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A Central Asian Theatrical Mecca?

Showcasing innovation and local adaptation in the theater arts in Central Asia has been hampered by the lack of established arenas for cross-border collaboration. A new festival is trying to change that. by Laura Adams 30 July 2003 BISHKEK, Kyrgyzstan--Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the lack of opportunities to share culture through touring theatrical productions has been one of the greatest blows to the theater arts of Central Asia. The first-ever Bishkek International Theater Festival Art-Ordo--held last month in the Kyrgyz capital of Bishkek--was designed to partially alleviate that problem, giving opportunities to playwrights working in Turkic languages to see their work performed before a multinational audience.

During Soviet times, different Turkic ethnic groups communicated with each other mainly through the Russian language, but the 15-21 June Art-Ordo festival--planned as a biannual event--demonstrated that Turkic cultural cross-pollination is not only possible but fruitful.

Twenty theaters participated, including regional theaters from Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, state theaters from Kazan and the Altay region of the Russian Federation, and experimental theaters from Ufa and St. Petersburg. The largely Kyrgyz audiences enthusiastically received the performances, many of which were presented in one of the Turkic languages related to Kyrgyz.

Pan-Turkic linguistic commonality wasn’t the only thread running through the festival’s performances. The festival also highlighted the various ways theaters in these regions are weaving ethnic culture together with contemporary tastes. Sakhna, a local experimental theater, took the festival’s grand prize for its performance, Kereez, a play that combined an ancient myth with contemporary theater arts. Kereez and many of the other performances gave a glimpse into the avid interest in Turkic linguistic and cultural revival from Kazan to Ashgabat.

The performance of European-style theater in Central Asian languages is nothing new. In fact, Tashkent's Hamza theater, which performed plays in Uzbek, was one of the Soviet Union’s most prominent cultural institutions. However, the Russian language heavily influenced the idiom of the plays performed in local languages, while the Art-Ordo festival reflected more recent linguistic concerns related to the de-Russification of local languages. Indeed, the language of many of the performances was carefully crafted to avoid reflecting the reality of Russian influences on everyday speech. The Tatar of the Kazan Tatar State Theater for Young Viewers, for example, was not the Tatar of Kazan’s contemporary youth, but rather a purified Tatar of an imagined past.


The concern with linguistic purification is closely linked to concerns over ethnic identity and historical roots. Although the festival organizing committee did not set any thematic limitations on the festival entries, a fair number of the plays dealt with ethnic identity through explorations of the real or mythic past. The Kazan theater’s performance of R. Batulla’s Sak-Sok evoked the completely mythical past of a fairy tale, and the Drama Theater of Bashkortostan presented N. Abdykadyrov’s Poslednoe More Chinggisqaghana, which contained a play within a play about the travels of the historical Chinggis Qaghan (Genghis Khan).

Other performances expressed a vision of ethnic tradition through form, rather than content. The Ashgabat Theater Avara, for example, performed its rendition of Shakespeare’s King Lear as a one-man show. The ethnic spin in this piece was that director Ovliakuli Khodjakuli and actor Anna Mele presented King Lear in the form of the traditional Central Asian clown, the maskharaboz. The tragedy of Lear turned absurd and strangely touching as the scruffy “king” conversed with his “daughters,” represented by crude stick puppets. The irony in Shakespeare’s words was even more striking in this setting as Lear the vagabond repeatedly uttered the phrase, “I am a king!”

Also under Khodjakuli’s direction was the performance of the Eski Masjid (Old Mosque) Theater Studio from Karshi, a city on Uzbekistan’s Afghan border. The visually lush performance of Raksu Samo’ seamlessly integrated music and dance.

“This could be considered an authentic Uzbek musical,” Uzbek theater critic Kamariddin Artikov, one of the festival judges, said. “Of course, we didn’t have the form of the musical before, but this is the theatrical expression of authentic musical and dance traditions.”

Raksu Samo’ was a delightful and elegant dramatization of a Sufi parable based on Seven Planets by the 15th-century poet Alisher Navoi. In contrast to many of the festival’s performances, there was a religious element in Raksu Samo’, but it was expressed more in the context of Muslim heritage than of Islamic faith.


Director Khodjakuli was one of the more interesting characters of the festival. A slight young man with the piercings and goatee more commonly found on artists in the West, Khodjakuli revealed his Turkmen ethnicity only through the colorful caps he wore to each of his three shows in the festival. Turkmenistan has proved an especially hostile environment for artists--the government banned opera and ballet in 2001--but Uzbekistan is not a much more likely candidate for open expression, given that the authoritarian government runs all but two of the republic’s theaters. (Festival participant Eski Masjid is one of the independent theaters.) Most theaters are only partially subsidized by the government in Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan, both of which have a much higher proportion of independent theaters and greater freedom of expression in general. In order to exercise his artistic freedom, Khodjakuli has had to live and work abroad, mainly in Almaty and Moscow.

Khodjakuli’s cosmopolitan flair showed up in his rendition of Oscar Wilde’s Salome, which was performed by Kazakh and Kyrgyz actors in an alternating rhythm of Russian and Kyrgyz lines. Salome, a play about the madness of sexual desire, is practically guaranteed to shock a conservative audience, which may explain its popularity among avant-garde directors in Central Asia. During the 1990s, the play was in the repertoire of Tashkent’s Ilkhom Theater, an internationally respected independent theater. The nudity and sexuality in Salome, as in many of the Ilkhom’s productions, scandalized even the cosmopolitan Uzbek elite of Tashkent and provoked criticism that the Ilkhom’s productions are offensive to Central Asian values.

There may be a link between Salome’s reception in Tashkent and Khodjakuli’s decision to mount a multinational production with all Central Asian actors, as if in reply to the critics who claimed that such works “are not for us.”

However, most of the directors did not draw their material from European sources, even though the European roots of their training were very much in evidence. European-style theater is being used to revive the indigenous artistic traditions of Central Asia in ways that fundamentally alter their performance. For example, the Central Asian minstrel tradition was one of the most popular festival themes, but when the minstrel tradition is revived through the form of European-style theater, improvisation and idiosyncrasy are sacrificed for predictability and professionalism: The clown knows in advance exactly what the jokes will be, and the bard becomes a character in a play reciting scripted lines.

What’s more, these local traditions are often seen through the lens of the European theatrical tradition. For example, in the Bashkir theater’s performance of Poslednoe More Chinggisqaghana, it seemed that the director’s image of traditional itinerant theater was based at least partly on the traditions of another country: Italy’s Commedia del Arte.


Some directors are finding new ways to synthesize European-style theater and traditional culture that come closer to the spirit of local traditions. One example of this at Art-Ordo was grand-prize-winner Kereez. In the play, contemporary environmental concerns are linked with ancient spiritual beliefs. The play is based on the Kyrgyz epic of Kojojash, whose tribe lives in harmony with nature until the hero believes he is stronger than nature, bringing about his own downfall and endangering the tribe. Kereez was written and directed by Nurlan Asanbekov and performed by the Bishkek independent theater Sakhna.

Kereez is part of a larger project supported by various international and local organizations to revive the “small epic” of Kyrgyzstan. (Manas, a much longer epic, is the centerpiece of the government’s campaign to build a contemporary Kyrgyz cultural identity). Sakhna is attempting to revive the lesser-known epics through the means of what Asanbekov calls “nomadic theater,” which synthesizes the art of the dastanchi (bard) and ritual theater.

Asanbekov is a serious-looking young man, in spite of his ponytail, who speaks rapidly in a soft voice about his desire to find new expressions of authentic Kyrgyz culture. He describes Kereez not as a play but as “ceremonies on the theme of Kojojash” and indeed, an air of shamanistic ceremony pervades the entire piece. The performance begins with the actors entering into a meditative state in order to become spiritually closer to the story they are about to enact. Also, the program invites the audience to meditate on a prayer that connects God and humans through nature.

Asanbekov’s bold attempt to link the performance of theater to the spiritual transformation of the actors and the audience is an exciting innovation in the theater of Central Asia, and one to which both audiences and critics have responded.

In that, Kereez resembles the new festival at which it took the grand prize: Art-Ordo--at least from its debut--represents a promising forum for encouraging dialogue between artists, critics, and audiences about new directions for Turkic-language theater.
Laura Adams is a postdoctoral scholar in Central Asian studies at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. Her research focuses on culture and society in Central Asia.
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