Estonian Days festival brings its Baltic best to Whistler 

Biannual celebration brings national opera, ballet, choirs, film, folk music and dance for all to enjoy

click to enlarge PHOTO SUBMITTED - Cultural extravaganza The Vanemuine Theatre ballet troupe is one of many performance groups coming to Whistler as part of West Coast Estonian Days.
  • Photo submitted
  • Cultural extravaganza The Vanemuine Theatre ballet troupe is one of many performance groups coming to Whistler as part of West Coast Estonian Days.

Hello, Whistler. Estonia calling.

The resort is welcoming the best from the cultural life of the Baltic country as host of the 32nd West Coast Estonian Days, a biannual festival and gathering of the country's American and Canadian diaspora.

It is the longest-running Estonian festival outside Estonia, says Harry Jaako, the country's honorary consul in Vancouver.

"The festival was held for the first time in San Francisco in 1953. It was started by expat Estonians who fled the Soviet occupation in the mid-'40s; many had settled in West Coast cities like Los Angeles, Portland, San Francisco, Seattle and Vancouver. The idea was to get together and celebrate the culture and heritage with friends and relatives," he explains.

Jaako, who lives in Whistler, says each city hosts on a rotating basis, with this year's event being held in Whistler for the first time instead of the Lower Mainland. He said organizers worked closely with the Resort Municipality of Whistler to make it all come together.

Around 600 guests from the North American Estonian community are coming to the resort. There are events at indoor and outdoors venues during the festival, which opened with a gala on Wednesday, Aug. 5 and runs to Saturday, Aug. 8.

Along with golf, markets, business seminars, picnics and parties, the gathering also showcases top Estonian performing arts companies.

There is a film festival that includes a 2015 Oscar nominee for Best Foreign Film, a gala with the Vanemuine Theatre ballet troupe, a performance by members of the National Opera of Estonia, the Unistus Chamber Choir and folk singers and dancers performing around the resort.

This is new way to explore the resort's potential as a cultural tourism destination, says Jaako.

Whistler's reputation in the Baltic States is high, thanks largely to the 2010 Winter Olympics, he adds, pointing out that in Estonia, which values its cultural life highly, athletes are very much involved in the arts.

"About 140 people are coming from Estonia, mostly performers. That is the Whistler magnet. The festival is important, but the fact that it is being held here is really important," he says.

"There isn't such a thing as a sort of monolithic sports culture that excludes everything else. I'm being a little tongue-in-cheek because there is so much going on in the arts here, but you've got room to do these festivals in Whistler and broaden the mix."

West Coast Estonian Days is a self-funded event.

"It's dual purpose," says Jaako. "It's intended to be a celebration by this group of people that have met every two years to celebrate music, the songs, the dance and so on. But it's not meant to be a closed festival."

"We would love it if a family is up here for Crankworx they take part. There will be people wandering around the village looking for other interesting things to do."

Whistler Mayor Nancy Wilhelm-Morden says she is interested to see what kind of reception the festival will get.

"We've got one of the busiest summer seasons on record and Estonian Days extends what's on offer, as well," she says.

"We're seeing more and more of these kinds of events using Whistler as a venue and it is all good."

There are many events open to the general public. Some highlights include:

- Vanemuine Theatre Ballet Company: gala performance. Millennium Place on Saturday, Aug. 8, at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $15 for those aged 12 to18, $50 for 19-plus;

- National Opera of Estonia: A medley of music. Millennium Place on Thursday, Aug. 6, at 3:30 p.m. Tickets are $15 for those aged 12 to18, $50 for 19-plus;

- Unistus Chamber Choir: An American choir with Estonian roots. Millennium Place on Saturday, Aug. 8, at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $10 for those aged 12 to18, $30 for 19-plus;

- Laulupidu Song Festival: Choirs and performance groups from across North America and Estonia come together to celebrate Estonian choral traditions. The theme this year is "Sea to Sky." Whistler Conference Centre on Friday, Aug. 7, at 1 p.m. Tickets are $15 for those aged 12 to 18, $45 for 19-plus;

- Salakõrts: A speakeasy with Estonian music, dance and games — it takes place nightly at the Cinnamon Bear Bar from 9 p.m. to 1 a.m. Entry is free and open to those aged 19-plus;

- Tangerines: One of five Estonian films to be shown during the festival, it was nominated as Best Foreign Language Film in the 2015 Golden Globes and Academy Awards. Millennium Place on Friday, Aug. 7, at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $10;

- Youth performances: Led by 14–year old classical B.C.-based pianist Emma Hoglund. Millennium Place on Thursday, Aug. 6, at 12:30 p.m. Tickets are $10.

On the final day — Sunday, Aug. 9 — the festival moves to Vancouver with a choral concert at the Chan Centre at the University of British Columbia.

For more information and schedules visit www.lep2015.com.

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