Baltic Takeover brought festival vibe back to Helsinki

At times, there are things that you don’t realize you were missing before you experience them. This time it wasn’t something I would experience for the first time in my life, but something that I thought was there all the time but wasn’t. It was the international theatre festival vibe in Helsinki.

Yes, we have many super well-programmed international performing arts festivals in Helsinki, but within the past 10–15 years, we’ve lost the festival vibe. We attend the amazing performances within the framework of a festival and then head back to our homes or maybe have a glass of wine afterwards with the people we already know. Just like any other regular theatre night. Festival clubs are either another performance-filled event to experience, seldom something where people gather just to sit and chat about art and other important things with people from different cultural backgrounds. Professional networks are built somewhere else than in Helsinki.

I had thought that the good old days, when you head to a festival hub or club after a day’s performances to meet new people, to catch up, to tell your opinions about performances you’ve just seen or the structures where we work in, to dance, to start new things randomly, to end up eating bagels with strangers, were gone. That it was something we did in the 2000s when I started my career as a theatre producer and communication specialist but would be impossible to do anymore. I had been thinking that maybe the city has spread too much or maybe the people. Maybe no one wants to hang out over a beer anymore?

But! Baltic Takeover festival showed that IT STILL IS THERE, the theatre festival vibe is alive and kicking! We just needed the Baltics to come and, well, take over the city.

The power of doing together

The description of Baltic Takeover on their website ( starts with an anecdote where an Estonian, Latvian, and Lithuanian enter a theatre. This text of mine is about them entering the theatres of Helsinki and presenting their work to Finnish audiences. Baltic Takeover calls itself “a festival, a radical experiment, a crash course on Baltic arts, and the destination of a road trip from Lithuania to Helsinki”. I call it a one-of-a-kind collaboration, an initiative that showed what performing art festivals are for and what they can do if there’s a will.

I got to experience the part where the hard work of two years of planning, curating, finding partners and money was done and it was time to showcase the performances of nine artists/art collectives from Baltic countries at five venues in Helsinki at the beginning of June 2023. The production of the festival was done by the New Theatre Institute of Latvia (NTIL), Kanuti Gildi SAAL and the Lithuanian Dance Information Centre (LDIC). The driving force for all this was the artistic director of the Latvian theatre festival Homo Novus, Bek Berger, who also contacted the Finnish partners by making it very easy for them to say yes, I’ve heard, as the proposal was more or less “give us your space and technical equipment and we bring the best possible content to your venue from the Baltics”.

I had the chance to see four of the festival performances. Two of them were premieres: Concent by Povilas Bastys / Miss Plastica from Lithuania at Dance House Helsinki and The Sleeper Awakes by Kvadrifrons from Latvia at Theatre Viirus. I also experienced the concert show for children and others by the Latvian group Sansusī called Strange people stand very strangely at Annantalo, the house for children’s art. From Estonia, I saw Johhan Rosenberg’s performance traps at Theatre Takomo.

If I had been waiting for some traditional, text-based plays, I would have been disappointed. But when I was waiting to see some contemporary, vivid art that would challenge all my senses and teach me something, I got what I wanted plus more.

Total eclipse of my heart

I simply loved Kvadrifrons’ The Sleeper Awakes. It is a melancholic zombie story about “unbreakable bonds of friendship, a broken wind turbine, a giant mirror and an even bigger black hole”. It was a hilarious, heart-touching, weird and thoroughly made contemporary theatre piece. Spectators were given a libretto in a wooden cover to follow, and the sign box that is usually seen at the grocery store’s meat counter or dentist’s lobby told when to turn the page. Zombies were there, doing their zombie things (– I’m not necessarily sure they had much to do with the libretto storyline after all, a fact that I love). As a spectator, I was forced to choose whether I’d follow the zombies or the libretto. And all the time Bonnie Tyler’s epic song Total Eclipse of the Heart was played as background music or a backdrop, ever-changing, evolving, breaking, turning into something unrecognizable. As a spectator, it took me some time to learn the pace of the performance, but when I got into it, it was a joy ride in the arts! This performance reminded me of the uniqueness of live theatre. It’s a collection of different skills and crazy ideas that form something deeper and crazier but good when combined. Come on: a Bonnie Tyler song, zombies, and a sob story with black holes!

It’s not about understanding the language

Another libretto was handed at the entrance of Sansusī’s Strange people stand very strangely. I had my doubts when I heard that we were about to see a 50-minute-long concert/performance which combines analog synthesizers with opera voice and analog cinema projectors …for children …in Latvian. I believe only 10% of the audience knew the Latvian language, but there we were happily following the strange mixture of talents of the artistic group.

You really didn’t need to have the text – an absurd poem by Daniil Harms –, you could understand the idea without understanding the language. This is also something I’ve been missing: to hear performances that I don’t understand, but I can sense. Of course, there are performances in Helsinki that are not in Finnish or in Swedish, but usually, there’s an English translation somehow present during the performance (as there was now as well, but child audiences don’t read absurd poems in English by themselves). And when the text is there, the human mind works the way that you will follow it – you want to get everything out of the performance, you want to understand it, even though you probably then will miss some actions on stage, the thing you’re supposed to concentrate on. Daniil Harms’ text is of course a good example of a text that you don’t need to follow whether you understood the language or not. But it’s also the magic of a live performance, the atmosphere, the rhythm, the light, the faces. A good children’s play has always the layer that is targeted at the adult spectators but amuses also the kids – in Strange people stand very strangely it was the analogic approach to performance-making and it worked well.

Men of Lithuania, how are you?

In his performance Concent, choreographer Povilas Bastys is “analyzing the concept of consent and lack of it to his opinion in our society. Performance aims to alert conscious decision making rather than functioning by default and provides a personal view on that.” In Concent, Bastys is also performing as his drag alter ego Miss Plastica, and with the dancer Konstantin Kosovec. #metoo brought the question of consent to the table and the social media forums, and luckily to art organizations and productions as well. The small word can be interpreted in many ways, and it can be seen as a positive or negative question. While watching Miss Plastica warmly welcoming her audience, then lip-syncing Big big world by Emilia Rydberg and soon trapped in a PVC straitjacket by the audience, followed by masculine running and boxing between Bastys and Kosovec, leading to the sensual, peaceful final part, I realized how little I know about the Lithuanian culture in the end. I started wondering how the same performance would feel in Lithuania’s Dance House. I don’t know that many Lithuanian contemporary dance artists, if any. I don’t know what the LGTBQ+ scene is like in Lithuania, what are the rights of sexual or gender minorities, and how political this performance actually is. Personal is political, but maybe this performance is political in more ways. As the far right is rising everywhere and there’s a war next to the Baltic countries, what does that mean for minorities – but also, what does it mean for the cis men of the region? I’ve seen tens of performances that deal with the topic of gender, but this, in relation to the topic of consent, don’t leave me alone.

Slippery when wet

Johhan Rosenberg’s traps opened to me as a dystopic poem. As we entered the set in Theatre Takomo, the temperature rose and got moist – it was almost a bit tricky to breathe. There were small flies flying in the space – and the creature played by Rosenberg themselves. Were we in a zoo? In the tropics? Now or after some sort of apocalypse? Why? Were we allowed to interact with Rosenberg or should we pretend not to be there? And what was it leaking from the walls, what was making poppy sounds on the floor? What is this traps?

I enjoyed the horrors and comfortability of traps. For me, it was more of an installation where the performing body/being was one (very crucial) element, even though we stood still for the 1 hour and 10 minutes that the performance lasted. After seeing The Sleeper Awakes by Kvadrifrons I was asking for more body fluids on stage – in traps my hopes got fulfilled.

This brilliant performance quartet was only half of the Baltic Takeover’s program, but it already showed the great variety of the performance art that is made in the Baltics. But so what? Or: What then?

We have a history

We used to have an amazing theatre festival in Helsinki to focus on the theatre made around the Baltic Sea in the 2000s. The festival still exists but the focus is broader nowadays and while broadening it might have lost the Baltic region artists. The festival is still called Baltic Circle. I started my career as a producer and communication specialist in Baltic Circle in 2003 as an intern. This can easily be nostalgia talking, but even so, I miss that festival. Not because I don’t like it nowadays, but because of the missing festival vibe.

In Baltic Circle, over 10 years ago, I learned that international festivals are places where people work hard and then party hard, together. I thought for years that the idea of festivals is this: to work for the best possible shows for the best possible audiences and then everyone can join the same party and the same conversations. That the idea of festivals is not only to showcase the selected performances but to build a small art bubble where the local and foreign artists meet with the other festival goers, technicians, producers, ticket-sellers, journalists, and spectators. At the Baltic Takeover, I felt that that’s exactly what festivals are about, we’ve just lost it for a while. I felt this because I got to experience it. In this global world during these uncertain times, this would be just what we’d need – and just what the arts can do: to bring us together, not minding about the statuses or backgrounds, willing to listen and learn via art.

I truly hope Baltic Takeover lands Finland again someday. The Finnish theatre scene needs this Baltic energy and hospitality.

Heidi Backström is a Helsinki-based performing arts’ producer, writer and curator

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