As a lifelong fan of ballet, I was surprised to read the title of a performance that I had never heard of before: Swan Lake, Giselle, The NutcrackerThe Goblin? The September 14th performance at the Estonian National Opera was a pleasant surprise of entertainment and storytelling.

The Goblin (known locally as “Kratt”) by Eduard Tubin was the first truly Estonian ballet. The show premiered at the Vanemuine Theatre in Tartu in 1943 and was first performed at the Estonian National Opera in Tallinn on September 18, 2015. The themes of greed, class, temptation, and love absolutely translate to a modern, international audience.

What Is the Goblin?

This fairy tale creature appears in stories across many cultures (as recently as bankers in the series of Harry Potter films) but subtle differences may affect its interpretation from the audience. For this show, the concept is loosely defined. Detailed interviews printed the program in both Estonian and English helped to give context to an unfamiliar (to me) story.

– Marina Kesler, the choreographer and stage director, describes the Goblin as “an allegorical metaphor composed of several ideas.”
– Both Kesler and costume designer Gerly Tinn compare the character to the questionable contracts, Terms and Conditions (T&C), or credit cards that have become part of so many daily lives.
– Set designer Madis Nurms imagines the Goblin as “the consecration of our vices that has started to lead a life of its own.”
– Gerly Tinn also questions whether it may be “a divine sense of justice or karma that shows us that every action has a reaction.”
– Overall, the Goblin represents an inner voice, a symbol of unfair business practices, and of course “a clear-cut creature that can be seen on stage,” says Kesler.

The Characters

The Goblin plays a primary role, but the ensemble cast equally share the task of entertaining the audience with multiple storylines. Each title role is cast with a rotating roster of soloists. Who are the stars of this Estonian fairy tale?

The Master – The ballet largely centers around a greedy factory owner who spends the show looking to get rich quick, then gambling away his profits, and trying to keep his daughter away from the Farmhand, one of his employees. At the Sept 14th performance, Anatolil Arhangelski demonstrated the vast ambitions and oversized emotions of this character with each leap and extension of his long limbs.

The Devil – This charismatic symbol of temptation, dressed in red and black with a pale painted face, seems to gain more of the audience’s sympathies than the Master he tricks. At least the Devil plays by his own rules (even if they are designed to trick and manipulate). He carries himself with a necessary air of confidence, well played by Andrea Fabri. An entourage also dressed in red and black carry out the Devil’s plans on stage with powerful, seductive movements, flicking their wrists, curving their bodies, and lifting or lowering their chins as they flirt with the audience and the Master.

The Goblin – The title character, born of a dirty deal between the master and the Devil, is wonderfully dressed in androgynous costuming and uses quirky, jerky movements that erase the gender and emphasize the strangeness and magical nature of the creature, played by Patrick Scott Foster. The Goblin is made from three drops of blood and the soul of the Master, and regularly jumps onto characters’ backs – a fitting symbol for the feeling of carrying heavy levels of debt. The creature seems to play both a powerful and a subservient role in making sure the Master keeps getting more and more money out of his factory and workers.

The Farmhand / Servant / Peasant (depending on translation) – This character acts as a factory worker in this modern update. Jevgini Grib’s performance – a beautiful balance of gentleness and strength – shows the innocence, idealism, and rebellious spirit of youth. He serves as the show’s hero and moral compass, rejecting the greed and money that corrupts the Master to focus on finding secret moments to spend with his forbidden love, The Master’s Daughter.

The Daughter – Marita Weinrank melts gracefully into her lifts and transitions as the Daughter dancing with The Farmhand. She also adds subtle moments of slapstick comedy to the performance (e.g. dropping a bouquet of flowers when he kisses her on the cheek). According to Choreographer Marina Kesler, the love story of the Daughter and Farmland was not even a part of the first draft of the show, but their chemistry brings life to the show and gives this audience a bit of hope for some sort of happy ending.

The Estonian Moments

While fairy tales often tell universal stories, this ballet has a few elements that make the Estonian influence quite clear.

1. The second act begins with the show’s only song with words, as the stage is filled with both dancers and singers in long, flowered dresses under a backdrop of blue sky and white fluffy clouds. I didn’t understand the Estonian lyrics, meaning I may have missed an element of the story here, but it felt entirely appropriate to incorporate live voices on stage for a nation with a Singing Revolution in its history.

2. The song was followed by another essentially Estonian element – the sauna. Ten young men dressed in towels tied around their waists rolled a wooden bench onto the stage and circled around it, each holding a viht (a bundle of dried branches) used to gently beat themselves and playfully swat each other. This light-hearted break helped to soften the mood of exploring darker themes of greed and morality, and the dancers themselves clearly enjoyed performing it.

3. The costumes of the Farmhand and Daughter’s friends clearly took inspiration from traditional folk dresses. Costume Designer Gerly Tinn explained that “the national costume of Mulgimaa is very close to my heart.” Her colorfully striped skirts and bright red tights paid tribute to that aesthetic while still feeling modern enough for today’s performances. The tights were a particularly eye-catching detail, especially during lifts that ended with the women on their partner’s backs and their legs pointed into the air.

4. I did find myself questioning my own cultural interpretation when a fire broke out at the factory during the second act. For a few moments, I wondered whether the pale grey uniforms racing onto the stage were the factory’s workers or if they were firefighters coming to save the day – a detail that I may have been more familiar with if I had grown up with worker’s uniforms as a symbol of everyday life, or if I knew what color Estonian firefighters wore.

5. One repeated move made me curious if there were any other fans of the US television series Friends in the audience. The Master, Daughter, and Farmhand banged their fists and forearms together, from the wrists to the elbows, when they were fighting about whether or not they could be together. This same move was used in Friends between Monica and Ross, brother and sister, to express their anger without using obscene gestures in front of their parents. I had to giggle a little to myself every time it happened, and wondered if the connection was intentional or accidental.

Overall, this modern update of The Goblin was an entertaining 20th-century fairy tale told through contemporary ballet (plenty of lifts and leg extensions without a tutu in sight). The mechanical, multimedia elements and minimal set design gave it a modern vibe, and the talented cast of performers tackled the characters and choreography with energy and joy.

You can catch future performances on October 6, 2018, as well as dates in February, March, and May of 2019.