It’s better to search for lost things in summer. All other seasons, like sins, don’t let one into the Paradise: chores, business, struggle for survival… Only in summer one can relax and make a stop along the way. Only in summer it is possible to think about one’s soul. Everlasting summer rains in Proust’s epopee. Although the writer describes different conditions of nature and weather, one’s memory retains a blossoming orchard, a hawthorn bush, Parma violets… in short – it’s Claude Monet throughout, lush and sunny.
In Central Asia, par of which was known as Turkestan during the times of Usto Mumin, in summer, in the peak of the heat, colours fade, whither and “overheat” – everything is covered by the patina of dust. Spring and early summer is the best time to search for the lost. There are unique “material” evidence of the fact that this particular time of the year was the best for good and prolific painting and successful attempts to make time stand still. There turned out to be quite a few “crazy” artists “wounded” by the colour of the sky in this seemingly desert country. They earned themselves a reputation of oddities, became voluntary captives, dervishes and prophets of our land and our country. Every one of them left behind many invaluable and meaningful artistic messages. Interestingly, their heritage and deeds overlap in time and space, clearly and very persistently directing our gaze and thoughts towards Turkestan in search for the lost time and the unknown “Self”.
Today this path begins on approach to the Ilkhom Theatre. Recognizable faces of Usto Mumin’s famous composition “Zeal with Pomegranate” can be seen from afar. This particular work by Usto Mumin is very “cinematographic”, to use the language of today. It reflects a long poetic story in eleven episodes – “film frames”. The Ilkhom Theatre offers its own interpretation, for the paintings by Usto Mumin and his close kinsmen constitute a strange and soul-rendering labyrinth – the path of cognition.
The method was identified as Zeal. Zeal in the circle of true heroes, characters, images and prototypes of Usto Mumin. And the Master himself was present in this posthumous, alas, but quite unusual gathering. It was not just his self-portraits; in the “Pomegranate” pavilion everything was whirling and playing: faces, gazes, dances, costumes, springtime, old age, joy, bitterness, death. Everything was familiar, everything seen too many times in reproductions. Yet everything kind of new and again, with the Master’s living presence. Perhaps this was what they call Reincarnation. Anyway, whenever I found myself before his picture, I felt like saying, ‘Hello, Alexander Vasilievich!”.
“Under the shade of youth in bloom”…
The world has blossomed with Usto Mumin’s “Springtime”. Things that disappeared, were forgotten and forbidden came back, taking over victoriously and powerfully. It is clear that all these riches were “creaming” somewhere. The art of Usto Mumin was gaining strength, and today, however fleetingly, it burst powerfully into our lives as everything true, precious, or more precisely – priceless! Usto’s works are good not only in themselves. The “object” of his art – his characters, his “models” – were themselves unique bearers of high art. Youths, the heroes of Botticellian Springs, when portrayed by Usto, turned into Asian ‘Bedanavoz’, ‘Dutar Players’, etc. Before meeting Asia, painter Alexander Nikolaev, who knew Russian Vanguard artists and traditions of icon painting schools and was a connoisseur and admirer of Renaissance artists’ work, bore all these riches, as it now seems, with concealed anticipation of a kind of awakener. All roads of aesthetic and creative search met in Turkestan. The awakening has happened. Initially, Nikolaev was a chance witness of a captivating dance of the youths. And that was very specific, rare, unique and magical art, whose bearers began to fill his works with hot, living flesh and cool poetic breeze. Usto’s painting combined fascinating refinement of lines, delicacy of transparent “traces” of juicy paints and erotic fill of supple young bodies, their graceful poses and languorous gazes. Old city gardens hidden from sight, quail fights, and boys feeding their quails mouth to mouth were as sustainable motive in his works as was a young woman breastfeeding her baby in the European pictorial art. A pomegranate bush… Deserted afternoon streets… Drowsy cooing of turtledoves…
On that evening of the Zeal the exhibition hall of the Ilkhom Theatre under the “Pomegranate constellation” was a colourful reality. Paradise come true. The theatre auditorium located in the basement was thought, logically, to appear as “Hell”. But, thank God, it turned out to contain dreams. “Dream is a memory sent into a free sailing or freefalling, it is a path from the future into the past” (1). “Flame that dwells there is like primary humans – bisexual. There, a moment later a man appears as a woman” (2). Out there is a magical space where pages of history, lyrical digressions and imaginary and real heroes come alive. Out there is a “through-the-looking glass” world of pictorial creations of the Master or their phantom prototypes… In a word, we submerge into the space of memory.
Stage Design Mysteries by Babur Ismailov
A large rectangular panel on a rotating axis installed in the centre of a stage is not stable. All the time one hears the clicking sound of fastening locks – sliding “windows”, concealed “doors”. Events are historical, time is artistic – everything is loose…Time moves ahead non-progressively – it unpredictably changes its rhythm and direction, sometimes going round, sometimes in traverse. An empty stage is filled with event chronicle and people’s biographies on a scale of a full-fledged novel. Everything is like on a large ship before the storm – uneasy, changing…
The panel – partition – screen – chachvan is ghostly and dark, shimmering and transparent. The screen keeps many secrets and will gradually reveal one more of its magical features – a capacity to change its appearance and be mysteriously flooded with colour. Initially it was just some familiar paintings of famous artists. But on the pages of the novel telling about dreams and visions, and about Usto’s garden, the canvases come to life: these are pierced with sun glare and aerial streams of light; trees sway in the wind, and the quails flap their wings and quiver. And again one’s head goes spinning – this time from the art of painting. The living tissue of the paintings, characters “coming down” from the canvases, play characters from “lyrical” digressions and “epic” scenes… “Zeal with Pomegranate” submerges us into a striking space of regained time and fleeting sensation of “Self” divined.
By its genre, the performance is a history chronicle. However, this is more of a poetic chronicle. Documentary credibility is not provided for. Inscribed into the framework of a history chronicle are imaginary reminiscences of the artist Alexander Vasilievich Nezhdanov who later on acquired the name of Usto Mumin. By the scale of covered events and presentation manner the performance resembles a novel: it has lyrical digressions and rather extensive correspondence between the play characters (epistolary romance between I. V. Byaltseva (actress M. Turpishcheva) and colonel V. P. Byaltsev (actor B. Gafurov), through which Turkestan and Petersburg share not only political news – which are of great significance for the play, but also tidings on a new performance at Mariinka [theatre] with the participation of Fyodor Shalyapin, or a discourse on Kazimir Malevich’s “Black Square”). Thus the moonlight of the Silver Age in Russian culture “flashes” in the art of Russian painters lost in the faraway Turkestan and touring Russian actors.
The art of dancing, painting art (F. Shalyapin, K. Malevich, V. Vereshchagin, K. Petrov-Vodkin), reproduced paintings by P. Benkov, A. Volkov, V. Vereshchagin, and Usto Mumin; discourse on Oriental cultural traditions and European art – all this takes most of the play time. Art is the main event, a shrill essence of the drama. Destinies and tragedies of the play characters are triggered by art in one way or another – sometimes they all burn in its hell fire, sometimes in its reviving heavenly flames. All in all, in terms of geography and historical time, and, importantly, in terms of the scope of aesthetic East-West echo, and in terms of the destiny of the characters who survived the revolution, on stage there unfolds a major epic performance. And it is played by the laws of Bertold Brecht’s “Epic Theatre”. Despite its strong “lyrical” charge, in our memory we associate Brecht’s intellectual epic theatre more with black-and-white, austere and “dry” productions of “Berliner Ensemble”, with stern gracefulness of Elena Weigel. But years later, in Mark Weil’s theatre this “bare” device of Brecht gets coloured with paints and decorated with ornamental shapes of designs and images created by Usto Mumin.
For instance, gallant colonel V. P. Byaltsev (B. Gafurov) is a “real man”, a nobleman: well-bred, educated, a good family man; he passes through a long way of inner and social “metamorphoses”. How can one play all this in a novel-like flashing of episodes? Boris Gafurov “holds a note”, which is more on a ‘brave’ side. His amazement, recognition and discourse associated with his sojourn in this faraway country – all has a somewhat rhetorical flavour of military summary reports. Everything in his life is determined by army regulations, beyond which, more often than not, is bewilderment: “What an amazing life they have in these parts!”
Sergei Zvyagintsev (actor Ilya Dudochkin) is good in a special way amidst this military fellowship. If there is a poet in this regiment, it is Zvyagintsev. He is the one who is “enchanted” by this land, its culture, by this androgynous magic of the dancing youths. A man is wounded by beauty, and this pain, this disease, unlike bodily wounds, can never be cured. Zvyagintsev has a dualistic nature. He feels the pain but is not in a hurry to part with it; moreover, it gives him a secret joy. Yet he dares not to reveal or share his anguish with his regiment milieu for fear of being ridiculed, insulted and trampled down! Overtly, Zvyagintsev keeps his military bearing and mutters due words, but his inner state is a state of a man in love who, on penalty of death, dares not to say the name of his loved one.
Vasiliy Skoroukhin (actor G. Kosikhin) is wisely simple-hearted, or simple-hearted because he is wise. Nature gave him a gift of cordiality, warmth and kind cunningness. People like Vasiliy paint the world with warm human colours by the mere fact of there existence.
There is one character in the play who is “all by himself”. He came down from Usto’s paintings. He is a man who paints the wall with pomegranates (actor F. Kholjigitov). He is reserved and secretive and unapproachably proud. He keeps his secret, has his own truth, his own understanding of beauty, his own unrepeated dance under the scattered pomegranate constellation.
The novel is such that many lines of destiny and character appearances were reshuffled by the revolution, just like the types of actors in the theatre. Towards the end of the performance yesterday’s dancers turned into party bosses and into signature characters of revolutionary period – railway workers. The world has transformed.
The artist A. V. Nezhdanov “wintered” the government change in prison cell and remained himself. However, an attempt to bring the artist on the side of the new authority was certainly made. A. Nikolaev, the real life prototype of A. V. Nezhdanov, could not escape cooperation with the soviet authority, which is sufficiently evidenced by his works.
In the play, however, Nezhdanov is being urged to side with the revolutionaries by his former “model”, dancer Karim who turned into a red bolshevik. To tell the truth, they were not too ceremonious with the Artist, and he, being true to himself, resisted “passively” but cleverly. Nezhdanov shuns people and gets lost in the garden. An enchanted soul, he bears witness of dramatic change in the world, in people around him, but he himself changes only outwardly, growing older and more mature, and he shares his own creeds with everybody.
Percepts of painter A. Nikolaev (Usto Mumin):
- Be sincere.
- Never be satisfied with the little, for this is the lot of poor souls.
- Forbidden fruit is sweet, so boldly pick all forbidden fruits.
- Learn to love yourself. The whole challenge of the ability to love oneself is the constant fluctuation between self-sacrifice and egotism. (From A. V. Nikolaev’s manuscript).
The character of the enchanted Alexander Vasilievich Nezhdanov is played by actor A. Pakhomov. The role of this young actor of Ilkhom Theatre is not an easy one, for “upstairs”, in the pomegranate pavilion, there are self-portraits of Nikolaev (Usto Mumin). Of course, what Pakhomov plays is not quite true to the painter’s real life; however, the play character and the real man share the same pseudonym – Usto Mumin. And pictures colourfully “quoted” in the play are the same as those collected in the exhibition halls. These mirroring echoes make the “play” intricately spacious and free; and Pakhomov in the role of Nezhdanov is wonderful.
Early 20th century, old Tashkent, Russian painter… Those who on a sunny summer day had an opportunity to walk the narrow alleys of old town that almost disappeared, experienced feelings retold by Pakhomov. Thin and lean, wearing loose flax garments, this alien, being an artist, painter and man of free spirit (remember the Silver Age and the Russian Vanguard artists to whom Usto immediately belonged), he was an insider among strangers. In Turkestan he discovered something that not a single true artist can miss. He found his love and through it – his “Self”. In search for his love he discovered himself and evolved into a unique artist and Master – Usto. Pakhomov plays an intelligent, gentle, internally free, curious and inquisitive wanderer. He remembers all the time that a nameless, slender youth who guided him along the alleys of Samarqand, touched his heart but vanished through the ghostly haze of the ancient city. And this is the cross, and this is the garden…
Performance chapters dedicated to Usto’s Muse, dancer Alisher and his fellows, and to a tea-house they inhabit, largely run under the cover of chachvan-paranja. The young men, adolescents rather, are like “poppy flowers grown through steps – from stone to the sun”. Each of them has his own brief yet dramatic story. In the scenes dedicated to key but “shadow” characters, words are not so important. Just one yet capacious and content-rich plastic motif in which the spectator faces with ultramundane truths, turns to the specific features of memory when a person becomes clearly conscious of his previous, “forgotten” life. From this moment on, the local audience at least, with an “Oh!” submerge into mirages and become co-participants of the Zeal. Four youths, the theatre actors of the recent fifth studio graduation, with hair worn as batchi – plaits hanging down from under the skull-caps, naked to the waist, wear transparent wide trousers. With them there is a “stray” girl posing as a boy. All five of them stand side by side, forming a “wall”. Outstretches arms are crossed high above their heads. Moving like a wave, arching their backs from hip and swaying their torsos, the young people move in small steps in the space of the dance with the out-worldly music of time, with the aspiration of the Zeal, like in a mirage, like the mirage itself. The performers of this prolonged plastic statement create not the dance itself, but its phantom spirit, its memory, its noon, its zenith. The sketch and the image of the dance created almost a century later by an American choreographer David Russive and the director’s vision of Mark Weil, produce the effect of ingenuous insight, the effect of exciting and prolonged “recognition” and co-participation in this mysterious whirl of Time.
The novel-play has an epilogue telling of the events that followed, up to the dying day of the main character.
Our afterword, however, will be on a different topic. First, how already grown up young people played the characters of batchi dancers, the existence of which was hardly known to them before they entered the Ilkhom Theatre studio. Young actors Gleb Kosikhin, Konstantin Kolesov, Said Khudaibergenov, Vladimir Yudin, Jakhongir Shakhobiddinov, Raikhon Ulasenova and Nargiz Abdullaeva not only just played the roles of these young people who lived hundred years ago, but did something very important both for themselves and for those who, through the help of their creations, will submerge into this fairly old story. The Ilkhom Theatre and all the creators of this memorial performance – Vasiliy Yuriev, Babur Ismailov, Artyom Kim, David Russive, Mark Weil and the aforementioned studio graduates – have apparently took part in some kind of an important historical and moral deed. The theatre gives many nameless artists and famous people back their unjustly forgotten name and reinstates their profaned honour and dignity.
In turn, we the grateful audience cannot help saying, hounor and praise to you, actors!