Theatre: Time of Change

Issue #2 • 939

Театр. In the early 1990s heightened attention to the problem of historical memory and growing interest in cultural heritage and spiritual treasures of the people engaged theatre in the socio-historical stream moving to look into the nation’s past. Stage reflects on the events and facts of the national history in the context of renewing social reality and responds to the increased public interest in the life and work of prominent personalities of bygone ages.

Historical drama is a best-known genre for the Uzbek theatre. Formerly, plays about the days long gone were rarely produced and usually excited great interest, settling in people’s memory. Drama searched the history for the examples of valour, patriotism and spirituality, while theatre was looking for a vivid expression of the national origin. In the first half of 1990s historical drama dominated in the Uzbek theatre repertoire

Metropolitan and provincial theatres produce historical plays dedicated to prominent figures such as Amir Temur, Bobur, Al Farghoni, Jalaletdin Manguberdi, Sobir Termezi… With all the multitude of productions, not all theatres stand the test of the complex genre of historical drama. Many productions are characterized by traditional solutions and dramaturgic sketchiness. Genuine interest was aroused by the performances born at the crossing point of two cultural streams: the general movement towards the revival of traditional values and the perpetual aspiration of the theatre for renewal and for exploring new means of expression. These productions include “Sohibkiron” by A. Aripov and “The Master of the Universe” by H. Rasulov (the Hamza Theatre), “Amir Temur” by H. Javid (Syrdarya theatre), and “Alisher Navoi” (Surkhandarya theatre).

A number of performances reflected a keen interest of artistic community and general public in the life of Turkestan at the beginning of the century – the most interesting period historically, culturally and socio-psychologically. That era, formerly alienated from the public consciousness, comes alive on stage, with the ideological restrictions on its artistic interpretation removed. If formerly the coverage of this period, directly or indirectly, was incorporated in the “historical and revolutionary theme”, now it reveals its latent reserves primarily in the understanding of human destiny and characters, which are interesting not only from the standpoint of director’s interpretation, but also actor’s insights and presentation

Since the early 1990s artistic culture focused specifically on the period of not so distant past, namely, the first half of the twentieth century. Heroes of the time of change were Fitrat, Chulpan, A. Kadyri, U. Nosir and other luminaries of Uzbek literature repressed during the soviet era. The art not only interpreted the past in light of new realities, but also physically brought back the names of the repressed writers and their works. That explained a very special interest in these writers’ lives full of drama, and in the enduring destiny of their works. Again and again, theatres turn to the life and artistic heritage of repressed writers, whose destiny became one with that of the people. Audience appreciated plays staged in the 1990s, such as “Nights without Days” by U. Azim in the Hamza Theatre, and “White, White Black Stork” by A. Kadyri in the Ilkhom Theatre. “Nights without Days” directed by V. Umarov can be exemplary of the director’s engaged interpretation of literary material. The play is built as a tragic story of the poet’s death, based on a documentary biography of the talented man caught in the turmoil of social and political transformations of 1920s – 1930s. Time had no mercy for Chulpan, yet nothing and no one could murder his honour and dignity, could not smother his poetic gift and his liberal thought.

Uzbekistan’s dramatic art of independence period is distinct in its particular sensitivity to the rich traditions of national music, literature, fine arts, architecture and the full spectrum of traditional artistic culture. Dramatic art supported by the best traditions, the search for an opportunity to bring ethnography, folklore, traditional lifestyle and diverse rituals back on stage – these are some of the most notable trends manifested in contemporary theatrical productions in Uzbekistan.

Thus, in the “Great Silk Road” play staged at the A. Khidoyatov Theatre, director B. Yuldashev, designer G. Brim and composer M. Bafoev, by means of pictorial arts, music, plastic and light have synthesized the images of the medieval world. Together with a camel caravan, the viewer covers the huge distances of the Great Silk Road – from India and China through Central Asia and into the Western Europe. The exotic spectacle reveals the capacity of modern stage to capture and use the truly immense material offered by traditional culture.

A notable event in line with this trend has been a grand open-air performance inspired by Navoi’s poem “The Language of Birds”, created by director N. Abdurakhmanov, composer D. Yanov-Yanovsky and set designer I. Gulenko. Humanistic theme of love that overcomes religious and national boundaries sounds powerfully in this large-scale music-and-dance spectacle staged in front of the theater. Quite interesting in light of this trend has been a production of the Hamza Theatre, “Chimildik”, notable for its kind and caring attitude to folk traditions and ritual culture. The production stands out by its director’s original solution based on the form and rules of a wedding ceremony. In this colourful and lively performance with lots of music, song and dance, one can clearly see the national character of Uzbek people, its soulful simplicity and openness. The performance is flavoured by soft humour and gravitates to a melodramatic genre.

On the contrary, “Sudhur” inspired by the novel of S. Aini and produced in the A. Khidoyatov Theatre, is not at all about mundane detail and specificity. Tragicomic events and lives of people from a distant past are presented in a folk theatre style. Stage action harmoniously incorporates folk songs and dances with characteristic flavour and peculiarities of the musical culture of ancient Bukhara.

Gravitation toward the show aspect in a theatrical performance manifests itself differently in the art of directors such as B. Yuldashev, M. Ravshanov, I. Niyazmatov, O. Salimov, B. Umarov and N. Abdurakhmanov. Yet, despite all the individual differences, they have some things in common. In line with the aforementioned trends, directors search for the ways to renew old theatrical forms, try to go beyond habitual prosaic narrative, and look to synthesize centuries-old spiritual culture with modern stage metaphor.

In the time of this particularly strong focus on national traditions, the “Alpomysh” heroic epic, Alisher Navoi’s poems “The Wall of Iskander”, “The Language of Birds” and “Seven Planets” synthesizing autochthonous cultural values regained popularity among theatres and their audience. There began a completely new phase in understanding national heroic and romantic epics and Uzbek classical poetry on the stage of Uzbekistan’s theatres. Through the new drama renditions of the national spiritual heritage pieces, dramatic art, freed from ideological shackles, helps the audience to rediscover the full spectrum of traditional culture in a vivid and spectacular way. For contemporary theatre and the prospects of its development today it is extremely important to understand how the synthesis of national spiritual values creates new interactions with a synthetic nature of dramatic art, and how the traditional culture relates to theatrical innovations

The revival of spiritual heritage and national cultural identity has heightened attention of theatres to the country’s history – distant and not so distant, to the folk show traditions and to once tabooed themes and personalities. It has also muted the interest in the Western classics for a while. In the mid 1990s Uzbekistan theatres demonstrated their growing interest in the world’s classics, which continues to this day. They produced great tragedies, such as “Electra” by Sophocles, Shakespeare’s “Othello” and “King Lear”, pieces of Euripides, Shakespeare, Schiller, Byron, Gozzi, Moliere, Brecht… By turning to classics again, directors F. Kasimov, O. Khojakuliev, B. Abdurazzakov, T. Azizov, O. Salimov and S. Melliev introduce major adjustments to the habitual “standards” of perceiving a Western drama on Uzbek stage and discover “an extended meaning” in the old plays. Besides, one can feel their desire to give new interpretation to the old plays and to sense in the well-known classical works the blood currents connecting them with modern theatrical aesthetics.

Recent productions broaden the problem of the functioning of classical texts over time. Productions of the classics testify to the depth of transformations in modern Uzbek dramatic art. The break-up of the “multinational Soviet theatre” structure entailed alteration in the approaches and criteria, including in the director’s interpretation of the national and western classics. The range of qualitative differences grew substantially: creative pursuits become enriched by the diversity of approaches.

A noteworthy development in the theatrical life of independence period was children’s theatres, which have successfully embraced not only the renewed aesthetic criteria determined by social processes, but also the principles of adapting to the market environment. In that period the theatrical model of Uzbekistan has seen transformations, which primarily concerned theatres for younger audience. While the “adult theatre” model remained virtually unchanged, the structure of the children’s theatre underwent some radical transformations. Bukhara, Qarshi, Termez, Nukus, Andijan and other provincial centres created puppet-show theatres. Professionals for these theatres are now trained by the newly setup department of puppet theatre actors and directors at the Tashkent State Institute of Arts. Overall, the number of professional children’s theatres in the country has nearly tripled over these years. First of all, the quantitative factor created new challenges of educating and training new professionals, and, secondly, it has brought about a fundamentally new problem to the Uzbek culture – children’s theatre ecology and its status in the infrastructure of contemporary culture of Uzbekistan.

Children’s and youth theatres hold leading positions in the artistic process. Their productions have been repeatedly recognized as best art at the national and international festivals and contests. These theatres went far ahead of the “adult” ones in terms of participation in overseas tours; they took their productions to Egypt, Turkey, Russia, Israel, India, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan, Poland, other CIS countries and beyond. First the Youth Theatre and later the Uzbek Young Audience Theatre opened acting studios where they hold major cultural events dedicated to the fine arts and music.

In the period of independence “adult” theatres substantially increased their contribution to the development of young generation. Their repertoire often features pieces intended for the young audience. Just one example is the republican theatre festival held in Tashkent in 2006, where of the twelve productions of “adult” theatres nine were dedicated to the pressing problems of contemporary young people and targeted teenage audience under 18.

In the past two decades, the art of stage design has become quite relevant in the process of creating a theatrical performance. Visual solutions for theatre productions found by G. Brim, Sh. Abdumalikov, B. Ismailov, I. Gulenko, M. Soshina and other talented set designers of Uzbekistan have transformed the notion about the role and significance of set design in contemporary Uzbek theatre.

In set design one can observe a wide spectrum of interaction between styles and trends, and an intensive search for new forms and expressive means, traditional design techniques and new trends. One of the promising trends in the development of Uzbek set design is the synthesis of cultural traditions of East and West. Contemporary Uzbek theatre artists liberally synthesize different directions in set design. Innovative pursuits in dramatic art have been based on productive artistic collaboration between the director and the artist. In the process, the status of the artist gets a significant boost.

Time was going by, and theatre had to keep up with the process of the fundamental turnaround the country was making – from a closed society to galvanized international cultural connections. It is clear that the principles of modernization in theatrical domain must conform to the principles of building an open society in Uzbekistan. Intensive exchange of cultural values among different countries and different people is an important quality of the modern world. Uzbekistan theatres also engage in this process, going on overseas tours increasingly often. Only in recent years, Uzbekistan theatres toured and participated in different festivals in Germany, France, Russia, Slovakia, India, Japan, USA, Egypt… One-time invitations extended to directors and actors not only from other theatres but also from other countries have become quite common and are considered a normal practice and an essential element in the creative process. Directors from the United States, Italy, Germany, Russia and Tajikistan staged performances in Uzbekistan’s theatres; operas in Navoi Theatre are orchestrated by Italian and American musicians… In turn, directors from Uzbekistan (B. Yuldashev, N. Abdurakhmanov, O. Salimov, M. Khamidov, V. Shapiro) produced in France, the United States, Israel, Russia… Perhaps these examples are not too numerous, yet individual episodes tend to become more widespread, as the experience shows. The results do demonstrate the fruitfulness of these artistic contacts.

An important indicator of the state of theatrical affairs has been various festivals and stage performance shows. Over the years of independence the number of theatre festivals held in Uzbekistan has increased. To name a few, the 1992 largest regional festival “Navruz” showing the best plays of Central Asian countries; the 1993 International Festival “Theatre: East-West” that convened theatre companies from Japan, India, Hong Kong, Turkey, Russia, UK, Yugoslavia and other foreign countries. The Ministry for Culture and Sports together with the Theatre Workers Union organized annual contests and dramatic art festivals on various subject-matters and genres. Among these events was “Navruz arafasida” festival that engaged all theatres in the country. The idea is to identify the best performances, the most interesting work of directors, actors, designers and composers. Puppet theatre festivals have been held quite regularly: their guests are individual expert professionals and theatres from other countries.

A major cultural event was the 1997 festival of historical performances dedicated to the 660th anniversary of Amir Temur. 15 productions on historical theme were shown as part of the contest during the festival. Theatres from Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan also participated. Interest was excited by the best acting show-contest, the preview of children’s plays in adult theatres, and the festival of Tashkent theatres, “On the Crossroads of Spring”, that demonstrated a diversity of creative pursuits on the metropolitan stage.

In recent years, young directors’ festival, “Debut”, has been a regular event. In 2011, a festival of contemporary play was organized

Regularly held festivals are important to the development of dramatic art. Every show or contest not only reveals challenges facing contemporary theatre, but also stimulates creative process, animates theatrical scene, and identifies the best theatre models. Not less important task of a festival is to support different areas of creative pursuit and provide emotional and economic incentives for individuals – actors, directors and designers. Usually, festivals and theatrical shows get the attention of mass media, as well as general public, which is a prerequisite for maintaining a decent status of dramatic art in the system of contemporary artistic culture.

In 1998, Uzbekteatr Association and “Theatre” monthly magazine were founded. Their emergence was justly considered an important milestone in the transformation of Uzbek theatre in modern environment. Apart from creative activities, organization of tours, festivals, academic workshops and conferences, “Uzbektear” takes an active part in the modernization of technical facilities in theatres. Owing to its efforts virtually all theatres have gone through technical upgrades in keeping with modern requirements; their buildings were renovated and retrofitted.

Part of the theatre’s history is also the history of its building. This axiom was confirmed after the Russian Drama Theatre had moved to a new accommodation; that was rightfully viewed as an example of specific manifestation of international policy of the government, aimed at securing social cohesion, and as an important and timely action of a broader social and cultural significance.

An important sign of attention enjoyed by dramatic art was the major renovation of the Hamza Theatre and granting it the status of the National Theatre. These developments have been momentous not only for the theatre company veterans: they are quite significant for enhancing the prestige of Uzbek dramatic art in the public mind, and prove that the government takes good care of the national stage.

The twenty years of independence have been the time of change for the dramatic art of Uzbekistan. A lot has been done, and, most importantly, enabling environment for artistic process is in place. Yet, a living theatrical process that synthesizes efforts of people representing different creative professions can never be free of problems and challenges. So, they exist in our domestic theatre too: in dramatic composition, directing, and acting. Time is changing, and so is the audience and theatre. There comes a new generation of theatre professionals, playwrights, directors, actors, designers and critics – the age peers of Independence. A solution for artistic, aesthetic and moral problems of our theatre, and what Uzbekistan theatre will be like tomorrow – depends on them.

Ildar Mukhtarov

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