Māras zeme. Riga 06 July 2018
The performance about to begin, we make our way to our seats. It’s 10pm and the 5000 seats fill up under the greying but still light sky. The refashioned football and athletics field stands empty and prepared. As we wait the air cools but the atmosphere warms. Then, to the sound of bell-like electric music, a deep woman’s voice delivers a solemn opening recital, and hundreds of men dressed in simple grey enter the stage. These are the oldest kinds of folk dress, from medieval, pre-Christian, tribal Latvia. Pappa explains that the voice speaks of the brith of ancient Latvia, and how her life story will be told this evening through dance, music, and costumes. When the stage is full of grey-clad men in patterns I can’t see from my low seat, the voice ends, and the men leave as silently and uniformly as they entered.
What follows is so much more than a choreography of Latvia’s history. With hundreds and sometimes thousands of dancers on stage, the human life cycle is narrated alongside nature’s changing seasons, as well as the life story of Latvia. In spectacular formations and explosions of colour, dancers celebrate their nation, their culture, and their very nature, with power and joy.
At a time where statements of patriotism and nationalism in Europe often border on the xenophobic, this display of unashamed pride and love for a country never feels distasteful or arrogant. It is beautiful and executed with utmost respect and inclusion. Latvia is a small nation that for many years was blocked off from the rest of the world, its immigration is low, but its community abroad is quite extensive. This community has now returned, to join the celebration and honouring of their ancient land. The whole programme is in Latvian, but there are more people like me and my cousins here tonight who don’t speak the language and are still welcomed and moved by the dance.
Thinking about national identity I realise the British government have met at Chequers to finalise their Brexit strategy today. I still don’t know what the outcome was, but it feels at odds with the patriotic celebration before me. Fear of the foreign diluting quintessential Britishness drove people to vote for isolation; to protect, what they felt, was their country, their values and traditions. But here in Latvia it’s through EU and NATO memberships that national identity can be protected and celebrated. This is a country that has benefitted immensely from European grants and investments, which by extension allows for this festival’s state of the art sound technology, video recording and live television broadcast, infrastructure and communication to transport and accommodate the thousands of dancers and audience. Culture and tourism are industries that have been aided by the EU, and historical traditions and national identities have been protected by the partnership, not threatened by it. Although the UK is a very different economy, culture, contributor and migrational target within the EU, it saddens me that so many Britons are unable to see the potential of exchange and openness that Latvians see. Which reminds me that I really need to start looking into my own options for remaining in the UK when I get home, if I am to stay.
The approach of night brings a chill. I wrap my scarf tighter and watch the vigour of the dancers like an open fire. The story mixes tradition and modernity; the dancing and costumes traditional, but the sound and light technology undoubtedly modern. The music itself blends traditional bagpipes, accordions and flutes with electric guitars, drums and digital circuits. The performance is two and a half hours long, and on a scale unlike anything I’ve ever seen. With each person, each couple, each group looking and dancing slightly differently from any other, there are more movements and colours than the eyes can count. But it’s the effect of the collective that matters; like bees in a hive, who communicate through movement, the dancers of this apicultural nation move in perfect synchronicity, and individual mistakes are absorbed into the group and made right. No one is reproached and nothing is wrong for long.
When the performance draws to a close well into the night, with flags and applause and tears, I leave with the waves of the Daugava, the Baltic and the music dancing in my heart, feeling part of something I have always been distant from, and wonder how, if, the choral concert on Sunday will ever be able to top this experience.
See the full performance of Māras zeme, published by multinews lv on 7 July 2018 on YouTube.