Eve Mutso: 'Christopher Hampson said to me, as a choreographer, never forget how it feels to be on the receiving end as a dancer'

Estonian Ballet

Eve Mutso's Echo

Like a magnet drawing them back, Estonian National Ballet pulled two of its brightest stars home – but for very different reasons. We meet Thomas Edur and Eve Mutso in their native land

He was one of the finest principals English National Ballet has ever known, she brought the same luminous quality to Scottish Ballet. But now both Thomas Edur and Eve Mutso are giving back to the company that helped shape them.

Housed in a vast opera house in Tallinn's gorgeous old town, Estonian National Ballet is one of the jewels in the country's crown. A company that was once populated solely by local dancers and those from nearby nations, now attracts dancers from 16 different countries, including the US, Brazil, Canada, Japan, Australia and the UK. And, watching them in ballet class, rehearsals and performance, it's clear they all brought strong technique and vibrant personalities with them.

Both Edur and Mutso trained at Tallinn Ballet School, and started their careers at Estonian National Ballet, before international fame came calling. Then, in 2009, Edur returned to his homeland to take over the company as artistic director.

'I always wanted to come back here,' he says, when we meet in Tallinn. 'And then this job came up and I was delighted to get it. I did my last performance with English National Ballet at St Paul's Cathedral on 30 June 2009, and then four weeks later I started here – it was such a big move.

'At first it was difficult to change the mentalities here, but my priority was to lift the standard of technique to an international level, and bring in prestigious productions such as Kenneth MacMillan's Manon, John Cranko's Onegin and invite choreographers like Wayne McGregor here.'

It was Manon that saw Mutso return to Tallinn as a guest dancer. But today, she's in the opera house for a whole new, and slightly scary, reason. As part of the 'Estonia 100' celebrations – an ambitious, world-wide, cultural programme celebrating 100 years of Estonian independence (and the 100th anniversary of Estonian National Ballet) – Edur commissioned three emerging choreographers to create a new piece for the company. One of whom, is Mutso.

Known to audiences in the UK primarily for her exquisite dancing, Mutso has also been carving out a new career for herself as a choreographer, with works such as Ink of Innocence, Unknown and Loop. But new piece Echo is not only the first time her work has been presented on a major stage – it's the first piece she hasn't danced in herself.

The day before opening night, with nerves and excitement registering in equal measure, Mutso tells me how Echo came into being.

'I was thinking how do I make a work for this company, when I no longer live here?' she says. 'Estonia is a tiny country of just 1.3 million people – are we alone or are we integrated into Europe and the wider world? How do we see the world and how does the world see us? And on a personal level, I was struck by the daily autopilot that we're all on – following our own journeys and paths.'

Eve Mutso: 'Christopher Hampson said to me, as a choreographer, never forget how it feels to be on the receiving end as a dancer'

Eve Mutso leading rehearsals with Estonian National Ballet
Having studied the art of aerial dance over the past two years, Mutso was keen to incorporate her new-found skill into Echo. The result is an intense and captivating opening sequence, in which eight dancers lean into the support of large elastic harnesses – eventually discarding them in a moment of liberation.

'For me, the elastics signify resistance,' explains Mutso. 'The dancers are following rules and regulations. Then, once they let go, they can think to themselves, who am I? What's my place in society or in a group of people? Am I a leader or a follower? Do I go with the flow?'

Mutso worked closely with the dancers to find answers to those questions, creating a powerful, emotive work that hints at the many choreographic influences, European and American, she experienced at Scottish Ballet.

'Christopher Hampson [artistic director at Scottish Ballet] said to me, when you're working as a choreographer, never forget how it feels to be on the receiving end as a dancer,' says Mutso. 'Because when you know what you need to give a dancer to help them really succeed, that's when you get the most out of them.'

With a company of 60 dancers to choose from at Estonian National Ballet, Mutso cherry picked the ones she felt would respond most strongly to her vision.

'I watched them in class and sat in on rehearsals,' she recalls. 'And I wasn't looking at the way they danced – I'd already seen that in shows – I was more interested in how they approached the work. I loved watching how they observed each other – were they curious, did they sit back on their phone or were they trying to learn things from each other?'

Then, with the eight dancers in place, she dug into notebooks for emotionally-resonant phrases she'd gathered up over time.

'I'm always writing down quotes that really go to my heart, that I've found at different times in my life,' explains Mutso. 'So I gave the dancers little sentences like "find your wild", "you are not a burden, you are needed", "the soul has no secrets that behaviour doesn't reveal" and my favourite, "show me where it hurts, and let me love you right there".'

A few months later, Echo is finally ready to be part of a triple bill at the Estonian National Opera House. A week later, it will grace the stage of Tramway in Glasgow, a building that's also home to Mutso's former employer, Scottish Ballet.

First night nerves in Estonia are high, but the following morning I ask Mutso how she feels about Echo's premiere. Elated, she replies 'The dancers made themselves, me and the company so proud.' No doubt the company's Scottish debut at Tramway will produce much the same effect.

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