What do we know about the Baltics? Even though the Iron Curtain’s long come down and there are clear lines on the map separating Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, people still tend to bracket the three countries together, overlooking their quite distinct flavours. Is this a matter of ignorance, or simply geography? The countries are all small, seem to have common goals and a shared history of being occupied by the same powers. Yet before their absorption into the Russian Empire in the 18th century, they had radically divergent histories, and to this day have different languages, competing economic interests, and notable idiosyncrasies of culture too.
At any rate, since the three countries’ incorporation into the EU at the beginning of this century, the United Kingdom has become a magnet for their most talented youngsters. The Baltic Art Form Festival is an annual event, founded last year, showcasing cutting-edge art performances from the region along with British collaborators. It consists of three evenings, each of the offering the audience a wide variety of art-forms, from music to dance, to cinematic and immersive experiences. This year’s Baltic Gala on Saturday 4th of June, held at the historic St.Sepulchre’s Church on Holborn Viaduct, was the major evening of the festival, and I went along to have a look at the range of events on offer.
From the very first performance – a dance event – we could see collaboration at work: a brand new commission by the Baltic Art Form Festival. Ruta Vitkauskaite, a Lithuanian composer, set the rhythm for piece using gong, triangle and bells (changing to a high-tempo violin later on), while Klaudia Wittmann and Esme Benjamin, feline in black, showed extraordinary plasticity in their expressive dancing. Having met in the Creative Laboratory at the Baltic Festival 2015, they’d immediately hit if off, sharing experiences and ideas which resulted in this hard-hitting piece. But what gave it an extra appeal was the backdrop: Maryleen Schiltkamp, an artist from Holland, filled a canvas with impressionist-style painting as they played, using impulses from the music as if dancing with a brush.
The visual parallels of musical movement and colour relating to sound were present in other performances too. While Sten Heinoja, one of the most promising Estonian pianists, enchanted the public with his playing, Maryleen continued her painting in the background. She later called it ‘the organic machine of art’, commenting on the extent to which the atmosphere on the stage inspired her. Interestingly, the performers at this event had but one rehearsal before it, yet the affinity between them was clear.
This concept of the unity of the arts was followed through later, as Platon Buravicky – an award winning classical composer with special interest in experimental sound – and Svetlana K-Lie (Best Young Sculptor, Russia 2004) took the stage together. K-Lie, sitting on the floor to the left of the piano, barefoot and with her apron covered in paint, made the audience feel as if they were observing a workshop. Meanwhile, Platon’s playing was barnstorming, the composer shaking his head in joy at the musical explosions the piano produced, at one point standing up and playing the piano strings from inside the instrument. Using mathematical calculations and geometry, his performance showed you how limitless art could be.
The experiments continued. After the electric musical syntheses of Rick Feds (returning after last year’s festival) and the thrilling light shows of fellow-Latvian Martins Diabolins, we had Analema Group, a London-based art collective, giving a performance highlighting the differences between Baltic languages, with a multi-lingual poem. One by one, people from the audience came up to the microphone to name one of the natural elements (like ‘water’ or ‘sun’). A choir thereafter started to sing the different sounds, as a spotlight showed different natural shapes from the fire to water waves. The effect was profoundly spiritual.
Kirill Burlov, Baltic Art Form’s Artistic Director, believes that the festival is a bridge helping young Baltic talents to integrate. Although it’s a clear statement of unity, it’s the differences between the artists he wants us to revel in as well: “The core idea is to make Baltics interesting and popular as they’re not well known to the Western World. It’s to show what great artists we have and make us proud of our origins.”
Yet the question remains: was Baltic Art Form Festival a celebration of the similarities or differences between the Baltic States? Certainly it was a celebration of the talents, and commendably innovative too, with an astute choice of both classical and alternative acts. At the end of the festival, nobody was left doubting that the Baltics are at least good companions – who can touch the sky together.
The Baltic Art Form Festival took place at selected venues across London from 3 to 5 June 2016. For more information, please click on the image below.