wed 15/08/2018

theartsdesk in Riga - 43,290 Latvians sing and dance for their country | reviews, news & interviews

theartsdesk in Riga - 43,290 Latvians sing and dance for their country

theartsdesk in Riga - 43,290 Latvians sing and dance for their country

Individual souls conjoined with a passionate belief in peace and music achieve miracles

Singers at the closing concert of the Latvian Song and Dance CelebrationMost images of the Great Dance Concert and Closing Concert @ LNKC archive

"They incessantly break down, destroy and fragment the mistrust that exists among people," wrote a Latvian journalist of a folklore group during the start of the Baltic countries' "singing revolution" against Soviet rule in 1988. This is the recent reality, a nonviolent uprising unique in history, behind the daunting facts and figures of Latvia's latest "Song and Dance Celebration". In 65 events over a week in Riga, having rehearsed for five years, 16,500 singers from 427 choirs and 18,174 dancers from 739 groups - including those in the post-war Latvian diaspora around the world - perform to over 500,000 spectators, eventually coming together respectively in two massive events. The like would be unique in the world - hence UNESCO "Intangible Heritage" status - were it not that a mutually supportive Estonia and to a certain extent Lithuania also do the same, and also at five yearly intervals.

These thriving countries, models to various extents of the European dream, are all celebrating the 100th anniversary of a disrupted independence (much as Putin would love to grab them back, no doubt hoping for Trump's assistance, and has been trying to enshrine the "illegality" of that independence in Russian law, NATO will not allow it). Their song festivals, on the German model but eventually far surpassing it in scale, go back further in two cases - Estonia's first was in 1869 and Latvia's in 1873; Lithuania, with arguably the oldest folksong tradition of all - Stravinsky drew on it in The Rite of Spring - launched its own version in 1924. Latvian Ethnographic MuseumThe roots are older still. Guntis Šmidchens in his superb and very readable study of "nonviolent national culture in the Baltic Singing Revolution," The Power of Song, locates them at the point during the summer of 1765 when Riga-based German philosopher Johann Gottfried Herder stood beneath oaks while visiting acquaintances on the shores of Lake Jugla. 25 years later he published two volumes of European folksongs, among them those of the Baltic peoples which he identified as uniquely peaceful in intent; and 1991's Baltica Folklore Festival - the third in Latvia - was launched in what was by then the Ethnographic Open-Air Museum on the same site (pictured above), with words and songs about the trees and nature that inspired them.

Open-air museums, bringing together old buildings from rural areas, are always fascinating sites to visit, but the Baltic ones have a special significance; the old rituals are not only recreated here, but have a living significance for the people. The place was quiet when I visited, having risen late the morning after the final celebrations, but the vibrancy of the tradition was all over town for the duration of my stay. Latvian Dance in RigaHaving begun with a massive opening procession, stretching for 22 kilometres, days before I arrived, the festivities and choral competitions continued in the schools, parks and squares of cental Riga. Saturday was the highlight for performances from regional groups and the practice of village crafts (not just for tourists by any means) in the Vērmanes Garden. On one of the main stages, a wedding ritual was enacted with plait-braiding straight out of Stravinsky's Les noces, though the Latvian tradition diverges.

Wood magic has always been a part of the lore; men are compared to oaks, women to linden trees. It can be a bit overwhelming for minorities - a constant theme in the dance festival finale was the production of babies and, of course, an infinite number of heterosexual pairings - but two young friends in Latvia, participating in the song festival for the first time and agreeing on the soubriquet "the linden boys", had been on the Pride march a couple of weeks earlier, totalling a respectable 8,000 and meeting with hardly any opposition (only the odd sorry sign like "Rainbow is not a lesbian"). There's approval from some ministers - one is openly gay - though the support has yet to spread to the government as a whole. Dance Finale in RigaTo reach the Daugava Stadium for the Great Dance Concert that evening, you only had to follow the colourfully-dressed crowds. Walking around the grounds before the start was sheer pleasure; last minute rehearsals were being conducted by small groups and racks with costumes were carried to and fro on the staffs (pictured below) which would later play a part in the men's dances (once again, shades of The Rite of Spring).

Nothing, though, could quite prepare you for the event itself. A relatively late starter in the festival as a whole, joining it in 1948, the dance celebrations inevitably took a leaf out of Soviet mass spectacle and its vast choreographic patterns, but once again you have to bear in mind that this, too, was a statement of national pride, of patriotism rather than nationalism, rooted in the incredibly high dance standards inculcated into Latvians from childhood. Before the Dance Finale in RigaApparently accompaniment used to be live; now it's pre-recorded, with a high predominance of what sounds to us cheesy mush. But the moves are the thing, with the lava-flow of people for entrances and exits as breathtaking as the patterns of the dances proper, telling a 100th anniversary story from mythical roots to proud present.

The best comes last - all 18,000-plus dancers on the pitch, with banners of the individual groups and flags of the participating nations, Brazil, Australia and Canada among them. For an outsider, two and a half hours might seem a little too long, but the unceasing discipline of these amateur performers was stupendous at every point in the evening. Dance Finale's grand conclusionThe real original thing was to come 24 hours later, and a day in Riga provided necessary preparation and relaxation in contrasts. Outside the stunningly restored and augmented National Museum of Art were rows of pop-up cafes from Latvia's best food establishment, the tables to which you took the food and drink emblazoned with some of the classic patriotic songs we were to hear later.

Within the gallery, the large and airy downstairs exhibition space was hosting the first major retrospective of a great Latvian artist, Australian born Imants Tillers. Appropriation is part of his multi-panelled art; the huge canvases include homages to Anselm Kiefer - with whose philosophical ambition Tillers may reasonably be compared - and the New Zealand modernist Colin McCahon. Imants Tillers talkThe talk I heard, though, was devoted to Tillers' connection with Aboriginal painter Michael Nelson Tjakamarra. Tillers had  begun with his hallmark "borrowing" in The Nine Shots, the picture to the left (above, with Tillers below Tjakamarra's portrait) which caused such division in Australian society back in 1985, but struck up a working friendship with Tjakamarra, who would post him small panels from the outback with the permission to work over them. The result was the painting on the right, Fatherland. Was there a connection with his homeland, Tillers was asked? Possibly, he thought, in that the Aboriginal people shared with Latvians a release from oppression through artistic celebration of their roots.

Nature rivalled art in the exquisite surroundings of the Song Finale, the Mežaparks pine forest in a green city suburb. Complementary amphitheatres of stage and 70,000-seater auditorium are flanked by serried ranks of pines. Again, the pre-event bustle is fascinating, and the audience is at liberty to wander “backstage” – there are no boundaries.

Water at the Song Finale in RigaWhile the costuming and the novel addition here of thousands of brass and wind instruments for the first stage of the event make this a snapper’s paradise, there are also the practicalities of keeping participants hydrated (pictured right); the first hour or so, from 8pm, took place under a still-blazing sun.

The visual impact, again, is overwhelming; aurally, it’s not quite what one might have expected. Amplification, necessary for the numbers accompanied by folk instruments, simply makes the 16,500 sound like a very fine choir of 100 or so, at least from some distance. Again, an outsider is bound to be baffled by the range, variety and special meaning of the 42 songs in the four and a half, no-interval epic, the histories of the veterans among the many choral conductors (an equal number of women here, pleasingly).

The significance of many songs I learned, complete with translation of the texts, from Šmidchens’s book. The a cappella numbers are the richest and most sophisticated, with the men’s choruses "See How the Rose Flowers" and "Sparkling Like a Star" chiming like vespers with the setting of the sun. A midsummer ritual with operatic soloists proved memorable and moving. Classics dating back to the early festivals like "On the Path of the Stars" and "The Broken Pines" formed one climax with a Janáčekian organ solo and a highly original Lord’s Prayer from Lūcija Garūta s cantata God, Your Country Burns. Now there’s a woman composer of the 20th century whose music really deserves to be rehabilitated. Song finale in RigaIt does seem that something was lost from the 1970s onwards in the anonymous language of international pop. We can’t conceive the impact Raimonds Pauls’s setting of Jānis Peters’ poem "My Homeland" must have had on an oppressed people in 1973, the centenary of the song festival. Nor could we quite share the enthusiasm of the singalong with Pauls himself at the piano (seen on the screen as pictured above - and those are the singers behind the dancers, not the audience), the waving of thousands of illuminated mobile phones.

Later, when members of the chorus started to jump spontaneously and some of the audience followed suit, you got the sense of how a peaceful mass event could evolve into some sort of nationalistic feeding-frenzy. But it never did, even in those crucial years between 1988 and re-established independence in 1991. Now, more than ever, they have a right to sing and dance on and on – as they did, into the dawn, long after many of us dazed spectators had joined in with the memorable melody of the final classic, "Blow, Wind!" and headed back to town at half past midnight.

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