Estonian National Ballet
Estonian National Ballet perform “Echo” by Eve Mutso. Photograph by Natalia Poniatowska

Touching From A Distance

A trio of intimate works by Estonian National Ballet

Performance
Estonian National Ballet: Triple Bill
Place
Tramway, Glasgow, Scotland, November 17, 2018
Words
Lorna Irvine

Celebrating 100 years of the Estonian National Ballet, this trio of raw and intimate pieces explores ideas around relationships and communication. All three works, created by Estonian choreographers, take very disparate approaches, but contain similar jumping-off points. This is presented as part of the Estonia Now festival of arts.

First presented in 2011, “Time,” choreographed by Tiit Helimets, is split into two different parts. The first, emulating the Krautrock soundtrack by Paula Matthusen, pulses with clean lines, and European modernity. Dancers’ legs part into splits and jut out like clock hands. The two duos have an automaton, regular precision. This symmetry is soon disrupted though, with the addition of a third pair. There is a new circularity to the rhythm which was, previously, in 4/4 time. Now the dancers are rendered human, vulnerable, and fallible. The glitches in the music fade and become birdsong. But violence is in the air. A man seems to strike a woman, as a clock strikes upon the hour. This act cleaves the piece in two.

The second half is spikier, more contemporary in its focus than the pure ballet of the former. All the awkwardness of a trio is scrutinised, and the silhouettes of the dancers render the piece eerie, like a deathly pallor has entered the room. These dancers wear hoop tutus, leaping in shadows, with restless little movements, which prove as inscrutable and elusive as a dream. Helimets’ routine may be bordering on abstraction, yet he seemingly takes the troupe through a voyage of human development, from machine to humanity, and emotional articulation.

Estonian National Ballet
Estonian National Ballet perform Thomas Edur’s “Silent Monologues.” Photograph by Natalia Poniatowska

Estonian National Ballet’s artistic director Thomas Edur’s “Silent Monologues,” which premiered in 2009, initially seems like a piece of kitsch. Edur’s design features an almost Disneyesque backdrop—an idyllic pastoral landscape—complete with cute butterfly. The pretty-pretty movement is swiftly dismantled, though, juxtaposing the initial traditional swooning romantic arabesques and pas de bourée performed by three couples, for violent, jerky and uncertain motions. The six dancers, in pairs in sage, plum and raspberry costumes, respectively, pas de deux with increasing suspicion and uncertainty. Lifts are accepted, but tenderness rejected, and the space between each duo becomes a chasm. A hand is a claw, placed just so, in a subtle push away. Backs arch not in sexual ecstasy, but as though the women are wounded animals retreating into shells in self-defence.

When not in motion, the dancers sit frozen like statues on park benches, the very epitome of loneliness. Partner swapping does little to soothe, as ultimately, the dancers are left to sit, heads in their hands. Baudelaire once wrote in Les yeux des pauvres, “So difficult is it to understand one another.” Edur embraces this existentialist notion, that romantic love is not an ideal but rather, a societal construct, suggesting the impermanence of all things. It’s bleak, certainly, but beautiful.

Eve Mutso’s new piece, “Echo,” interrogates ideas around “individuality and commonality.” The dancers, dressed in black Lycra outfits like swimmers, are encased in ship sails, which both cocoon them, and provide ballast. They slide and swing in them, performing solos which play with limitations of movement. But one by one, they cast them aside, discarding them altogether, break free and emulate the wingspans of birds, with arms outstretched. Like a tag team, they encourage each member of the troupe to freestyle, until Mutso’s choreography is repeated by all. This suggests both empathy and collaboration, the langorous and haunting gestures (half-lit by Matthew Strachan) performed in tentative stages. As the glitchy soundtrack by Kristjan Kõrver and Charles Lamb unravels, becoming room shaking drones, so too does the sense of solo agency: trust exercises are pushed to the fore, with dancers falling, to be caught in a human safety net. Balance and hold are key elements, that someone is always there to protect. At one point, the group tangle in a knot of limbs, only to once again become liberated. The result leaves shapes in the air like vapour trails, both complex and visually poetic. Above all, it’s an optimistic view—that goodness will prevail in testing times. We can but hope.

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