Estonia Now is a festival of visual art, film, contemporary dance and performance, held in Glasgow throughout November to celebrate the Republic of Estonia’s 100th anniversary – which came into being after it claimed independence from the Russian Empire in 1918. The festival sits as a meeting point between Estonia and Scotland, between two different cultures, held within a wider political frame.
Commonality is the starting point. Glasgow Life’s promotional material for the event seeks parallels between the two countries, highlighting that they are both “small in size but rich in cultural heritage and ambition.” From what I’ve seen of the festival I’d find that hard to argue with. Difference occupies my mind, particularly around notions of independence – Estonia being 100 years into theirs at a point when the questions thrown up by the 2015 referendum (reignited by the current conversation around Brexit) are incredibly active in Scotland. How might different independences by different? How might cultural exchange help inform that conversation?
Thinking beyond our borders, this festival – proposed and co-produced by London’s Estonian Embassy – arrives in a moment where the right to the secure independence of the Baltic States is a European-wide concern, and the UK’s own relationship to Russia is more fraught than I’ve previously known it. The act of celebrating Estonian heritage and artistic output takes on a greater meaning, both as a form of cultural exchange and an unspoken assertion of that country’s right to exist. To tie it back to Brexit – as all things do in this moment – it poses the question as to how Scotland, post-Brexit and still very much in Europe, if not the EU, might relate to European concerns.
It is with all this in mind that I sit down to this contemporary performance triple bill which features dance works by Karl Saks, Mart Kangro and Sigrid Savi. Three pieces of work that are both similar and different, attesting to the array of work being made within Estonia’s borders, and that meet with a Scottish audience on different terms, viewed in different ways. The whole event feels incredibly complicated in this way, meeting after meeting, difference after difference, I stumbled out exhausted. To sum up each performance and what it might offer to Glasgow-based audiences and artists (that being my chief concern as a Glasgow-based audience member and artist) would take an essay on each. Describing each work in detail would require three different translations – I’m not sure I have the languages (or the word count). So I’ll pick out some salient points from each:
Karl Saks’ State and Design, 2017 award-winner for best dance performance by the Estonian Theatre Union, is a solo piece of work that is by turn deeply masculine, concerned with power and fairly unsettling. Situated in a courtroom space the work unfolds through the examination of a series of objects and the playing of tapes, recordings that reference satanism and ritual. The performer appears to grow more possessed, culminating in a manner of movement that is strange, beguiling and – to my mind at least – a little terror inducing. The work closes in near darkness.
There are some beautiful images throughout, interesting moments, but I find the work difficult to comprehend. A masculine severity permeates throughout and the experience I have is of a very abrasive work, that’s difficult to engage with, certainly not enjoyable, and seems set on making me uncomfortable. At times the performer leaves the room, for what feels like an age, and comes back carrying a prop. These deliberate ruptures are intriguing – affording a chance to gaze at the depth of the space, which is beautifully constructed – but fail to hold my interest because they seem only to rupture that which was already ruptured. As if the same note is being hit again and again, I switch off. My pal for the evening leans over to me and whispers in my ear: “But when is he going to start dancing?” It’s a glib point, but a relevant one – my experience was of a work that never quite seemed to start. I wonder how much of this non-ignition is the work and how much is the context. The audience watch in silence – but I have the suspicion that elements of the work were meant to be laughed both at and with. I’m not sure if anyone – I know I certainly didn’t – knew what to make of it. That’s not necessarily a criticism of the work – not knowing what to make of something is a vital part of cultural exchange.
Mart Kangro’s Start. Based on a true story is a re-outing of a work that premiered twenty years ago to significant acclaim. Described in the programme as a milestone of Estonian contemporary dance, the work is primarily concerned with dance itself, specifically with the mechanisms of choreography and rehearsal upon which dance is built. The work is, in this sense, fairly inward looking, yet in this context, seeks to outwardly engage with the Scottish tradition of contemporary dance. I enjoy it greatly, it chiming with my own experiences of reading about dance, seeing dance and working within the field. What it might offer beyond that though, I’m less sure of, yet this doesn’t seem important to this particular work when shown in this context.
Kangro, a former ballet-dancer of considerable acclaim, is an engaging and generous performer, presenting a piece of work that feels assured, confident, knows what it is (and isn’t). A lone performer on stage, Start continually references absences, as Kangro imagines a series of different encounters. In one moment he talks to an imagined audience, answering their (increasingly naive) questions about Estonia, in another they stand with their back to the audience, teaching a choreography to an absent class. The work closes with Kangro leading a walking exercise, instructing imagined participants to navigate the space. Beyond being a good gag, it also draws our attention to Kangro, to the roles of cultural ambassador, choreographer and teacher that they occupy. It is a well-held, simple and articulate piece.
Sigrid Savi describes their work as brutally naive and this is the most apt description I can imagine for their debut solo performance Imagine There’s A Fish. On stage is a room with a fish bowl (with no fish) sitting on a plinth, a carpet and a performer wearing roller skates, trousers, a fluffy pink jumper and a silver wig. They skate about the space as the audience enters. In the background – and throughout what follows – an odd sort of elevator music is playing. Reminiscent of clowning, the performer acts as fool, moving in a yoga-like manner while endlessly talking about following the feelings. For me, it pins down a wilfully naive engagement with yoga – a centuries old practice – that is fairly commonplace, one that I myself partake in. It’s delightful to watch, very funny – touching on something, a way of being, that the audience revel in laughing at too, perhaps laughing at themselves in the process.
There are lots of moments in the work that could be written about but I’ll settle on one – and recommend you check it out for yourself if it comes in your direction. The performer stands on the carpet and after finding herself within that space, creates a smaller space – a corner. They ask an audience member to pass them a pair of scissors and safety glasses. Over and arduous period of time the performer attempts to cut themselves their own space, with blunt scissors, the wrong tool for the job. To me, Savi displays a commitment to her practice and the values that underpin it which is deeply admirable – sticking with the task, they attempt to complete the task long past the point at which it is clearly futile. Eventually they give it up, rip the carpet with their hands, as if the whole thing was a little pointless anyway. Moving with such idiocy, unafraid to collapse moments of hard work into pointless nothingness, Imagine There’s A Fish is a brilliant piece of work.