with its grounded nature, provides a more suitable framework for these earthy ballads of love, despair, carousing and adventure.

Tiina Ollesk and Rene Nõmmik created choreography for most of the songs, set on a simple stage in front of the musicians and with no scenery, except for clever use of fabric in a couple of places to provide a primordial soup with figures emerging and to draw the piece to a close by covering the dancers. Using a mix of folk and contemporary movement and in peasant dress, Fine Five’s performers brought Carl Orff’s score to vibrant life with enough variety from love duets to rowdy drinking larks to retain our attention. One high spot was the deliciously strange “Ballad of the Roasted Swan” with Tiina Ollesk’s contortions matching the dark humour of the text sung in a high tenor voice by Urmas Põldma, located in a window half-way up one of the walls.

I saw a dress rehearsal as the single performance was sold out and, sadly, the amplified sound was too loud, and the excellent soloists, Angelika Mikk and Jassi Zahharov, were unable to overcome the harshness imposed on them by the sound system. Nevertheless the overall effect of the performance was enjoyable and the audience gave the dancers a rapturous reception. If I was Fine Five’s management, I would be contacting orchestras around the Baltic and beyond to see if they were interested to stage a similar concert.

Each year Tallinn’s Augusti Tantsufestival explores the cutting edge of contemporary dance and performance art – my first visit included an improvised presentation from a painter and a cellist, concluding with the musician completing a canvas by smearing on black paint….with his hair. The most challenging performance this year was Xavier Leroy’s “Project” and when the programme notes told us of an “investigation into the relation between production, process, and product in dance and theatre” one feared that the piece may be hard work. In fact this exploration of games and performance was great fun. One standard philosophical question concerns how we differentiate between dance and dance-like practices such as football, with one answer relating to purpose.

“Project” opens with movements without a ball, which seem clearly to be a dance. When a football is introduced, we see more random movement and goals being scored, and scores read out at the end of the short game. Then a version of handball is introduced, with complications relating to a four-sided pitch and when these two games are mixed together and the team members play for different sides in the different games, I decided that these were choreographed and therefore not true games, but dance. However it turns out that even the most arcane of these maneuverings was still a game with rules worked out and a proper scoring system. So, was it dance or a game? Later, we saw repeated moves, clearly choreographed but then with a random element….aahhh! Finally a single performer repeats some of the moves without a ball and I was happy to call that “dance”. Much fun was had by all, including the nineteen performers from across Europe.

Another performance, “Hospital”, by Jo Stromgren Company, intrigued me for different reasons. I saw this pathological study of hospital workers in a large theatre in Vilnius earlier in the year, and it failed to hold my attention. However, in the intimate atmosphere of the 130-seater Kanuti Gildi Saal, and with various cuts and tightening, the show was transformed into a piece of riveting theatre. The performers improvise text in an imaginary language that some say sounds a little like Icelandic, as, without any patients, they harm and treat each other to provide a purpose to their lives. The tension between the nurses rises as the hierarchy is reversed and they yearn for release from their frustrations and the pointlessness of their existence.

Also in the Augusti Tantsufestival, Eddie Ladd from Wales gave us “Sawn-off Scarface”, her 12-minute homage to the Brian de Palma movie. With sharp gestures and knock-about movement on a wet carpet, this is a hugely entertaining cameo and the Tallinnites lapped it up. Noa Dar Dance Group, named after the choreographer and artistic director, celebrated the simple virtues of strong technique applied to evoke a troubled relationship. I savoured some subtle touches, including conciliatory gestures by the man, becoming more emphatic and controlling when the woman actually wanted space. Oded Graf and Noa Rosenthal impressed as the couple struggling for balance and harmony and never quite achieving it.

And so to a brief visit to the Helsinki Festival, which featured everything from Circus to Jazz and from Bach to Yann Arthus-Bertrand’s thrilling aerial images of our planet. In the dance section, Tero Saarinen of Finland, one of the hottest choreographers in Europe, brought “Borrowed Light”, another example of his belief in Gesamtkunstwerk or total art. His latest work is set to exquisite Shaker songs, arranged after extensive research by Joel Cohen and performed with simple sincerity by his group, Boston Camerata. With spare sets and lighting, often from the side (the borrowed light of the title) by long-time collaborator, Mikki Kunttu and long, black costumes for the men and the women by Erika Turenen, all these aspects combine to make a harmonious and glorious whole.

While Saarinen researched the Shakers extensively and the dances feature clapping and stamping, as described in records, he makes it clear that “Borrowed Light” is concerned with communities in general, rather than the Shakers specifically. Indeed, some Scandinavian-based Americans felt thatthey saw more Nordic angst than harmony and loving spirit of the Shakers. Certainly, the mix of scenes of religious exaltation alongside the frustrations of an isolated existence and expressed through grounded, swinging motion made for compelling viewing.

Finland, with its more developed economy, can afford to book companies that are beyond the scope of Estonia, which although progressing rapidly after gaining independence from the Soviet Union, still lags a long way behind Scandinavia. So, Helsinki hosted Tanztheater Wuppertal, and several people from the dance and theatre communities of Tallinn made the pilgrimage to see Pina Bausch’s famous troupe. Expecting the large-scale work typical of her recent years, I opted for a seat half-way back in the balcony of a large theatre. However, “Nefes”, her latest cityscape, features many solos and I have to say that I felt remote from the action, fascinating though it was. I gained the impression that the performers played an active part in creating these solos and one, by a fine Bharata Natyam trained performer, introduced Indian motifs. Many audience members were impressed by the expressive quality of these solos and it was good to see movement rather than text come to the fore again in Bausch’s work. I’ll look forward to seeing “Nefes” again under better viewing conditions

There’s no question that the knowledgeable populations of both Finland and Estonia take culture very seriously. These three festivals showed the variety and richness of the cultural experiences to be gained there, made possible by state and city grants -- long may it continue.

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