The Ballet Master



The Ballet Master (Novels, Estonian)
Published by Loomingu Raamatukogu, 2019, pp. 200

Vadi’s fantasy novel weaves a thrilling version of tumultuous years in Estonian history. When the Soviet Union occupied the Republic of Estonia in 1940, authorities deported the Estonian president Konstantin Päts and his family to Russia. When war broke out between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union in 1941, he was arrested and imprisoned in various mental hospitals until his death in 1956. In Vadi’s novel, four men who have assumed false identities and are masquerading as a folk-dance troupe set out to free the president from the Kazan Asylum. Alas, as their journey commences, they don’t even know how to dance. Stitched into their folk costumes are said to be the secret codes the president needs to access his assets. One of the briefcases they were given contains a book on folk dancing. Needless to say, not all goes according to plan.

            Vadi originally wrote the story as a play that was staged in 2009, and later reworked it as a film script. The Ballet Master is indeed cinematically dynamic and theatrically multilayered, reminiscent of Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita. The grotesque comedy partly centers around the president, who was a great historical figure, and otherwise follows the rescue squad made up of a fire fighter and three potters: four entirely ordinary men who are meant to alter the course of history. The imposters board a train to Moscow from Tallinn and are forced to perform an improvised dance repertoire that very same evening in the dining car. The comical-yet-calculated creativity and mesmerizing quality of the men’s movements is detailed from their very first leaps – be it hopping on one foot with their arms crossed and trying to make the others lose their balance while “La Marseillaise” is played, or a dance called “Walk When the Devil’s on Your Heels”, which was they learned from a Moscow street urchin named Seryozha to help them survive in war or a metropolis.

            Peppered with ample references to Russian literary classics and fairy tales, the four men’s adventure through Russia is akin to an unpredictable Russian anecdote. The Ballet Master’s bizarre cast of semi-folkloric characters is colorful, including humans and animals alike. That said, deeper undertones are not absent at any point in the story. The characters’ fates, romances that flourish along the way, and betrayal that is committed are written with witty and concerned warmth from start to finish. Although they do not succeed in freeing the president, the magical tragicomedy (or black comedy) still has a happy ending in store for the dance troupe.

Text by Elle-Mari Talivee

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