Estonia Now: Previewing the Glasgow festival

We chat to the people behind Estonia Now, a new festival of visual art, film, contemporary dance and performance that celebrates the 100th anniversary of the Baltic republic

Feature by Roisin O'Brien | 06 Nov 2018

Baltic herring; classical ballet; e-governance. All of this, and more, can be found this month in Glasgow at Estonia Now (12-18 November), a city-wide festival celebrating 100 years of Estonian statehood. Based primarily at Tramway, the festival expands across the city to locations such as Stereo, the University of Glasgow and the newly-reopened CCA, and promises a diverse showcase of contemporary artists, as well as reflections on Estonia’s recent past and current digital innovations.

One of the festival's main organisers, Kersti Kirs – Cultural Counsellor at the Embassy of Estonia in London – states that the celebrations taking place both in Glasgow and back in Estonia “are for Estonians but also they are an occasion for us to let the world know that we are not only 25 years old."

She continues: "Estonia was independent before the Second World War, which many people don’t know. For us, it has obviously been a continuous journey.” After centuries of Russian rule, Estonia declared its independence in 1918 following the Russian Revolutions of 1917. It was then re-occupied by the Soviet Union from 1940 to 1991.

Kirs explains that the genesis of the festival in Glasgow came when she visited the city in 2016 to see Eve Mutso, an Estonian ballet dancer and ex-Principal Dancer with Scottish Ballet, in her final show with the company.

“I felt Glasgow was my kind of city,” she says. “I felt it was edgy enough, curious enough – the vibe was Tallinn-like… It gave me the wish to do something there.”

The festival is, consequently, tailor-made for the city. It focuses on contemporary artists, rather than the traditional choral singing and folk dance that is happening in many of the celebrations in Estonia, with Kirs and Mutso working with different Glaswegian institutions. “Eve has been an enormous help," Kirs reflects, "I feel this is Eve’s present to Estonia."

Marking its first visit to Scotland as part of the festival is the Estonian National Ballet, performing at Tramway on 16 and 17 November. The company is bringing a triple bill to Glasgow, including a piece by Mutso alongside work from the Artistic Director of the company, Thomas Edur, and Tiit Helimets, a choreographer and Principal Dancer with San Francisco Ballet.

Speaking of her connection to both countries, Mutso talks of her move to Scotland in 2003 after a successful audition with Scottish Ballet. One of the draws, she explains, was the repertoire: “Ashley Page took over Scottish Ballet and was reshaping the company… and it just blew my mind, the repertoire – Balanchine, Forsythe… these voices which I had only heard of, I actually could dance now.”

In her piece, Echo, she states she is interested in both ‘communality and individuality.’ "I’m playing with ideas of leading versus following, reacting, echoing, belonging, and also acceptance, letting go of each other and rejoining," she explains.

A work for eight dancers (the biggest group she’s worked with), Mutso is intrigued how the work will feel in Tramway after its premiere in the Estonian Opera House. “At Tramway, we don’t have the front curtain," she says, "so the stage will be exposed, the dancers have no way to escape… [it will] hopefully offer these artists different ways of connecting with audiences as there is no opera pit between them.”

Alongside the ballet programme, the festival also features a contemporary dance performance at Tramway on 13 and 14 November. The evenings contain works from Estonian choreographers Sigrid Savi (Imagine There’s A Fish), Karl Saks (State and design), and Mart Kangro (Start. Based on a True Story).

Resident in Tramway throughout the festival is Trial and Error: Artists’ Moving Image Programme, curated by Kulla Laas and Kaisa Maasik in collaboration with the Estonian Union of Photography Artists (FOKU). Laas and Maasik talk about how the programme has evolved to be part exhibition, part screening. “We were asked to show a moving image programme, I guess they might have thought of it as being a simple thing to show within a week,” Laas states. "We kind of made their life a bit difficult!"

Maasik says: “We started thinking in a larger scale... most of the artists also use installations as their method, so we kind of saw a problem not using the space itself and just using a screen – so we also added some works that are in the space separately.”

The thematic framework of the exhibition-screening is concerned with everydayness and human attempts in coping with it; this came from the material they found as well as a conscious decision on their part. “We went to the archives in our contemporary arts centre and did some research of the latest video works that had been shown internationally,” Laas explains. “But also," says Maasik, "it was during the starting point where we both agreed this is something we are interested in, so the everydayness came up pretty early." "True," Laas agrees: "A more poetic way of looking at the everyday."

“I really love the scene [in Glasgow],” continues Laas, “and I hope there will be more collaborations. I feel, culturally or temperament-wise, we together could be good collaborators. It seems to fit!” They both emphasise that “the artists we have picked up are huge names in Estonia who have a live international presence.”

The exhibition will be accompanied by a TalkSeePhotography event, Contemporary Love (CCA, 12 Nov), which will see a selected screening of the artists’ work and a post-show discussion, curated by Marge Monko. Laas and Maasik will also lead a tour of the exhibition at Tramway (12 Nov, 3pm).

Reaching out beyond dance and visual art, Estonia Now will also see screenings at GFT, including feature film November, which was nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at the 2018 Academy Awards. Stereo will host a late night show on 17 November, allowing Scottish audiences to experience Estonian electronic music from Hypnosaurus, DJ Ilmajaam, HAPE and Cubus Larvik with Karl Saks, alongside AJAY C from Glasgow.

Residents who want to know a bit more about Estonia can head over to the University of Glasgow on 15 November for From 1918 to 2018 and Beyond, a public lecture with Estonian Ambassador Tiina Intelmann. Strathclyde University will be hosting Strongest, Smartest, Easiest on Estonia’s e-government, and the festival finishes off nicely with an Estonian brunch on the Sunday at Gandolfi Fish.

There has been a shift, Mutso muses, in how she feels Estonia is now viewed by Scotland, and consequently similarities emerge: “When I first came here 15 years ago, when I said I’m from Estonia, people would often ask 'where in Eastern Europe is it?' Now, when I talk of Estonia, I often refer to Estonia as a Northern European country, and it’s understood differently now. I do feel there is a known connection between Estonia, Finland, Sweden, Norway, Scotland…”

Kirs says: “I think we do have the same down-to-earth feeling, a no-nonsense kind of people... always doing more than is expected from you, jumping a little bit higher than you are. Because we’re so small, we try harder.”

Estonia Now, venues across Glasgow, 12-18 Nov