The beginning of modern dance and classical ballet

Estonian artistic dance, i.e. the dance of theatre stages or concert halls, did not grow out of the traditions of folk dance, but rather is the product of contemporary choreographers intended as an expression of high culture. Artistic dance only originated at the beginning of the 20th century, when Estonian drama became professional and found better opportunities for development in new, big theatre buildings: 'Vanemuise', built in 1906 in Tartu, and the 'Estonia' theatre, built in Tallinn in 1913, and later the smaller theatres of the city. The development of artistic dance was originally influenced by Isadora Duncan’s 'free dance' and Russian classical ballet.

Just before World War I, Elmerice Parts (1888–1974) opened, in Tartu, a studio for aesthetic gymnastics, which was based on Duncan’s technique. The first performance of the young girls of the studio and their teacher was a remarkable event of freshness, uniqueness and beauty — the girls were all dressed in white Greek tunics bound with golden ribbon which was tied around the waist and crossed on the chest. Similar golden ribbons were in their hair, and they were barefoot or wore golden sandals, moving freely and gracefully, running, jumping, arching like bows, by ones or twos or in colourful groups. It was a huge success. Unfortunately Elmerice Parts could not work in Estonia for very long because of the war. Thus this first initiative in dance pedagogy did not leave a noticeable mark on the later development of Estonian dance culture, but it did provide impetus for the formation of Estonian expressive and artistic dance.

In characterising the dance style of those days, it could be said that an effort was made to give expression to the lyrical core of creation in a gentle, delicately cultivated, gracefully expressive outline. However, a more extravagant subject matter was strived for. Erotic dances were danced and machine-like movements mimicked, yielding to a lust-filled daze as well as merciless rhythm..

Soon a new dance school was founded in Tallinn, more oriented towards a normative technique appropriate for theatre stages and group dances and the traditions of classical ballet than towards individual creation. In 1913 a soloist of the former Petersburg 'Maria Theatre', Eugenie Litvinova, came to live in Tallinn. Five years later, she established there a studio of classical ballet. It can be said that most of the famous Estonian ballet artists of that time have come from her school. Litvinova’s school can be characterised as possessing impeccable precision and meticulous attention to stylistic purity. For a long time the theatre seasons of Tallinn were enriched with dance shows only by the students of Litvinova’s school. The programme usually contained a short pantomime or a fragment of a longer expressive performance.

The further development of modern dance in Central Europe caused great interest in Estonia. A Hungarian with an education in classical ballet, Rudolf von Laban, was at that time working very actively in Germany, trying to establish modern dance on similar basic motifs as classical ballet had acquired over the centuries. Modern dance had to be led out of the limitedness and uniqueness of individual geniality and given a specific technical basis, with a system of certain basic movements, tensions and trends. In order to acquire the new approach, appropriate practice regimens had to be created, with corresponding techniques and methodologies. Laban accomplished all that.

A student of Laban, Gerd Neggo, founded his own studio in Tallinn in 1924; his teaching was based on Laban’s methods. Every year he consistently organised performances for his studio, the programmes consisting of both solo and group dances and also of some pantomimes. Later Gerd Neggo and his group performed in the Estonian Drama Theatre, especially in plays for children and young people, where an occasional dance element was needed. In this way, Laban’s school’s modern aspirations of dance were directly applied to Estonian stage performance.

Of the older Estonian theatres, dance was mostly cultivated in the 'Estonia Theatre' in Tallinn. At first the theatre had to make do with random dancers and ballet masters who did not stay for long. A student of Litvinova, Rahel Olbrei (1896–1984), began working in 1920 in the 'Estonia Theatre' as a dancer. Later she became a ballet master full of energy and ideas. In 1926 Olbrei put together a permanent ballet troupe, consisting mainly of young people with no education in the field of dance. She herself gave them dance lessons. With the foundation of a troupe that was stylistically consistent and first-rate, she aimed for mastery and a combination of different dance styles. In her dance performances she stressed dramaturgic progress and intrinsic expressiveness.

During the Soviet period and under pressure from authorities, many ethnographic works were created in ballet. The topics varied from folk tales to stylised and rearranged folk dances. Naturally there also appeared much choreography that portrayed/characterised Soviet life and its people. The ballets created by the old masters did not disappear, but the Soviet censors made sure that the repertoire did not contain anything 'demoralising'.

The face of Estonian ballet has been shaped most by Mai-Ester Murdmaa’s (1938) creation, which has been widely recognised also outside Estonia. Murdmaa's style can be characterised as a search for new ways of choreographic expression and a desire to open the depths of the human soul through plastic images. In her choreography she has strived for a philosophical interpretation of the world. Her choice of repertoire as head ballet master has been extremely wide and has given proof of her intelligence and open mind. Her productions have mostly played to full houses and they have always been met with a variety of reactions. It can certainly be said that her work is not meant for the masses, but for people who like to think and search. Murdmaa has worked very closely with the most famous ballet dancer of Estonia, Kaie Kõrb (1961), for whom she has also created individual roles.

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