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Jaan Ulst: “You have to experiment, dream big, to get to know yourself and move towards the European Capital of Culture title year with unbreakable self-confidence.”

Hailing from Nõo Parish in Tartu County, Jaan Ulst is an experienced choreographer-stage director and cultural manager. As of January 1 2021, he works at the Tartu 2024 foundation as a Programme Line Manager. What will be his first steps in his new position? What do the “Arts of Survival” mean to him? How does he assess the current Southern Estonian cultural landscape? Read more for the first interview with the new Tartu with Humanity Programme Line Manager Jaan Ulst.

Jaan Ulst on stage making a presentation.
18. Feb Kaidi-Lisa Kivisalu


Jaan Ulst at the international Kultuurikompass 2019. Photo: Kiur Kaasik

Why did you decide to apply for the “Tartu with Humanity” Programme Line Manager position?

It sounded so exciting – my home area will become the European Capital of Culture! I felt that I had to be a part of it somehow. I understand that it will be a great challenge, but you have to grab the bull by its horns.

You have a master’s degree in choreography from the University of Tallinn and you have previous experience as a stage director. In your opinion, which previous professional experiences will aid you in your new position?

Yes, it is correct that my specialty is choreography and stage directing. In addition to studying at the University of Tallinn, I have studied in the Netherlands and France at the Fontys Dance Academy in Tilburg and the University of Nice respectively. Over the last 10-15 years I have freelanced at many projects in different roles. This diverse background will help me to adapt in new situations.

As you mentioned, you are also a cultural manager, having led the Festival of Lights in Nõo for a few years now. Have you learned anything during organising this event that you will definitely pass onto our project developers?

The Festival of Lights was held in Nõo for the sixth time last autumn (2020). Our motto could sound something like: “Persistence leads to results”. Every year brings new adventures. Every year teaches new skills, new knowledge and leads to new experiences, which in turn give you courage to think even bigger. To make a parallel with the European Capital of Culture: no-one should think that they will simply be good and capable in 2024. No, you have to start experimenting now, dream big, to get to know yourself and move towards the title year with unbreakable self-confidence.

You have also been the Volunteer Coordinator at the Black Nights Film Festival and Tallinn Music Week. Please explain to us, what are the duties of a Volunteer Coordinator.  

Volunteers are a great group of people. Often they have the energy, willingness and the so called fan’s enthusiasm, but there has to be a connector, who directs all the energy according to the needs of the project. A Volunteer Coordinator is the connector, who maps the project’s needs, handles the recruitment and when the project ends gives recognition to the volunteers. They add value to a project that can only be experienced from a volunteer’s viewpoint.

During the course of your work, you create a unique network that is timeless. When I, for example, shared my Black Nights Film Festival Experience at the international Kultuurikompass forum, I asked people in the hall to raise their hands if they had been volunteers at the same festival. I was glad to see that over ten participants raised their hand!

Being a volunteer is a singular experience that I recommend to everyone, regardless of their age. For younger people it is a good way to enhance their CVs and for more experienced people it is an opportunity to put their knowledge and skills into use in a totally different space. Older people sometimes forget how needed they are in the society. I would encourage everyone to notice the European Capital of Culture, step forward and offer their help.


Photo: Kiur Kaasik

What do the “Arts of Survival” mean to you? What are the first thoughts and connections that come to mind?

The first word that pops into mind is “inventiveness”. There is a lot of positivity, playfulness and ambition for cooperation in the word “inventive”. Today, cultural organisers are forced to find new solutions. This is good! For example, last year all planned dance performances were presented as videos online and spending time in nature became mainstream. The European Capital of Culture title brings us a lot of attention from Europe. In that context we have to offer new inventive solutions as well. If 2020 brought us all out of our comfort zones then I hope that we will not fall back there before 2025.

As you are from Tartu County, how do you assess the current cultural landscape of Tartu and Southern Estonia?

I have never felt bored when roaming around this region! Regardless of the season, there are always large events in different fields happening. Be they music events, sports events, theatre and so forth. Tartu as the heart of the region feels innovative, the rural areas have very strong folk culture.

What should the cultural life in Tartu and Southern Estonia look like during and after the title year?

The concept of the European Capital of Culture will encompass our towns and rural areas. It will seat them around the same table. In the same manner, modern and traditional modes of thinking should meet more boldly in the arts. Our heritage is still strong and looked after, however it could be introduced into more contemporary contexts.

Lastly, what will be your first steps after joining the Tartu 2024 team?

I have observed the European Capital of Culture Tartu 2024 from a distance since they started writing their bidbook. Meeting the people who brought the title to Tartu and Southern Estonia fills me with great pride. It is becoming clearer to me; how impressive the work is that has already been done in the name of Tartu 2024 by so many people. I am looking forward to meeting with the teams of projects currently in the development process. It is exciting to see people who already carry the Tartu 2024 title year vibe with them.