Vanamuine Theatre
Tartu, Estonia

27 April 2024

Stuart Sweeney

Note: the images in this review feature a different cast.

I was pleased to return to Tartu, Estonia’s second city, after a long break. Remarkably, for a city of only 93,000, it features a ballet company of 39 dancers, performing in musicals as well as ballets in Vanamuine Theatre. Ash White is choreographed by Jevgeni Grib, a Principal and fine dancer in the Estonian National Ballet. Some earlier, shorter works by Grib showed much promise, so I was looking forward to his first full length work – it turned out to be a revelation. Grib and his dramaturge, Siret Campbell, have updated E. T. A. Hoffmann’s story The Sandman. In his programme notes, Grib talks of the different ways people cope with life and the need to confront problems, “It may seem like the end of the world, but there is always a way out!” The score, arranged by Tauno Aints, features Edward Elgar’s Enigma Variations expressing friendship and love, and Gustav Holst’s The Planets for the conflict and problems.  Ash White uses contemporary and ballet movement, without pointe work  and Grib employs the music of Elgar and Holst very effectively.

Vanamuine Ballet Company, Ash White
Image: Rünno Lahesoo

The ballet opens with Caroline Maquignon as a girl, Aale, playing on her own. Her parents enter and the trio illustrate a family in joyous harmony, followed by a loving duet between father and daughter. From the start Grib presents innovative and expressive choreography. A switch from Elgar to Holst’s mysterious Neptune heralds a transformation. The Sandman enters In full length black and red, he spins and flips around the stage and Gerardo Avelar conveys his power and malevolence. He is joined by his sinister four acolytes and the contrast to the loving family could not be more complete. With the stage bathed in red light, we see the family home burning and while Mother and Aale escape, Father is pulled back by the acolytes and dies.

Vanamuine Ballet Company, Ash White
Image: Rünno Lahesoo

After a heart-breaking duet, twisting and rolling, with her Mother, Georgia Toni Hyrkäs, Aale is consoled by her friends. To Elgar’s romantic music, a boy, Hendrik, played by Bradley Howell, and Aale are left alone on the stage. Grib shows their growing attachment by having them run, backwards and forwards across the stage, until they slowly come together. They move together, initially without touching and with moments of uncertainty by Aale. Then Hendrik slowly extends his hand and Aale accepts, and their love flows freely with spins and lifts and increasing physicality. A beautiful and original duet, ending with a towering lift and Aale slowly lowering herself onto Hendrik’s body.

Vanamuine Ballet Company, Ash White
Image: Rünno Lahesoo

Next, an ensemble section sees Hendrik and Aale cementing their relationship, surrounded by their friends in a celebration of life. The mood shifts as Aale is visited by memories of The Sandman, ending with a scream. Hendrik must return to his job as a fireman and we see him and his team in a powerful display to Holst’s Uranus, but the Sandman and his acolytes return and after a fierce battle, Hendrik is killed.

Vanamuine Ballet Company, Ash White
Image: Rünno Lahesoo

The second half opens with a desolate Aale tortured by her loss – even her Mother cannot console her. A visitation from the after world by Hendrik uses much of their earlier choreography, but he is different. She slips backwards and forwards between the worlds and also meets her Father. A tender trio between the two men and Aale promises a new life in the after world.

Vanamuine Ballet Company, Ash White
Image: Rünno Lahesoo

Then, to the strident, martial music of Mars, the reality of the after world is displayed with the entry of The Sandman menacingly holding and spinning Aale around, accompanied by an army of acolytes. In the climax, Father and Hendrik join in the torment of Aale, and she rejects the after world. Crouching back in the real world, snow falls and the beautiful, melancholy In the Bleak Midwinter, is exquisitely sung by Maria Listra. A tall enigmatic figure, all in white, walks slowly across the back of the stage and Aale rises to continue her life.

The set by Kristjan Suits employs large, shaped blocks which move around the stage and together with the flowing costumes by Liisa Eesmaa provide a strong framework for the production. A special mention for lighting designer, Priduu Adlas, for his varied use of colour and levels of brightness to add value to every scene. A thank you also to Rünno Lahesoo for his terrific images. Throughout, I was impressed by the quality of the dancers. Jevgeni Grib’s choreography covers a wide range of emotions in a distinctive, fascinating style. I look forward to seeing Ash White again and Grib’s future work.

A late night Gala the same day celebrated the 85th Anniversary of the Vanamuine Ballet Company in fine style. A selection of excerpts from the classic repertoire was mixed with new work. Two things stood out for me. Gus Upchurch, a dancer in the Company, created Incipience for nineteen of his colleagues. Initially, the men blazed around the stage in contemporary dance movement and then were joined by the women. Energy and confidence flowed out from the stage. Upchurch is a name to watch. And after the dancing ended, the current Director, Mare Tommingus, stepped forward and announced that Jevgeni Grib has been appointed as the new Director of the Company – a fine choice.