Introduction to Tallinn and the Augusti TantsuFestival 2003

by Stuart Sweeney

August 20, 2003 - Tallinn, Estonia

I'm back in Tallinn for my second Augusti TantsuFestival and it's not a hardship. After a year of regular visits I know the capital of Estonia better than any other city, except London, and on the first night I was delegated to show some hungry, visiting dancers to a 24 hour cafe. I have to confess that I still see Tallinn through rose-tinted spectacles, but it combines so many positive characteristics - a capital city with high quality arts events including music and dance; a well-preserved mediaeval Old Town plus some interesting buildings from the period 1912-1940; and some fine post-Soviet developments, including the elegant asymmetrical glass prisms of the head office of a leading Estonian bank. Yet all this in a city of 400,000 (roughly 30% of the 1.4 million population of Estonia), which means that you can walk to most places and you regularly bump into people you know.

This Baltic state has wasted no time picking up the spirit of its former independence, which ended in 1940 and was regained 12 years ago. Today, [20th August] is in fact a public holiday - The Day of Restoration of Independence - and I saw a typically informal ceremony outside the National Parliament where the President wandered about with little sign of bodyguards in attendance, an indication that this is a stable country with the rule of law. The Russian minority still feel that there is discrimination, but some say things are getting better and that Estonia offers better chances than Russia for the majority.

Building is under way for an extension to one of the large hotels, major roads are being re-laid, churches and important historical houses are restored and there is a general buzz and optimism around. Parnu, the seaside resort, and Tartu, home of the largest university, also share this positive outlook. However, Narva on the Russian border struggles in a depressed, post-industrial condition.

The 50 years of the Soviet era can still be found, especially in the domestic architecture in the doughnut around the Old Town and the massive estates on the edge of Tallinn, which will never win prizes for aesthetics, but look better than some similar ones in London. For the cost of 2 nights in a Tallinn luxury hotel I have 20 nights in a perfectly acceptable, 1-bedroomed "Kruschev" flat from the 60s, now featuring a micro-chip entry system; the Estonians love new technology. The locals prefer the 50s "Stalin" flats, which have bigger kitchens, but I don't plan to cook any 5-course meals for 10.

The centre for modern dance and the Augusti TantsuFestival is the Kanuti Gildi Saal in the heart of The Old Town. With its castellated roof and large statues on its front projection, it gives pause for thought that in the Soviet era it was a phone tapping centre for the KGB. It's a striking symbol of the Restoration of Independence that it is now home to avant-garde dance from around the world, including Russia. Here, as in other areas, Estonia has jumped directly from the traditionalism of the late 20th Century Soviet world to post-modernism.

Kanuti is not just a presenting house, but is now a favoured place to make work. The centre is credited as co-producer for three works to be seen here over the next three weeks, two by Estonians and one by Hooman Sharifi, originally from Iran and now based in Norway.

The Kanuti and Festival Director, Priit Raud, is an arts entrepreneur, par excellence and has managed to get exposure for the event from all the TV stations and much of the other media. "Tallinn This Week" magazine comments that the Festival, "...is artist oriented, focusing on their work, thought and their argumentation with the audience and other artists," a message supported by the post-performance discussions each night. The article continues, "Here the opportunity is given to experiment and have some fun." Sounds good to me.

Edited by Jeff

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