Estonian culture in the world

Artist of the week: ballet dancer Tiit Helimets (San Francisco National Ballet)

Our latest Artist of the week is Tiit Helimets, principal dancer at the San Francisco National Ballet.

Born in Viljandi, Estonia, Tiit Helimets had an exposure to ballet from an early age, while watching cultural programs on TV. His mum noticed his interest and at 10, took him for a talent spotting audition in Tallinn – one was for ballet and the other one for an opera. Tiit got accepted to the first one straight away and ballet it was for him. After training at the Tallinn Ballet School, Helimets began his career as a soloist with Estonian National Ballet. He was promoted to principal dancer six months later, making Estonian dance history when he danced the role of Prince Siegfried in Swan Lake at age 18. After dancing all the principal repertory with that company, he joined Birmingham Royal Ballet (UK) in 1999, where he created roles in Bintley’s The Seasons, The Shakespeare Suite, Sylvia, The Orpheus Suite, and Les Petit Riens; and in Siddiqui’s Krishna. Since joining San Francisco Ballet as a principal dancer in 2005, he has performed lead roles in Tomasson’s Swan Lake, Nutcracker, Giselle, and The Sleeping Beauty; as well as Tomasson/Possokhov’s Don Quixote, and Neumeier’s The Little Mermaid, among others.

Tiit Helimets says that he loves San Francisco Ballet, as it’s got very diverse repertoire – there’s always something new and exciting going on. This was also the main reason why he chose to work for them, apart from the fact that SF Ballet is one of the top three ballet companies in the USA. Besides, Tiit likes San Francisco as a city: ”It’s one of the best cities I have ever been, and lived. It’s friendly and has a vibe that no other city has,” he says.

2010 Repertory

Although he has been on top of his game for a long time, there’s no time to rest on his laurels. “As a principal dancer, you have to be on top all the time. The minute you show weakness, somebody will step over you. So there’s always a fine balance to achieve – while being strong and active, you have to be careful not to be arrogant and ignorant. Other talents motivate me too, actually,” says Helimets.

His favourite role so far has been as Prince Edward in Little Mermaid – San Francisco Ballet’s hottest ticket few years ago, and applauded by audience and critics alike. Little Mermaid was also filmed and is available on DVD.

As a way to give something back to Estonian community and broaden the experiences of fellow dancers there, Tiit Helimets toured Estonia last year, going under the name of Tiit Helimets & Co. – effectively his own ballet troupe. He and his dancers were performing the works of two of the greatest American choreographers of our time, George Balanchine and Val Caniparoli. This project started when Thomas Edur – the director of the Estonian National Ballet, and himself formerly a very successful ballet dancer with the English National Ballet – approached him with the idea.

Tiit’s latest project is also with his own Tiit Helimets & Co. They will be presenting a unique multi-media installation at the prestigious M.H. de Young Memorial Museum in San Francisco, one of the most respected fine arts museums in the U.S. This remarkable and unprecedented project is an homage to Mr. Helimets’s Estonian roots, with particular inspiration drawn from the colors of his homeland’s flag, through mythological prism.

Tiit Helimets

The project involves Tiit & his Co dancing on a huge canvas, which is shaped like a map of Estonia. While they are dancing on it, they are spreading the paint, creating mythological images within the context of Estonian history while the dancing progresses. This endeavor will, once again, be a collaborative effort which includes some of ballet’s finest dancers, as they explore their artistic talents beyond the world of classical ballet. In addition to showcasing the previously unknown artistic talents of some of the San Francisco Ballet’s most familiar movers, the installation will include an extraordinary presentation of multiple world premieres, in a veritable bouquet of fine and performing arts.

Helimets says that he has been very lucky: “The weirdest thing is – whatever I have ever dreamed about, has become true!”

Artist of The Week: Merike Estna (London)

Merike Estna was born in Estonia in 1980. She studied Performance Art at Academia Non Grata and earned her BA in Painting at the Estonian Academy of Art. In 2006 Merike Estna was included in ‘The best 100 (and beyond)’ international artists selected for the Italian Flash Art. She moved to London and in 2009 completed a Masters in Art Practice at Goldsmiths College. As part of a New Wave, Estonian artists of the 21st century, her solo exhibitions include the Tallinn Art Hall gallery, Estonia in 2006 and Gallery Frederic Desimpel, Brussels, Belgium in 2008. She has represented Estonia as part of group exhibitions in Czech Republic, Sweden, Belgium, Greece, Spain, France and China. Estna is a young and distinctive artist whose work is full of an exuberant femininity and unabashed joy – as she has said before: “I would travel to the end of the world for love.”




An exhibition of new painting, sculpture and installation called “Constructed Scenario: The Third Space” by Merike Estna, Claudia Djabbari and Annie Hémond Hotte opened in London this week and will run until 23 September. Between space, shapes, objects, and made up contexts the artists offer us a scenario investigating the limits between what is and what might be….

“Constructed Scenario: The Third Space” 14-23 September at No 4 Wilkes St, E16QF, London, UK:


Breaking the boundaries – the fairytale and folklore world of singer-songwriter Ana Silvera (Video)

Ana Silvera is a contemporary alternative London born singer-songwriter, known for the intense poeticism of her lyrics, her classical piano style and her work with choirs. She is operatically trained, and appeared with the English National Opera and also at the Royal Opera House when she was a teenager, and studied at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. She recently collaborated with the Estonian Broadcasting Corporation Girls’ Choir and Grammy winner Imogen Heap – with successful live performances in London and Newcastle, UK.

Constantly exploring various styles of music – singing in European jazz clubs, recording a brooding cover of the hit ‘Rosanna’ by 80’s band ‘Toto’, and performing Britney Spears’ Womanizer’ in her live set – Ana continually adapts in her own way, all she is made curious by. Bjork, Fever Ray and Gillian Welch are particular current inspirations. Ana Silvera’s writing often relates to fairy and folklore, or writes through personas, sometimes historical or fictional. Her recent song cycle, “Oracles”, was based on the ‘traditional arc of a fairytale’. Accordingly, her lyrics are quite literary in style, and she is therefore included in the new clutch of singers who cite literary sources and classical styles of playing as their primary reference points. She has also written a song inspired by the life of Coco Chanel called ‘Notes from an Opera’.

While again exploring a new musical field with a 7 part song cycle entitled “Oracles” with London’s Roundhouse Experimental Choir in 2011, her friend came across to Estonian Broadcasting Corporation Girls’ Choir by chance – the latter was giving a concert in a small village church in France. When her friend spread the word and suggested Ana to listen to the choir, she gave it a go and was mesmerised by what she heard. Since she had been interested in folklore music for a while, Ana came up with an idea to work with the choir together. ”There seemed to be something really special and magical about it”, says Ana herself.

Subsequently, Ana was invited back to the main stage of the London’s Roundhouse for their 2012 Reverb Festival in February, under special commission to create a new piece for herself and the Estonian Television Girls’ Choir, conducted by Aarne Saluveer. This piece, entitled ‘Step Onto The Ground, Dear Brother’, co-created with electronic experimentalist Max de Wardener and Estonian composer Elo Masing, was performed at the Roundhouse and the Sage Gateshead in Newcastle (UK) to a very warm and enthusiastic welcome. Ana shared the bill with Imogen Heap and Estonian Television Girls’ Choir for both of these dates. She has got a great respect for Estonian folklore and classical music, especially for Arvo Part and Veljo Tormis, and has visited the country four times so far.

Ana recently released her debut album, called ‘The Aviary’. Drawing on a love of story-telling and for the folk music she grew up with, Ana sings of deeply personal experiences alongside mythical and historical tales of romance and tragedy. Drama, complexity, exuberance, life, death – they’re all here in the complex melodies and heart-warming, sometimes bone-chilling lyrics of this debut. The songs equally reflect on Ana’s own eventful life for inspiration. British newspaper The Guardian gave its verdict thus: “Gorgeous…a stunning album that mixes operatic and folk elements with magical storytelling”.


The Aviary is out now:

Pianist Mihkel Poll wins The Guildhall Wigmore Recital Prize (Video)

The Guildhall Wigmore Recital Prize annually awards a talented Guildhall School musician with a Wigmore Hall recital. Young and talented Estonian pianist Mihkel Poll was the recipient of this year’s award, and his winner’s recital became a special occasion.

London’s Wigmore Hall is a leading international recital venue that specialises in hosting performances of chamber music and is best known for classical recitals of piano, song and instrumental music. With near perfect acoustics, the Hall became quickly celebrated across Europe, acquiring almost legendary attraction for the greatest artists of the 20th century, such as Sergei Prokofiev and Benjamin Britten.

Photography by Kaupo Kikkas

25-year-old Estonian pianist delivered an ambitious and mesmerising programme with works by Ligeti, Bartók, Rachmaninov and Prokofiev – some of which are not necessarily box-office favourites. Stylishly dressed in black and full of determination, Poll pulled his performance off with a dedicated focus and commitment and ensured again that he is a musician to watch and follow.

Maestro Arvo Part has commented about Mihkel Poll: “Mihkel PolI is an interesting and original musician with superb technical skills, who is able to perform the most complex pieces with artistic supremacy and musical freedom.”

Chef Andrey Lesment runs the first Estonian-owned restaurant in London, UK

Andrey, who started his career in Sweden and Denmark, has been London based for the past 15 years. He has honed his skills at the Savoy Hotel, as well as working for Gordon Ramsay at Maze in the past. Having had a clear destination in mind, he worked towards his goal of opening up his own restaurant and managed this at the beginning of 2011. Verru, as his elegant 26-seat restaurant is called, is situated in the affluent area of Marylebone. Lesment’s menu reflects his background and influences from the Baltic and Scandinavian cuisine, yet he claims to have learned most of his cooking skills at the French influenced top restaurants of London. “The Estonian influence is in the nuances, mostly in the pure and organic ingredients”, says Andrey.

His cooking book of fusion Scandinavian-Estonian-French recipes is apparently also on the agenda.


Brian Eno impressed by the performance of Estonian TV girls’ choir (Video)

Estonian TV girls’ choir recently performed at the Camden Roundhouse in London, where they shared the bill with Grammy winner Imogen Heap and the rising star Ana Silvera. Present among the audience was one of the most successful producers (produced for U2, Coldplay, David Bowie) in the world, the father of ambient music Brian Eno, who kindly found some time to answer few questions for us.

Brian Eno, what impression did the concert leave you?

Estonian Girls’ Choir made me shiver, their performance of Veljo Tormis’ compositions was just stunning, I want to visit Estonia as soon as tomorrow!

Have you previously heard any Estonian Music?

Of course I know Arvo Pärt, but I haven’t listened any choral music from Estonia before. The way your girls’ choir sang and at the same time dancing along in a folklore tradition, was just so beautiful and wonderful. Oh my god!

Did you somehow feel any connection with your own music when you observed the concert?

Well, I have my own a capella group that meets once a week, but it’s still in the development stage. But yes, I’m currently fascinated by choral music and the medium it represents.

What is your view of the cultural meaning of the Estonian Girls’ Choir performing here in London, and sharing the stage with British stars Imogen Heap and Ana Silvera?

I think that the Estonian government would be wise to send these girls to perform all over the world, since most of their listeners would soon want to visit Estonia, at least I think so. I think that this is worth more than conventional ads! If you hear something so beautiful, it is working and people will want to visit your country. They feel that there is a truly vibrant and deep culture in Estonia!

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