Opera House, Tallinn, Estonia; November 23, 2013

Stuart Sweeney

The Estonian National Ballet in Wayne McGregor's 'Symbiont(s)'. Photo © Estonian National Ballet

The Estonian National Ballet in Wayne McGregor’s ‘Symbiont(s)’.
Photo © Estonian National Ballet

Wayne McGregor’s “Symbiont(s)” can be seen as a landmark work: the first ensemble ballet from McGregor; the birth of his very successful career as a ballet choreographer; and a crucial instance of the worlds of ballet and contemporary dance coming together in the UK. Created in 2000 as part of a workshop project, “Symbiont(s)” went on to win a Time Out award for best new dance work. But apart from a second outing a year later in the Linbury, the Royal Opera House’s small theatre, the work has gone back on the shelf until now. It was quite a coup by Thomas Edur to persuade McGregor to bring a work to Tallinn and “Symbiont(s) was selected, primarily because of the ease of staging. Having enjoyed the original performance greatly, I was a little nervous whether the revival would live up to my expectations, but the good news is that it still looks terrific.

The opening male solo was created for Ed Watson, a dancer capable of extreme extensions, and a daunting task for anyone adopting the role. But Enoko Amorós took up the challenge admirably taking the fast movements and contortions of McGregor’s choreography with ease. Eve Andre-Tuga also made the most of the steps with “a take no prisoners” attitude. Part of the soundtrack includes repetitions of the phrase, “Nothing can stop us,” and this atmosphere suffuses the piece; the coming together of a fine choreographer discovering the magic that ballet technique can work, with fine performers relishing a fresh opportunity. With arms slicing the air and classical balances shifting to off centre contemporary moves, “Symbiont(s)” had me on the edge of my seat with scintillating solos, duets, trios and ensemble sections for the cast of seven. Indeed, my excitement grew as the work developed and left me wanting more. The full house of primarily traditional ballet goers gave it a rousing reception.

The Estonian National Ballet in 'Petrushka'. Photo © Estonian National Ballet

The Estonian National Ballet in ‘Petrushka’.
Photo © Estonian National Ballet

Mai Murdmaa’s “Petrushka”, is her first creation in the new century for the company where she spent most of her career. Murdmaa shifts the setting away from the traditional Shrovetide Fair to a ballet company. Although the love triangle of the original is preserved – the eponymous character is a young male dancer in love with a ballerina and thwarted by her principal partner – the other two characters are given much less stage time and character development than in the original. So a huge burden is placed on Petrushka and Sergei Upkin rose to the challenge. He scampered around the scene like a puppy, dancing in an uninhibited fashion, spinning and jumping with enthusiasm, in contrast to the studied elegance of the two principle dancers, played by Luana Georg and Jonathan Hanks. Perhaps the relationship between the young dancer and the principles could have been developed further to provide a stronger conflict.

An imaginative innovation is the character called Leadership (ballet master), a sinister giant, with Vitali Nikolajev standing on Vadim Mjagkov’s shoulders. Nikolajev is a fine character dancer and his sadistic portrayal of the Master constraining Petrushka made me wonder whether Murdmaa had any real ballet tyrants in mind. We even see the Master reducing the young dancer to a puppet, echoing the original. We also see much of the corps with unison dancing in lines, as if in class. Four couples are sometimes to the fore, again often in unison, but Murdmaa’s creative variations retained my attention. In the end, Petrushka is rejected by everyone, even the corps, and a huge boot comes down on him and he collapses. One caveat – I find the decision to use recorded music very puzzling: the score is magnificent and would have sounded much better live; and the Opera House does have a resident orchestra. Perhaps this can be rectified for future seasons and I sincerely hope it is not the start of a trend.

“Petrushka” is a radical and intriguing reworking of the traditional story and by chance has a link with “Symbiont(s)” as both ballets reflect a clash of dance styles. Overall, this proved an imaginative evening of dance and I look forward to more examples of contemporary ballet in the Estonian National Ballet’s repertoire and would also welcome revivals and the preservation of some of Mai Murdmaa’s works from the company’s back catalogue.

Read more: Stuart Sweeney talks to Wayne McGregor about “Symbiont(s)” and staging it in Tallinn.