For These Estonian National Ballet Dancers, Strong Friendships Are Key to Career Fulfillment

January 23, 2024

When Estonian National Ballet dancers Abigail Mattox and Anthea Van Der Ham received their coveted break during the winter of 2020, they craved a change of scenery. Away from home and unable to travel abroad due to the COVID-19 pandemic, they rented a cabin in the Estonian countryside, asking a few dancers if they’d like to join and split the costs. Five other company members immediately tagged onto this rural winter escape. To make the most of their days off, they planned walks in the snow, hours in the sauna, and plenty of downtime.

Little did these women know that their impromptu weekend would form a bond that would guide them through the many challenges of being a dancer. Since then, Mattox, Van Der Ham, and their fellow corps de ballet members Kim Jana Hügi, Gili Neria, and Ellinor Piirimäe, as well as demi-soloist Akane Ichii and principal Anna Roberta, have supported each other through everything from solo performances to career changes. (Neria recently retired from the company, but still keeps in close touch.) In a profession so often cloaked in competition, these women exemplify how female friendships in the ballet world can exist at the same time as pursuing their art. 

A group if seven ballerinas in white tutus, pink tights and pointe shoes make a close formation in front of a tall window with long white curtains on each side. Three dancers stand close to the windo pane, while the other four sit at various levels and in different poses. They all look at each other and smile.
Photo by Yugaphoto, courtesy Abigail Mattox.

“One thing my mom used to tell me is that our career makes us move a lot, so don’t make big friendships because we’re going to say goodbye to them,” says Van Der Ham, whose mother is Italian and father is Dutch. “But I realized that relationships are really important and you do need to have friends, even if for a short time.”

During a joint Zoom interview, the dancers praise each other on everything from pirouettes and taste in dancewear to their various side hustles that range from filmmaking to podcasting. They defy the dancer stereotypes often depicted in books and movies of appearing closed off and reluctant to say anything nice about each other for fear of jeopardizing their own position in the company.

“We’re not snobbish in any kind of way, especially when there are new dancers,” says Mattox, who grew up in Cyprus, the daughter of American parents. “I think we all go to that place of remembering when we were there. I feel like sometimes when we hang out, it gives us the energy to spread positivity even more.”

The women agree that their bond has helped them through the past three seasons at Estonian National Ballet, which has an intense performance schedule. The company presents multiple ballets each week on a rotating basis, a practice more common in Eastern European companies than in the U.S. In December alone, Estonian National Ballet performed The Nutcracker, Carnival of the Animals, and a double-bill program.

They support each other by offering quiet smiles under the stage lights, hosting birthday celebrations in dressing rooms, and organizing soup deliveries to each other’s apartments when someone is sick.

A group of seven ballerinas in white tutus is shot from above in the house of a theater. They wrap their arms around each others' waists and form a circle among the rows of seats. They look up and smile towards the camera.
Photo by Yugaphoto, courtesy Abigail Mattox.

“People here in Estonia might be labeled as being cold and standoffish, but I think they’re just very real and very honest people,” says Mattox. “It does take time to get to know them, but that really creates an environment that is safe and trustworthy, and I think that’s reflected in the way the theaters are run, the people that work there, and also the relationships that are formed.”

The company’s theater is within walking distance to Tallinn’s city center and picturesque old town. Estonia’s capital city has a population of 450,000, and residents are known for attending multiple performances each week at the historic venue. The women say that at the Estonian National ballet (under the direction of Linnar Looris), the atmosphere of open communication and support is encouraged among dancers.

They hope their own positivity influences other dancers.

Piirimäe, who is Estonian and joined the company in 2019, more recently than the others, has advice for anyone embarking on a career in ballet: “Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Don’t feel like it’s a bad thing to fail or not to know things.”

“Because our career is hard enough,” adds Hügi, who is from Switzerland and joined Estonian National Ballet in 2017. “We don’t have to make it hard with each other, as well. We all have similar struggles, so it doesn’t make sense to also judge each other on those things that we are insecure about. That doesn’t help anyone.”

“And don’t believe the lie that you have to step on people to get to where you want to go,” Mattox concludes. “Get people around you who will remind you of your value and your worth, who will spur you on. They’ll push you and help you get there.”