Erkki Tann was talking about his tragic early life in Estonia and his enjoyable life now as director of the Tampa Ballet. Then he abruptly paused in mid-sentence and rolled his blue eyes. The nuances of English are difficult for the 54-year-old Tann, who came to the United States in September.
"I was an orphan but I found, find, found my real world in the ballet," he said.
"Ballet is what saved me," he continued. "The people in ballet became my family. They helped me to be a normal person. I was not a normal person. I was without a family. You can be without food sometimes, but you cannot be without a family's love."
Tann has found a loving family in the Tampa Ballet, after an earlier life colored by tragedy, hope and, finally, graceful beauty.
When he was 4, the Soviet Union invaded his native Baltic country and executed his father, an official in the Estonian government. Tann, his mother, two brothers and infant sister were sent to a Siberian concentration camp and kept separate there. He heard his mother was wounded while trying to escape. He never saw her again.
After seven years of imprisonment, Tann became an orphan. His dancing talent surfaced at a young age, but it wasn't until he was 16 that Tann's life began to change for the better.
"In ballet, they always need boys," he said. "One day, some people from the ballet school came to the orphanage. They saw me, and they decided maybe I was okay. That was a very big break there. I think it's most important to have a little bit of freedom, so I went to ballet school."
It wasn't just any ballet school, but the prestigious Moscow State Institute of Theatrical Arts. He was enrolled in a training program that accepted only a dozen students for each five-year training cycle. Tann said Rudolf Nureyev was one of his fellow students.
Upon graduation, Tann danced with the State Opera and Ballet Theatre of Estonia from 1956 to 1962. Since then, he served as artistic director and ballet master of several opera and ballet theaters in the Soviet Union, staging major productions of Sleeping Beauty, Swan Lake, Giselle, Raymonda and The Nutcracker, among others.
Along the way, he was reunited with one of his brothers, now a Swedish journalist. For 10 years, he tried to leave the Soviet Union for the United States. In November 1989, he left his wife and two children for the West, first joining his brother.
Last summer, word about Tann reached Tampa Ballet executive director Susan Taylor from a dancer in a troupe visiting Tampa from the Soviet Union.
"I learned that there was someone of an excellent background anxious to come over here," Taylor said. After a "less than easy" trans-Atlantic telephone call, Taylor invited Tann to Tampa "strictly for an interview."
Tann's charm impressed Taylor as much as his resume, and she signed him to direct the ballet school, which has about 80 students.
His dual role as choreographer and dancer in the Tampa Ballet's current production of The Nutcracker, Peter Tchaikovsky's timeless Christmas fantasy being staged at the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center, became an additional responsibility.
Tann's interpretation of The Nutcracker evokes a tenderness that requires the characters to examine their feelings. In his dancing role as Herr Drosselmeyer, Tann improvises the role of teacher, convincing the character of Clara to accept her nutcracker, which she initially rejects as an ugly toy.
Though he has seen many productions of The Nutcracker, Tann had never choreographed it.
"I started with an empty sheet of paper," he said. "Everything was white. I must know the music. Then I try to find how the characters begin to move. I, you play chess, you must before you do something take a look at what is the best way to play it. Only then you can make a move. Sometimes you feel it. The children have been very good and easy to work with."
The dancers say Tann is enthusiastic and demanding, but has a tender side.
"He's very technical and he wants you to be technical, except he still wants you to be an artist," said Angela Keehn, a junior at Northeast High School in St. Petersburg. "He wants you to give 110 percent all the time."
Seemingly driven by his past, Tann said his compassionate demeanor is a result of his experiences.
"People in Estonia are always afraid," Tann said. He recalls that during the Soviet invasion, soldiers executed entire families of politically important people. People who weren't expected to amount to much were spared.
"The communists decided that art is not so important a thing. They decided to let me die a normal death. They did a very big mistake to save my life."
Performances of The Nutcracker are scheduled at 2 and 7 p.m. today and Sunday. Tickets are $8.50, $12.50, $15.50 and $18.50.