Special of the month: Theatre in Central Asia: Development, Tradition and Theatrical Culture

Saniya Kabdieva, Specialist in Drama Studies, PhD, Professor of Kazakhstan National Academy of Arts (Almaty)

The theatre tradition in Central Asia includes theaters of Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan. National theatrical cultures of these countries have much in common in the history of their establishment, evolution stages and basic values. In the period before the October Revolution of 1917, there was a form of popular street theater maskharaboz and kizikchi in Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. In the rest of the nations theatrical elements developed in the performances of national eposes tellers, oral storytellers and poets improvisers.

Professional national theaters in Central Asia originated after the European model of theatre was brought about through Russian theatrical culture. At the stages of their formation theaters naturally appealed to the folk traditions and folklore. At the same time, each national theater has its own unique path of development.

In the 1990s, after the declaration of independence each of the Central Asian states faced a difficult issue of national identity formation. In this regard, theatrical repertoires mostly included plays and performances based on historical themes that reconsidered the history of the nations and raised issues that were previously banned from discussion. In addition, traditional culture and rites perfectly fit into the structures of new theatrical performances and directors’ visions. Directors put in place a significant number of performances based on national poetry with its unique artistic imagery.

Throughout the twentieth century, the Central Asian nations experienced the process of formation and establishment of their own stage performance traditions. Nowadays, this movement continues. For these traditions to survive in the future, they have to evolve rather than stagnate at their present stage of development. Therefore, the main task of the national theatres is not to preserve theatrical heritage in its original intact view, but to expand it in line with the new developments of the world theatre and to create new stage lexicon.

The leading directors of the region aiming to strengthen moral and spiritual roots of their artistic works demonstrate the skills of enriching the traditions of the national theatrical school and artistic imagery, and the talent of re-interpreting classic works. Some include ritual culture into their professional directorial solutions to experiment with the new stage language.

Such performances create special world that reflects spiritual space of the national culture, includes semantics of the traditional images into the “text” of the play and demands special artistic skills, so the actors can convey this particular form of theatrical existence. As a result, parable becomes one of the popular genres.

There are many directors who have vast experience of working with national theatres in Central Asia. Those are Bekpulat Parmanov in Kazakhstan, Nurlan Abdykadyrov and Nurlan Asanbekov in Kyrgyzstan, Bahodyr Yuldashev, Olimzhon Salimov, Nabi Abdyrahmanov and Ovlyakuli Hodjakuli in Uzbekistan, Barzu Abdurazzakov and Farruh Kasymov (1948-2010) in Tajikistan, Kakajan Ashyrov in Turkmenistan.

These directors put on plays not only in the countries of their origin, but other countries of the region as well. For example, Turkmen director Ovlyakuli Hodjakuli fills in theatrical niche in the culture of Uzbekistan since 1994. The winner of numerous awards at international theater festivals in Europe, he makes plays in different cities of Uzbekistan and in different countries such as Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Russia, Ukraine and India. He is called the “director-Sufi” and “theater dervish.” O.Hodjakuli puts on world classics (Euripides, Seneca, Shakespeare, Goldoni, T. Mann) and national poetry, makes films and stages musical plays where he combines rap and national narrative forms of performances, throat singing and rock music.

Nurlan Asanbekov delivers interesting work in Kyrgyzstan. He implements “Revival of small Kyrgyz epic as a nomadic theater” project. The goal is creation of the ritual nomadic theatre. In his plays, the eposes are sung by the real dastanchi (professional performers of eposes), yurts symbolize the model of the nomadic world and fight scenes are reproduced in the form of ritual dances. Combining archaic and modern theatrical forms, the director searches for the new means of expression.

On the regional scale, Barzu Abdurazzakov from Tajikistan is one of the most famous theatrical directors of Central Asia. He is equally successful in the field of psychological theatre, as well as in the philosophical parable genre. His most successful productions “The Long Road to Mecca” of S. Raev and “Scaffold” (Plaha) of Chingiz Aitmatov staged in Kyrgyz youth theater “Uchur” received awards at international theater festivals.

Kazakh director Bekpulat Parmanov staged his most poignant lyric performances in Bishkek city theatre in Kyrgyzstan, where the chamber construction of the theater allowed the viewers to look closely at the performers and live through the pain and distress of the characters on the stage.

Almost all theatres in the countries of Central Asia are owned by the state. They mostly follow the path of the previous development period. In this regard, “Ilhom” theatre (Tashkent) under the guidance of Mark Vayl (1952-2007) plays a special role in the theatrical culture of Central Asia. Founded in 1976 as the first non-governmental theatre in the region and as the “experimental studio of creative youth”, “Ilhom” developed as a theatre, alternative to the official stage performance culture and still remain the leader in adopting new forms and genres and the centre of the modern art in the region. During several years “Ilhom” has been conducting Laboratory of young directors in Central Asia and implementing “Ilhom: East-West” project.

An essential factor of the development of theatre in Kazakhstan is the dialogue of the stage cultures. Along with Kazakh, there are Russian, Uyghur, Korean, German and Uzbek theaters. Each national theater has its own peculiarities. The main features of the Kazakh theatre are artistic expression where actors deliver pronounced emotions. Actors of the Russian theatre continue the tradition of the psychological school. The Uighur theater is dominated by the national songs and dances in a beautiful performance of the troupe. Korean actors are distinct by their musicality and gracefulness. Uzbek theater keenly feels its audience where national comedy is the most favorite genre. German theater is the most modern and raises up-to-date issues.

The successful dialogue of the stage performance cultures in Kazakhstan is possible not only through the exchange of directors and actors and through plays, where actors of different nationalities play in their own languages, but also through the independent projects, such as “America” of the Theatre of European Drama (TED).

An important role in the communication and cooperation of the theatres plays International theatre festival of Central Asian States which is held in Kazakhstan every two years. It allows observing the development of the theatre in the region.

Turkmen theatre participated only in the first festival in 2006. For almost ten years there were no representatives from Turkmenistan. Although Turkmen director Ashyrov K. staged interesting plays such as “Cain – the son of Adam” in Kazakhstan and “The white cloud of Genghis Khan” of Aytmatov Ch. in Kyrgyzstan.

Tajik theatres usually stage historical plays or national classics. Actors deliver their performances through the prism of poetry. Rhythm and imagery of poetry dictate appropriate mode of existence of the actors on the stage and the staging decisions.

Uzbek theatres mostly stage unpretentious comedy. Actors feel the nature of the genre very precisely. They organically and harmoniously exist in the space of the national game traditions.

Kyrgyz theatre has a precise goal of actualization of the theatre. Socio-political situation of the community finds its artistic expression in such plays as “Kashar”, “King Lear”, “Scaffold” (Plaha) and others.

The metaphors and symbols of different structural and semantic levels simultaneous coexist in the plays of Kazakh theatres, which creates special game effect, contributing to the birth of new meanings.

The best performances of Central Asia include the search for new theatrical forms within the gaming nature of national rituals, metaphorical directing, multilayered imagery, powerful pictorial series and special style of presenting narratives.

The sustainable predominance of folklore and historical works in the repertoire of the national theaters in the region has led to the problem of low quality of modern national drama and insufficient level of its relevance. The problem of artistic interpretation of reality of the XXI century is the key to modern theater in Central Asia.

Current dialogue of stage cultures of Central Asia is based on thorough attention to the inner world of a man, analysis of the important social processes. The priority tasks are renewal of the content and forms of the theatrical art of the region. In this regard, cooperation of the national theatres of Central Asia has a huge potential in search for new ideas, images and means of stage expressions, interpretation in the context of artistic, philosophical, social and political processes of modernity.