Throughout its history, ballet has been used as a cultural calling card, especially in times of turmoil. Ballet’s grace and elegance offer the perfect foil for a soft-power assertion of cultural superiority. During the second World War London Festival Ballet toured as a way to “take ballet to the masses”. The Bolshoi Ballet’s trip west during the Cold War resulted in Rudolf Nureyev’s famous defection.
When Estonian National Ballet performs in Dublin next month, it will do so during a period when Russian ballet dancers remain barred from international stages and Ukrainian dancers pull together against desperate odds. As a country of less than 1.5 million people so geographically close to two warring nations, Estonia is proudly sending its established, close-knit company of dancers out on tour.
Descended from Soviet lineage and influenced by neighbouring Scandinavia, Estonian National Ballet is currently led by an artistic team that trained and performed in Europe and the United States. This confluence of ballet heritage creates a fascinating mix.
“We’re a big company of 60 dancers, and while we probably can never compete with Royal Ballet or Paris Opéra, as a strong medium-scale European classical ballet theatre, we’ve situated ourselves pretty well,” says Linnar Looris, artistic director. A native Estonian, Looris danced with Birmingham Royal Ballet and Houston Ballet before returning to Tallinn in 2019 to assume his current role.
He welcomes the chance for the company to tour, yet remains firmly committed to a full season at Tallinn Opera House where loyal audience members attend multiple ballet performances each week.
“The schedule at home is so intense we really don’t have time to tour. But if we know in advance we can fit it in,” Looris says. “The company has not been to Ireland so we’re excited. This is something new and gives us more experience.”
I truly feel like we are a valued, important and absolutely necessary part of the Estonian community. To be treated in such a way is a gift.— Madeline Skelly, Estonian National Ballet dancer
A visit to the opera house in Tallinn makes clear why Estonian National Ballet rarely leaves. With two theatres, floors of rehearsal rooms, a costume department and even a guest house on site for visiting artists, the building bustles with activity.
The opera house has endured revolution, bombings and the pandemic, so its longevity invokes a particular Estonian pride. However, its century-old wooden-floored stage is smaller than today’s more modern ones, so dancers must keep their movements more compact when performing full-scale ballets. “In Ireland we’re looking forward to dancing on that big stage so we get to feel that freedom,” Looris says.
Estonian National Ballet comes to Bord Gáis Energy Theatre after general manager Stephen Faloon searched to replace the touring Russian companies that had been scheduled.
“I began researching all of Europe’s top ballet companies and I found this wonderful production of Swan Lake,” Faloon says. “Estonia is a country with beautiful ballet and opera, as well as a ballet school that trains some of the finest dancers in Europe. Seeing this production and the exciting work their artistic director Linnar Lorris has brought to the company, it was the right fit to bring them to Ireland for our 2023 programme.”
Since the turn of the century, Estonian society has celebrated its dance forms. A turning point came in 1913 when Tallinn’s national theatre opened, becoming the precursor of the building that stands today. Back then Russian dancers from the famed Mariinsky Theatre in St Petersburg migrated to teach ballet in Estonia. This paved the way for the strong Soviet influence still present today. Fast forward through the Russian Revolution, the Baltic Wars of Independence, Estonia’s annexation to the USSR and then liberation, and through it all, ballet in Estonia has remained resilient.
After Estonia gained its independence from the USSR in 1991, the company entered an era of absorbing ballet influences from further afield. Thomas Edur, the company’s artistic director before Looris and also a native Estonian, shepherded the dancers through that expansion.
“My plan was to put us on the map, to show what we can do, that we can dance, that we have a great quality,” says Edur. Under his leadership from 2009 to 2019, Estonian National Ballet attracted dancers and choreographers from around the world who craved opportunities they might not otherwise have had with larger companies in Paris or London. Edur is now resident choreographer and his version of Swan Lake comes to Dublin.
After decades of building its repertoire, Estonian National Ballet now regularly performs as many as eight shows each week, sometimes presenting two different full-length ballets on a given day. Their season typically runs for an impressive 48 weeks every year.
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“As a soloist, there are weeks when I am only rehearsing, and then there are weeks where I have three very difficult shows,” says dancer Madeline Skelly, originally from Florida. “I have learned a lot about how to pace myself. Unless I am preparing for a role that is brand new to me, I try not to look ahead more than two or three weeks. This helps me to not get overwhelmed with the length of the season.
“There are weeks when we have multiple full lengths on stage and of course this is a big challenge,” Skelly says. “As with most companies, the corps de ballet has the busiest schedule, sometimes on stage five or six times in a week, including operas. For a young dancer that is craving performance experience and wants to find comfort on stage, this is exciting!”
Looris says approximately 750 dancers audition for the company each year, although that number dipped slightly during the pandemic. The company attracts dancers from around the world. Many come from Estonia.
Ketlin Oja, one of the dancers who performs as Odette/Odile in Swan Lake, graduated from the Tallinn Ballet School in 2015. She immediately joined Estonian National Ballet. “It was a big transition,” Oja says. “When I was in school, I had this one very good teacher who knew me very well and we created a connection. Now it’s constantly changing, and I have a different coach depending on what I dance.”
She says the mix of styles reflects Estonian National Ballet’s artistic team. “I feel like I am more Russian-influenced, and now there’s Russian training as well as a little bit of English, a little bit of American. So it’s diverse and more complex, which is nice. I pick bits and pieces from them all.”
As in any major ballet organisation, funding can be a challenge. Estonian National Ballet benefits from having its own dedicated performance space as well as the nearby Tallinn School of Music and Ballet as a source of future talent.
“When I was director as recently as four years ago, we had a €14 million budget from the state,” Edur says. “In our opera house building there were 470 employees, including everyone from the cleaners and people in the metal workshop to dancers and the ballet director. As a comparison, Finland had nearly 520 employees in their opera and ballet theatre with a budget of €60 million. How do you compete? Well, you get young dancers and try to develop them, educate them and develop a wider repertoire.”
Edur’s plan caught on. Dancer Cristiano Principato, for example, joined Estonian National Ballet in 2020 after working with Dutch National Ballet and La Scala in Milan. He was drawn to the performing opportunities as well as the chance to work with Looris and the assistant to the artistic director Jared Matthews.
“I’ve been a soloist since I arrived,” Principato says. “When I got here I was so hungry to learn and the directors were fresh from their performing careers. I feel like we were opposites meeting at the perfect time. I’ve learned so much it feels like it’s been the perfect storm in one sense.”
Principato, a native of Italy, misses his family, yet remains acutely aware of his peers in Ukraine.
“When the war started, I was reading the news constantly,” Principato says. “Then I had to stop. You couldn’t accept it. You felt bad for the people. You felt scared in the sense of, ‘Are we going to be next?’ Then something snapped in my head. I thought, ‘Try not to be too sad and affected by this, but try to enjoy and be grateful for what you have.’ It made me see things differently. Like how lucky we are.”
The dancers and staff show their solidarity with Ukraine by visiting the costume department during their breaks to tie small pieces of cloth on to a 10-metre-long net. These nets are shipped to Ukrainian soldiers on the front lines to serve as military camouflage.
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Meanwhile, Estonian audiences continue to show their appreciation by filling the theatre every night of the week. For a brief few performances, Irish audiences may do the same.
“I truly feel like we are a valued, important and absolutely necessary part of the Estonian community,” Skelly says. “To be treated in such a way is a gift.”
Estonian National Ballet presents Swan Lake at Bord Gáis Energy Theatre, January 11th-15th.