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Thomas Edur - The Tragic Prince
Mike Dixon with an in depth appreciation and interview of the National Dance Awards Best Male dancer of 2002, July 2003

Thomas Edur is the embodiment of the Romantic prince. Nobility is so intrinsic to his nature that it seems to envelop him like an aura both on and off the stage. There is the aristocratic bearing and the majestic long stride but there is also an air of mystery, something charismatic, that clings to him like an expensive perfume. English dance critics, generally renowned for their severity, write about Edur as if he were a deity: “god-like” being a frequent epithet used to describe this perfect dancer. The undisputed star of English National Ballet he is judged by many connoisseurs to be the greatest premier danseur noble in the world.

To define the qualities of this dancer for those who have not seen him perform is difficult. There are male dancers today that we can call “stars”, technical wizards who can rattle off physical pyrotechnics. There are also reliable partners who can cope with the exigencies of the classic ballets. But the art of the premier danseur noble is not really either of these things: at its best it is simply an evocation of the purest form of danse d’ecole allied to a Romantic sensibility. Edur has these qualities matched to a perfectly proportioned body, feet with preternaturally stretched arches, a handsome face with soulful eyes and a technique of adamantine strength. With his partner, Agnes Oaks, who is also his wife, he has enthralled audiences with classical dancing of the highest order. He occupies a unique position in British dance: he is revered by his peers and loved by the public as a great artist.
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" He occupies a unique position in British dance: he is revered by his peers and loved by the public as a great artist."
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Harold King, former artistic director of London City Ballet, tells a story that illustrates perfectly the reverence in which the young Estonian is held. In a period when Edur was joining the LCB company for daily class, King entered the studio one day to find that half of his dancers were sitting on the floor at the back of the room. Embarrassed by what he perceived as the lack of respect being shown to the guest ballet master King immediately chided the seated dancers and demanded that they get up and do their exercises. The whispered reply from the dancers was: “Please let us watch Thomas Edur instead.” Then some fervent voices added: “We think we will learn far more by watching him!”

Edur was born in Tallinn in 1969 and attended the Estonian State Ballet School. At the age of sixteen he danced his first leading role, Franz in Coppelia, with Agnes Oaks as Swanilda. In 1988 he joined the Estonian State Opera Ballet. Oaks continued her studies at the Bolshoi for a year during which the pair realised how much they missed each other. Their partnership grew stronger and in 1990 they won the Best Senior Couple prize at the ballet competition in Jackson, Mississippi where they caused a sensation. They were deluged with offers from ballet companies. Ivan Nagy, then the artistic director of English National Ballet, invited them to dance in London and they have been based there ever since. Their very first performances in England attracted unanimous laudatory reviews and today many see them as the truly outstanding partnership in classical dance. They have never aimed for celebrity status and seem curiously unambitious. Although they spent a year with Birmingham Royal Ballet from 1996-97, and are invited to dance with other companies, they remain loyal to English National Ballet.

Thomas Edur invites me to a rehearsal of E.N.B.’s new production of The Nutcracker. He and Agnes Oaks are refining the grand pas de deux choreographed by wunderkind Christopher Hampson. With the choreographer is Matz Skoog, the artistic director; Fiona Tonkin, assistant artistic director; ballet master David Wall and other dancers, sitting in corners, who have come to watch out of interest. Oaks and Edur are dressed completely in black, a colour that etches their shapes against the white walls and emphasises the perfection of their line. She has translucent skin and golden hair and looks like a flawless porcelain figure each time she holds a balance. It is she who is leading the endless analysis with Wall and Tonkin about the smallest details of the choreography. What already looks perfect is refined and discussed in the search for absolute purity of form. She is totally demanding about what looks right. For an hour and a half the adagio section is polished with lapidary concentration. Their seriousness of approach is unsurprising, for on stage they create an impression of almost mystical perfection. The ballet studio is where they do the hard yards. As a pair they convey a sense of effortlessness when they dance and as Edur launches her into the air in complex lifts their breathing is almost inaudible.

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'Tom and Ag' - Thomas Edur with his wife Agnes Oaks.
Photo: © Eric Richmond

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What is quite astonishing is the amount of joking and laughter that is interleaved with their hard work. At one point Oaks stumbles and they both, instantly and simultaneously, launch into a time-step routine. Everybody laughs at the brilliance of their timing. Later they run out of studio space in performing an enchainement and respond in unison by pretending to sneak, embarrassed, into imaginary wings. Although they must have executed these jokey manouevres many times what impresses is the split second exactitude of their responses and the manner in which they abruptly change from giggles to serious concentration. Towards the end of the session Edur has a chat with Oaks as they both face the mirror. Then he turns his head slightly and converses with Kevin the pianist, David Wall and others before resuming his discussion with his wife. During the entire conversation he has been holding her in a straight arm lift above his head. I search his face for signs of physical effort. There are none.

In a small airless office on the hottest day of the year I talk to Agnes about her relationship with Thomas before he arrives for his interview. She says that a great partnership is about hearing the music the same way, sensing each other and sharing the same feelings; something that only happens with experience. “Partnerships have gone out of fashion because it is easier for directors to mix people instead of working with couples. Two people create something unique over the years; experience takes you to a different level. I have thought about this a lot because in the early days, people said that I was overshadowed by Thomas. It took a long time and hard work to create something so special but in the early years we danced with different partners all the time.” Agnes Oaks is a wonderful dancer in her own right and has performed with other companies as a guest artist: notably Aurora in Ben Stevenson’s Sleeping Beauty and the title role in Heinz Spoerli’s Cinderella. When I compliment her on an outstanding performance as Juliet in Derek Deanes’s Romeo and Juliet she simply says: “Thomas and I fell in love when we were sixteen; it is nice to think about that on stage.” She admits that she is the practical one in their relationship. “He always has plans and visions, and I am glad he has them. I am more realistic I think. Thomas is practical in a physical sense. He is multi-talented and enjoys fixing things. He built everything in our flat.” I try to visualise the greatest Albrecht I have ever seen with an electric drill in his hand. My imagination cannot rise to the challenge.

She tells me: “It wasn’t love at first sight. It was friendship. During the summer vacation in 1986 I went home to my family in the country. I invited him to come and visit if he wanted. He didn’t dare to come alone, so he brought a friend. My parents were in total shock when he arrived after a bicycle ride of 90 kilometres! He stayed for two days and during that time we realised how much we loved each other.”
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" You know I was only seventeen but I absolutely knew then that Agnes and I were going to be friends for ever"
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When Edur arrives for his interview the office is even hotter. He goes to see if he can find an electric fan but we are out of luck. He is serious, reserved, polite and rather intense but devoid of a star’s ego. The sense of humour witnessed in the rehearsal also erupts occasionally in a deadpan delivery that is totally at odds with the large melancholy eyes: for instance, when I report Agnes’ story of his 90 kilometre bicycle ride his reaction is to look pained and rather disappointed. “It was 96 kilometres,” he corrects. “Definitely. I felt it with both of my cheeks,” he remembers brightly. Again serious he says: “You know I was only seventeen but I absolutely knew then that Agnes and I were going to be friends for ever.”

Even after the success of Jackson the praise of the London critics was a strange experience. “It was a very big surprise for me to receive such a big welcome to this country with the critics saying very generous things. For three years Agnes and I were a bit naïve and didn’t really know our own level in world terms.” Although he has danced the lead in Tetley’s Sphinx and has had modern pieces made on him he is a prince in the public’s collective mind. Asked to reveal the secret of being a successful premier danseur noble he says: “Many people see the princely roles as passive figures. This is not my vision. I always try and bring maximum technical ability to these roles, pushing the limits as far as they will go but always in the correct style, with finesse, to make it look easy. You can include any step as long has it has been refined. If it looks rough it doesn’t work. Some leading dancers look good but don’t have the technical ability, some have a strong technique but don’t look pretty. I liked the style of Manuel Legris, for example. It is difficult to teach this style. I think you can help a dancer to develop noble qualities but it is really something that comes from the inside. I get very tense talking about myself and particularly when other dancers say ‘Why do the critics get so excited about Thomas?’ I just try and do a performance as emotionally as I can and that comes from the inside. The soul! You have to have big guts; that is the core. You have to be brave enough to be emotional on stage. I was never afraid to fall in the studio or in life. I always go for it. There is no safe option. I would clean steps thousands of times in the studio to the point where Derek Deane would shout ‘Enough! Enough!’ I don’t need pushing, believe me.
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" Agnes and I were lucky to find each other. It was like winning the lottery. We are temperamentally very different but we make it work."
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Agnes and I were lucky to find each other. It was like winning the lottery. We are temperamentally very different but we make it work. We compete with each other but essentially a good partner has to be the ballerina’s friend and complement her. We were lucky to have a teacher called Meelis Pakri, only three years older than me, who showed us the value of pas de deux. Agnes was like a piece of clay being moulded in those classes. I felt very confident holding her. In the West there is no duet school as such and everybody holds girls differently. You hear ballerinas saying: ‘Hold me from here, hold me there, hold your hands lower on my hips during pirouettes.’ They have to adjust for new partners from different schools.”

Relating his wife’s enthusiasm for his building skills he says: “I like doing DIY because it helps me relax. I was the only man at home. My father left when I was three and there was nobody to put a nail in the wall except me. I would do this at home and also for my grandmother. When I was thirteen I decorated her house. It was probably an awful job but I felt very responsible. When I came to London I didn’t really trust anybody to do the work on our flat because I had heard horror stories about builders. When I was laying the floor I drilled through a pipe. I simply soldered in a new piece of pipe. Being a painter-decorator is probably going to be my next career.” I look up quickly to see if he is joking.

He is. “Nowadays people limit themselves, life becomes less demanding, we sit on our chairs, don’t do much physical work and become weak animals. You can do anything if you are open enough.”
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Thomas Edur as Apollo.
Photo: © Dee Conway

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What makes this man such a strong dancer? What is the secret ingredient in his personal life that drives him to strive so unrelentingly for perfection? The obvious answer seems to be Agnes: his rock, his helpmeet, his glorious partner who strives with him for greatness. But sitting for hours in the sweltering heat of the interview room I sense that there is also something else, something very important he wants to say. It is just below the surface of the conversation, insistently wanting to express itself; but Edur is wary. We talk about his love of his country. Oaks and he have both made it clear that they will return home in some capacity to help and encourage ballet in Estonia. They are happy living in England but they also wish to repay something to the country that nurtured their talents. Edur is a passionate advocate for his country. He repeatedly suggests that I should visit Estonia and discover its beauty for myself. I respond by telling him that on one recent visit to Helsinki I had impulsively considered taking the ferry to Tallinn for a day trip. His response to this statement is curiously muted. After a few moments pregnant silence he asks me if I had ever heard about a ship called The Estonia? Indeed I had, the story had been international news.

The Estonia was the largest ship in the national fleet. It operated between Stockholm and Tallinn. Shortly after midnight on 28th September 1994 during a heavy storm the bow doors were ripped away by the angry waves. Sea-water, twenty tons per second, rushed in and flooded the lower accommodation decks causing the ship to list dramatically. The passengers had only fifteen panic-filled minutes in which to save themselves as the ship keeled over onto its side. Only the fittest were able to escape. The Estonia, a symbol of national pride, slid beneath the icy grey waters of the Baltic Sea forever, taking most of the passengers and crew to their deaths. Of the final death toll of 852 only 94 bodies were found.

I stare at Edur. His jaw muscles are tight. He gazes vacantly into space, his eyes moist with tears. He says in an empty voice: “My mother died on that ship.” The room chills suddenly. Shocked by this revelation, I slowly realise that he has had to live with the nightmare of imagining and re-living the terrible events of that night: the drama of his mother’s suffering and death. It must have given him years of mental torture. He shrugs and says grimly: “You have to be tough about these things.” He reflects for a moment, as if deciding whether he should continue talking about this painful subject. “My mother was here in London two weeks before she died. We were rehearsing Giselle. She always loved this ballet. One of her favourite scenes was when Albrecht brings the flowers to Giselle’s grave. She sat in a corner of the studio and cried. Now I think of my mother, whenever I perform this ballet, when I walk on stage with the flowers over my arm. I don’t believe in God, you know. I believe ‘God’ is an energy. I feel the energy of my grandmother and my mother when I ask them for help sometimes; and I get it. In her life my mother gave me as much as she could give me. She saw me dancing here in London and then she seemed to know it was her time to go. Whenever I swim in the sea, when I am near the sea, I commune with my mother. We are all part of the water.”

Now I can contextualise the earlier jokiness in the studio, the sheer determination to enjoy life as if it were a sacrament. At one point, talking about his apparent lack of ambition, he had said: “I don’t go for the star bullshit. I don’t play that game. I am too busy trying to be happy.” I feel humbled by the experience of talking to this great dancer whose emotional strength as a person has been formed in the fiercest forge of bitter experience. His personal tragedy has enhanced his work as an artist. On stage he has the melancholy softness of the Romantic prince but this man has the steely determination of a real fighter. Even after the revelations of the past hours I still feel that Thomas Edur is profoundly unknowable: a consummate artist but a man of great depth and mystery.
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Thomas Edur
Photo: © Dee Conway