Interview with Tiit Härm, Artistic Director, Estonian National Ballet
By Stuart Sweeney
When I visited Tallinn to see the Estonian National Ballet, I was unsure what I would find. My introduction to the Company was Mauro Bigonzetti’s “Coppélia”, which returns to the dark tragedy of Hoffmann’s “Sandman” and employs distinctive ballet and modern dance steps. A particularly striking change from traditional productions is that Coppelius is transformed from the usual bumbling loser to a powerful villain clad in black leather. Set against designs based on the imaginative art of M.C. Escher and with fine dancers, especially in the principal roles, “Coppélia” is one of the most interesting new full-length ballets I have seen in the past five years. There is a 5-minute video clip of the ballet on the Opera House website.
I met Tiit Härm, the Artistic Director since 2001 and the man responsible for bringing this production of “Coppélia” to Tallinn. Initially we spoke about the history of the Company and its origins in 1918 when the St. Petersburg ballerina Sessy Sevun-Smironina was appointed Director of Dance at the Estonia Theatre with one male and three female dancers. After steady development, the next important landmark was the first full-length production, “Coppélia”, directed in 1922 by Viktorina Kriger, who also danced the lead. In the 1920s and 30s, alongside Russian classical ballet, the German Ausdrucktanz style of Wigman, Laban and Jooss was also a significant influence.
The War and the Soviet occupation followed and in 1946 Anna Exton from Belgium took over as Artistic Director and also established a school, which continues to this day. The Company flourished, with a repertory based on the classics and the 1954 production of “Swan Lake” by Vladimir Burmeister was a highlight from this period.
In the 1960’s and 70s, there was a fresh beginning with a group of new dancers and choreographers. One of these, Mai Murdmaa, was Artistic Director for most of the period 1974 to 2001 and a choreographer who achieved international success. The official history of the Estonia Theatre notes that she was seen as one of the most radical dance makers in the Soviet Union, using music by Arvo Pärt and Luciano Berio and creating her own style in works such as “The Estonian Ballads” and “Joanna tentata”.
Tiit Härm’s initial ballet training took place in Tallinn, and he continued his studies at the Vaganova Ballet School in St. Petersburg, graduating in 1966. He spent a year in the Estonian National Ballet and then joined the Moscow troupe " A Young Ballet ", a group of young, progressive dancers and choreographers. From 1971-1990 he returned to Estonia as a principal dancer and was also a guest artist with the Bolshoi and Kirov and elsewhere. Kaisu Lahikainen described Härm as a phenomenon who proved, “….with his dancing that the male dancer is not merely a partner in ballet.”
In 1985 he graduated from the Moscow State Theater Institute (GITIS) as a choreographer and 1990-1992 was his first period as Artistic Director of the Estonian National Ballet. For the remainder of the 1990s he worked abroad as a guest choreographer, ballet master and teacher in many companies including Finnish National Ballet, Scottish Ballet, Aterballetto, Teatro dell'Opera di Roma, La Scala, Grand Theatre de Bordeaux, Göteborg Opera and English National Ballet.
In 2001, he was invited to lead the Estonian National Ballet once more and decided to return, based on his strong personal and family connections with the Company and the feeling that he had unfinished business. Since coming back, he has built up a good team to assist him in his wide responsibilities, which include finance and administration as well as artistic leadership. When we met, this was particularly difficult, as he was choreographing a new production of “Swan Lake” in addition to his normal duties. Eventually, he hopes to have an Executive Director to share the load, but for the moment that remains a dream.
Härm’s current goal is to ensure that the Company is based on high classical standards and a strong culture of professionalism, which others have told me was not always clearly established in the past. Artistically, he is keen to have a wide range of choreographers to stimulate artists and audiences alike and to help ensure that Estonian ballet is noticed around the world. For example, he has introduced another full-length modern ballet, Luciano Cannito’s “Cassandra”, which one local critic praised as more adventurous their new “Coppélia”. The Company returns to Sweden this year for a Christmas season in Malmö and Härm is discussing possibilities for tours to China, Egypt and Finland.
Whereas in the Soviet period full funding was available, the current state grant, still a generous 75% of total expenditure, covers salaries and running costs, but finance for new productions must come from generated income. Commercial sponsorship is slowly becoming available as companies begin to widen their gaze beyond survival in the new capitalist system. Dancers’ salaries remain low by international standards at between €300 and €800 per month.
Performers such as Eve Andre and Sergei Upkin have won awards at major competitions including Jacksonville and I wondered whether losing such talent was a worry. Härm told me, “If dancers feel that they can make it somewhere else, then I don’t stand in their way. There is a lot of demand from good candidates to join the Company, so it can’t be such a problem for us. In addition, I am keen to give the dancers a part in the artistic process, so money is not the only reason whether they go or stay.”
“It is also very important to have our own ballet school and last year we took in eleven young dancers from there. The main basis is Vaganova, but for the future they are looking to modernise the programmes and introduce some modern dance classes. We have a good relationship with the Director, Enn Suve, who choreographed our current production of “The Sleeping Beauty”.”
I asked whether the classically trained dancers have found it difficult adapting to the modern dance vocabulary of the recently acquired works. Härm replied, “I find that the dancers who have truly mastered classical technique do not find it hard. However, contemporary choreographers introduce new challenges and sometimes it is not so easy for the dancers to think in different ways, but it is an enriching experience for them. Classical ballet is always taking from the contemporary and the boundaries are becoming less clear. “
Next, he told me about his plans for the future, “I recently saw Bigonzetti’s new work, based on Dante’s “The Divine Comedy”, which shows that his choreography has moved up to another level. So I would certainly be interested to work with him again. He was very pleased to bring his “Coppélia” here, as he was dissatisfied with the original version for the Rome Opera and was keen to introduce new material. I would also like to have a Scandinavian choreographer work here. In the Baltic, we have some things in common with our Northern neighbours and some differences, but it would be interesting to introduce their language. Also I would love to see ballets by Balanchine, Tetley and Ashton here.”
We talked about the Estonian couple Thomas Edur and Age Oks (Agnes Oakes) and their great and deserved popularity in the UK. Härm told me, “They were here last year performing “The Sleeping Beauty”, “Giselle” and “The Wedding Journey”. It was a big success and we will invite them again and other Estonian artists who have moved overseas. It would be good to bring world famous dancers such as like Roberto Bolle and Sylvie Guillem, both of whom I have worked with at La Scala. But finance and our small stage do not make it easy.”
Finally I asked Tiit Härm about his vision for the Company, “I hope that the artists will have new ways of thinking and that they will work even harder to achieve higher standards. So in five years, I hope people will not come to Estonia and then see what the ballet is like, but will come here to see the ballet.”
From my brief experience of the Estonian National Ballet and talking to local critics and ballet watchers, my impression is that Tiit Härm has already made progress in his goal to place the Company on an international path. Certainly with works like “Coppélia”, he is introducing excellent contemporary ballet to Estonia and providing a clear blueprint for the future.
This article was first published in Dance Europe magazine
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