The Long Road to Laulu- ja Tantsupidu, Part 1: North America

Over 6,000km and the Atlantic Ocean stand between North America and the Tallinn Song Festival Grounds, but until 1990, it was the Iron Curtain that rendered the Estonian Song and Dance Festival completely unreachable to diaspora singers and dancers. This year, more than a dozen diaspora Estonian choirs and folk dance troupes from the US and Canada alone are trying out for a chance to perform in the double-jubilee festival, and even those who don't speak the language know at least three words: Laulu- ja Tantsupidu.

I was 20 years old the first time I came to Estonia, the trip precipitated by my diaspora choir, the Baltimore-Washington Estonian Chorus, and actually also the Baltimore Estonian Men of Song, qualifying to participate in the XXV Estonian Song Festival in 2009.

To be perfectly honest, I don't remember much about the qualification process, and from what I understood at the time, it seemed to be more a matter of going through the motions than any sort of serious competition. We were a scrappy little choir, in my case a family affair spanning three generations as well, but objectively speaking, we were hardly competitive. So it seemed as though sending in a tape of a couple of specific songs to be "judged" in Estonia was simply a formality — as a diaspora Estonian choir, we were a shoo-in anyway.

But officially, at least, it appears as though that was not quite the case.

"In order to participate in the Song and Dance Festival, everyone has to learn the festival repertoire," Song and Dance Celebration Foundation communications director Sten Weidebaum told ERR News this week. "Of course it is important that diaspora Estonian communities feel welcome here, and that Estonians abroad stick together by means of the Song and Dance Festival movement, and that the [Estonian] language and customs are kept alive far from home as well."

According to Mr Weidebaum, the foundation does everything it can to support diaspora choirs and dance troupes. "Over the years it has become customary for very experienced conductors and dance instructors from here travel to teach and advise diaspora Estonian groups during the preparation process for the Song and Dance Festival," he explained. "Based on the feedback we have received, it can be said that this is everyone's joint effort, and that everyone really highly values such contacts."

Long-distance support

Last month, the Estonian Singers' Federation in North America (ELLPA) organised its third choir workshop weekend, LaLaLa, in Toronto, featuring Triin Koch, mixed choir category director at the 150th anniversary Song Festival this summer, as its special guest conductor.

According to Ingrid Poom of Toronto's Estonia Choir, the workshop was attended by some 150 participants from across Canada and the US, including from Toronto, Hamilton, Calgary, Seattle, Portland, San Francisco, San Diego, and even New Hampshire, Colorado and Utah. A former Estonia Choir member even attended while on a visit all the way from Sweden.

Such cooperative efforts seem to be the norm in North America, where distances between cities and even members are vast, and it is expensive regardless to fly a conductor or dance instructor in all the way from Estonia. Last September, for example, some 50 folk dancers from Canada and the US, primarily from Toronto's Kungla and New York's Saare Vikat, similarly joined forces for a folk dance boot camp hosted at Seedrioru Estonian Summer Camp in Elora, a nearly two hours' drive west of Toronto, under the auspices of famed Estonian folk dance choreographer Rauno Zubko, director of the S4 category of dancers at this summer's Dance Festival.

Nonetheless, not everyone has been able to take advantage of these training events. Brigitte Doss-Johnson, a non-Estonian with a master's degree in choral conducting and longtime involvement in the San Francisco Estonian Society who was asked to help the Estonian Community Choir of San Francisco qualify for this year's Song Festival, explained that timing, finances and personal schedules impeded her choir's involvement in January's LaLaLa weekend, for example.

"We wanted to join the workshop where Triin Koch came to Toronto, but it was too far away — six hours by plane," she said. "One of our singers attended and brought back information. The choirs on the West Coast — Vancouver, Seattle and Portland — thought to join together for a workshop, but the timing didn't work out."

Members of the San Francisco choir, like those of many other North American Estonian choirs and dance troupes, live far apart, making even just weekly rehearsals difficult for everyone to attend. To help keep her scattered singers on track and accountable, Ms Doss-Johnson established a resource page complete with PDF sheet music and official Song Festival instructional videos organised by song and deadline, and choir members who cannot attend rehearsals have to turn in video proof that they are practicing the required pieces.

"I'm getting to know many people's bathrooms, showers, closets, laundry rooms and microwaves, because that's where they record their videos to send to me," she admitted.

Audition by video

Video is also precisely how diaspora choirs and folk dance troupes alike are auditioning for this year's Song and Dance Festival.

According to official numbers from the Song and Dance Celebration Foundation, a total of 27 folk dance troupes are in the running to qualify for the XX Dance Festival, and 25 choirs are competing for spots under the iconic Song Festival Arch at the XXVII Song Festival. These include nine choirs from the US East and West Coasts, Toronto, Hamilton and Vancouver, and four to six folk dance troupes, likewise from both US coasts, Toronto and Vancouver. Up until the point of actual auditions, all of these diaspora groups had to take all the same steps as those in Estonia, including submit an application last spring, and later register participants by name as well. From there, however, the process diverged.

In Estonia, choirs and folk dance troupes participate in auditions by county, and those who make the cut audition again during the spring; final auditions will continue through the end of May.

Meanwhile, according to Andi Einaste, dance director of the XX Dance Festival, diaspora Estonian folk dance troupes had until 20 February to submit videos of their dances to the S4 category director.

"I am under the impression that for the S4 category, they will take the two dances, 'Kalamees' and 'Õhtu labajalg,' into consideration, and if there is a tie between two groups, 'Tuljak' will be considered the tiebreaker," said Taimi Hooper, longtime member and current director of Kungla, Toronto's folk dance troupe. She noted that for their audition tape, they all wore the bottoms of their respective folk costumes paired with their Kungla group t-shirt for uniformity.

Other folk dance troupes, meanwhile, used the occasion as a deadline of sorts for getting their members' respective folk costumes in order, as organisers are cracking down this year on the authenticity of the dancers' clothes. As groups in Estonia scramble to get all of their dancers clothed in matching sets of authentic folk costumes in time for the dance auditions already underway, dancers abroad have been allowed to mismatch on the whole — as long as each individual dancer's respective folk costumes consist of complete, matching sets. This has nonetheless involved a bit of effort, however, especially as diaspora Estonians do not necessarily have access to the same resources as festivalgoers in Estonia do.

"Throughout the past year, we've made sure that everyone in the group has proper folk costumes, and after many months of contacting family members and verifying the authenticity of each outfit, we were able to have each dancer dressed in authentic folk costumes by our dance audition," said Liisi Vanaselja, head of New York's Saare Vikat.

It seems as though the less strict demand took some pressure off North American Estonian dancers as well.

"For our folk costumes, we have different ones," explained Brigid Zurock, speaking on behalf of Vancouver's Kilplased. "Some members have either made or ordered pieces to correctly complete their costumes. Although it may have taken some time, the work was not difficult as we're happy to be presenting our costumes more correctly."

Fewer requirements, more audition stages

According to Ave Sopp, musical director of the XXVII Song Festival, the qualifying process for diaspora choirs has been split into two parts. First, all interested choirs were asked to send in videos of two songs from this festival's repertoire which served as a sort of baseline for participating choirs, after which they received detailed feedback from Song Festival conductors. Now they have until 15 April to submit video recordings of every song in this year's repertoire, based upon which final decisions will be made.

As far as uniforms go, however, choirs have much more free rein. Many North American diaspora choirs are electing, as previously, to wear Estonian folk costumes — with each member wearing the parish set that they happen to own or are able to borrow from somewhere. Members of the San Francisco Estonian Society even arranged to loan or sell existing folk costumes to singers in their choir. Other choirs, meanwhile, have elected to go a different route.

According to one singer in the Hamilton Estonian Mixed Choir (HESS), their choir wore folk costumes for the first two Song Festivals in which they participated, but this time around have opted for a "casual uniform with Estonian details." Choir director Lia Hess specified: "We are considering using elements of our Estonian folk costumes, eg jewelry and belts, but with lighter fabrics more suitable for travel."

"We are wearing Uniform No. 2 — blue blazer, white shirt, grey trousers, 'Estonian tartan' tie and white TEM cap," explained Toronto Estonian Male Voice Choir (TEM) director Avo Kittask. "Uniform No. 1 is a tuxedo."

Tradition of participation

For many of these choirs and folk dance troupes and their members alike, the 2019 festivals will not be their first rodeo.

While snippets of historical information hint at diaspora Estonian participation as early as the VII Song Festival in 1910, according to Mr Weidebaum, the XXI Song Festival and XIV Dance Festival in 1990, just a year before Estonia officially regained its independence after decades of occupation, marked the first post-World War II festivals in which diaspora Estonian groups were able to take part again. That year, Canadian-Estonian composer and choir conductor Roman Toi, the "Grand Old Man of Estonian Music," was also among the honorary directors of the festival. Diaspora Estonians groups have participated in every festival since.

The Toronto Estonian Male Voice Choir, which dates back to 1950 and was once led by Maestro Toi himself, has participated at every Song Festival since Estonia regained its independence, Mr Kittask said, highlighting that it is also currently the last remaining Estonian male choir currently active in the diaspora. I noted that the Baltimore Estonian Men of Song qualified for the Song Festival in 2009, but all of its members, including myself and one of my sisters, doubled as members of the Baltimore-Washington Estonian Chorus anyway.

Other groups have similarly impressive cred. According to Ms Hess, the Hamilton Estonian Mixed Choir is the oldest Estonian mixed choir in North America, having been founded in 1949; among their current singers are the grown children of founding members, she noted. Sharing its 70th birthday this year is the Toronto dance troupe Kungla, whose recent anniversary bash doubled as a fundraiser to support the dancers' participation in this year's festival.

Still others, however, are aspiring toward the big festivals for the first time.

Should they qualify, the Estonian Community Choir of San Francisco will be heading for the Song Festival for the first time, although among its ranks are three singers who were part of the Piedmont East Bay Children's Choir, the American children's choir featured in the documentary "To Breathe as One," about the XXVI Song Festival in 2014.

"They so enjoyed being Estonian for a week that they want to do it again, but since they have aged out of the children's category, they joined us," Ms Doss-Johnson explained.

Laulu- ja Tantsupidu attracts younger generation

New York folk dance troupe Saare Vikat has previously danced at the Dance Festival, including exactly 25 years ago, in 1994, but the current resurgence, which includes a total of 36 dancers registered for this summer's festival, consists largely of members who may not have even been born yet at the time, let alone dancing.

According to Maris-Ann Vanaselja, the Toronto Estonian Academic Mixed Choir Ööbik tends to attract many younger singers in years preceding the Song Festival as well.

"The experience of singing with tens of thousands of other Estonian singers under the moonlit sky in Estonia is magical, and we love having this expansion of membership," she said. "The multigenerational blend in our choir helps create an atmosphere at practices that is highly energised and positive — and makes them fun to attend."

At the opposite end, a number of choirs boast singers in their 70s and beyond, with the age range of the Toronto Estonian Male Voice Choir, according to Mr Kittask, topping out at 90.

Another trend seen across both coasts and on both sides of the US-Canadian border is the inclusion of non-Estonian members, most often the partners of Estonian members. Toronto's Estonia Choir, for example, includes four non-Estonian spouses as well as one estophile, while New York's Saare Vikat includes two non-Estonian dancers. In some cases, however, even non-Estonian members have thoroughly integrated.

"My husband is not Estonian but has been dancing with the [Kilplased] for 15 years and we almost forget this!" said Vancouver dancer Brigid Zurock.

Los Angeles folk dance troupe Kivikasukas has even joined forces with the city's non-Estonian Gypsy Folk Ensemble in their bid for this year's Dance Festival.

Not enough numbers

One folk dance troupe that had registered and begun preparing for this year's Dance Festival, however, ultimately made the decision to drop out of the running just last month.

While Washington, DC's Pillerkaar had already been working on two of the three S4 dances, including at workshops with Estonia's Märt Agu, even with two non-Estonian dancers, the number of members who could commit to attending the Dance Festival this summer fell short of the required minimum eight couples, or sixteen dancers.

"Being short on numbers didn't exactly sneak up on us, but we were hoping we might recruit some folks to join in order to have the opportunity to dance at the Dance Festival," said Pillerkaar dancer Jeff Zelek. "Also, if we had gotten closer to the number, we might have been able to supplement with some dancers from some other local folk dance groups. We decided in early January that it wasn't going to happen."

This has not stopped the group from actively performing throughout the Northeastern US, however, or keeping Dance Festival dances in its regular rotation.

Special treatment?

Meanwhile, regardless of age, ethnic background or previous experience, every North American group still in the running is up against stiff competition — according to the latest numbers from the foundation, another 867 folk dance troupes, 150 gymnastics troupes and 1,067 choirs, to be exact.

Circling back to the matter of skills-based qualification, I asked the North American groups I contacted whether they believed they were being given any special preference, and whether it was justified if so and whether they should be if not.

Representatives of quite a number of groups indicated that they did not think they were, and trusted that they were being judged by the same high standards as any equivalent folk dance troupes and choirs in Estonia. 

Ingrid Poom of Toronto's Estonia Choir similarly stated that she believed diaspora choirs should be held to the same musical standards, but added that accommodations should be made to account for distance, travel and expenses involved in attending the Song Festival. Nonetheless, she brought up a setback faced by her choir.

"We read about the number of joint rehearsals taking place during the Song Festival year that not only help choirs with learning the music, but also gives those attending the chance to work with the Song Festival conductors, learning their nuances," she said.

Eeve Sork, director of LA's Kivikasukas, cited a similar concern. "Diaspora groups are not given special preference," she said. "They have it even harder, as directors and dancers can't participate in seminars and it is more difficult to receive help and advice."

High standards

Kungla's Taimi Hooper had a different take on the matter.

"I think there is less special consideration given now than there used to be, and I'm okay with that," she said. "We have lots of resources these days, and I feel like there's no reason that we can't practice and perform to the level of groups in Estonia. That being said, I know there are some professional groups in Estonia that are in a different league altogether."

Acknowledging that this was a bit of a contentious issue, Ms Doss-Johnson shared that she has been told by other experienced choir directors that the musical standard for diaspora choirs is much lower than for anyone else.

"On the one hand, I understand the mission to keep people of Estonian heritage close to the homeland," she said. "On the other hand, I think there needs to be a clean decision on whether the festival is a high-standard musical event or a social event that has music attached to it. I've seen judgmental sentiments expressed on Facebook from singers of choirs in Estonia who didn't get accepted to the festival; they are not happy that choirs who they feel sound the same or not as good as them are accepted because they don't live in Estonia."

Anyone who wants to sing

Tjorven Hairfield, herself a native of Estonia who in autumn 2015 took over the choir in which my family and I once sang without any previous conducting experience, has been on both sides during her lifetime.

Among other advantages Estonian choirs have over diaspora ones, she highlighted that many choirs in Estonia can afford to be choosy, and that, as most choirs don't consist of members driving an hour or more one way to attend practice, they can also afford to have much more frequent rehearsals, workshops, joint rehearsals with other choirs and so on more often, all of which serve to improve singers' skills.

"I don't know what it's like with other diaspora Estonian choirs, but in our community, we don't have a large number of people who have shown interest in choral music," Ms Hairfield said, noting that choir members' musical experience and skill levels run the gamut, from seasoned singers to those who don't know how to read sheet music. "We don't have the luxury of leaving people out, and so we don't require auditions for joining our choir either; we accept anyone who wants to join an Estonian choir and, through this, help keep Estonian culture alive."

According to the choir director, the Song Festival is a huge motivating factor for many singers in her choir, and had they not ultimately been accepted to sing at this year's festival, she worried that attendance at choir practice would quickly dwindle down to nothing.

"It would be nice if it were a little bit easier than it currently is for diaspora Estonian choirs to qualify for the Song Festival," she said. "There could be an option for only participating as part of the joint choir, for example, if a category's respective repertoire is clearly too difficult — or another good solution would be to add a 'simpler arrangement,' so that a choir can decide which arrangement better suits their skill level."

Regardless of one's personal stance on the matter, this is a point for festival organisers to consider going forward, as Estonia enters its next 100 years and the Song and Dance Festival tradition its next 150.

In the meantime, I hope my fellow diaspora Estonians back on that side of the Atlantic break a leg, or, as they say in Estonian, get a thorn stuck in their throat. I'll be joining you as a spectator this time around.


In memory of diaspora Estonian conductors and choir directors Roman Toi (1916-2018), Charles Kipper (1951-2018), and Mati Tammaru (1936-2019).

Editor: Andrew Whyte

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