Estonia’s Youth Song and Dance Festival celebrates humanity

Over 33,000 young singers and dancers gather to the Estonian capital, Tallinn, to take part in the Youth Song and Dance Celebration this weekend, lauding the connection between the younger generation, their homeland, their culture and the older generation – their roots.

The 13th Youth Song and Dance Celebration will bring together nearly 34,000 performers, including more than 22,600 choral singers and almost 2,300 musicians from symphony and brass bands for the main singing event at the Tallinn Song Festival Grounds on 2 July. The Dance Celebration on 30 June and 1 July features 559 groups with over 8,300 dancers and gymnasts, while the free folk concert at Tallinn’s Freedom Square on 1 July brings together 83 groups with over 800 musicians.

Carry on the national identity

The tradition of the Estonian song celebrations dates back to 1869 and has for long been among the most important ways to carry on the national identity and an independent spirit. Indeed, in 2003, UNESCO proclaimed the Estonian Song and Dance Celebration tradition as a Masterpiece of Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity.

The Youth Song and Dance Celebration is a relatively newer phenomenon – the first one took place in 1962. Happening only once in every five years, it is held at the Tallinn Song Festival Grounds and the Kalev stadium – just like its “older brother”, the Estonian Song and Dance Celebration. But unlike the “grown-up” of the Estonian song festivals, the participants of the youth celebration are usually in the age range of 7-27 years.

Estonia’s Youth Song and Dance Celebration in 2017. Photo by Raigo Pajula.

Every celebration is assigned a specific theme that is symbolic to the time we live in and to what the society is coping with. The production then follows this theme and narrates a story via singing.

The Youth Celebration is not only special for the tender age of its participants, but also for showcasing fresh talent – many young composers, singers and dancers get the chance to show new artistic developments, with young conductors gaining their first festive experience alongside their older, more experienced colleagues.

The story of growing into a human being

The massive event kicks off with folk dancing, when over 8,000 dancers gather to perform for up to 10,000 spectators at the Tallinn’s Kalev stadium. The preparation of the dances begins years before and the selection process for the groups accepted to the celebration takes place just a few months before.

Dancers from all over Estonia come to the capital one week before the celebration to put together a show that will be performed three times. The choreographers create dances for each dance group, including children, women, men, couples and grannies.

The 13th Estonian Youth Song and Dance Celebration kicked off with the dancing event on 30 June 2023. Photo by Kaupo Kalda.

The name of the 13th Dance Celebration is “Bridges. According to Agne Kurrikoff-Herman, the main choreographer of the dance performance, “Bridges” is the story of growing into a human being.

“Bridges are a symbol that enable us to explain a person’s complex choices in shaping their worldview. At various stages of our growth, we create and build relationships within ourselves and with the world around us. As adults, it is our job to hand down our values to young people on their life’s journey,” she said.

“However, when accepting this great responsibility, we must allow them to build their own bridges with their surroundings and thus establish their own lives. These are the thoughts based on which the story of the 13th Youth Dance Celebration will start to develop. The performance of the ‘Bridges’ Dance Celebration tells the story of a young person who grows over time, who builds, creates and searches for bridges within, in order to grow into a happy person,” the choreographer noted.

The 13th Estonian Youth Song and Dance Celebration kicked off with the dancing event on 30 June 2023. Photo by Sven Zacek.

A statement of values

More powerful in scope and participation is the singing celebration. People who don’t have either the time or money to spend all day admiring youth choirs, have nevertheless a chance to see the five-kilometre (three-mile) procession that takes all choirs and dancers from the centre of Tallinn to the Song Festival Grounds.

This is a great opportunity to see Estonian traditional costumes and feel the uplifting festival atmosphere also outside the Song Festival Grounds.

Estonia’s Youth Song and Dance Celebration in 2017. Photo by Raigo Pajula.

The theme of the 13th Youth Song and Dance Celebration is “Holy is the Land”. Pärt Uusberg, an Estonian composer and conductor and the artistic director of the event, said that the 13th Youth Song Celebration is inspired by the poem written by [Estonian poet] Hando Runnel, titled “Let There Be Light!”

“On the one hand, [the poem] is like an ode to the beautiful nature of Estonia, and on the other, asks these important questions: what is light in the spiritual sense; who is the One who enables the sun to shine? It is interesting to think about the poem’s meanings. I hope that the lyrics in the programme will become inspiring journeys in the beautiful sound fields of the Estonian language,” he noted.

He added that it is also possible to view the theme – “Holy is the Land” – as a statement of values. “Such a perspective on life impacts even the smallest step we take, increasing the care and attention we devote to everything around us. Look at the sky in the evening in the direction of the Milky Way – we are surrounded by infinity, imperceptible space; an eternal space in which we have the honour and pleasure of completing our temporal journey. Life is filled with phenomena more eternal than we are. And one of them is music,” Uusberg said.

“If the world is sacred, then I believe that one of the most beautiful expressions is the sanctity of sound. I hope that the journey to the Youth Song Celebration will provide an opportunity to take some time off in this ever-accelerating world and, through the beauty of the Estonian language and music, to breathe in lovely thoughts about being human and being Estonian, and the extraordinary nature here in Estonia,” the composer added.

The 13th Estonian Youth Song and Dance Celebration kicked off with the dancing event on 30 June 2023. Photo by Sven Zacek.

The Song Celebration concert will take place at the Tallinn Song Festival Grounds on 2 July. The approximate length of the concert will be six hours and the performers will include young children’s choirs, children’s choirs, boys’ choirs, mixed choirs, girls’ choirs, male youth choirs, wind orchestras and symphony orchestras.

The concert will begin and end with performances by the combined choir. The programme includes works by Estonian composers through the ages.

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