Genesis of Azerbaijani Professional Ballet Theatre

Issue #1 • 525

Afag Guseinova

The art of Azerbaijan is deeply rooted in antiquity, having left its mark over a wide geography. The refined ligature of ancient Azerbaijani ornamental art sheds the light on the Schumer system of ornamental symbols. Swastika, the symbol of perpetual renewal, featured on the fire worshipers’ temple has its analogy in Indian cosmology. In the Gobustan rock art of Yazyly-Tepe (ca. 3000 BC), along with ancient hunting scenes showing men with bows and arrows, animals, and boats, the unknown artist pictured, among other images, a circular ritual Yally dance, and a shaman’s figure with arms raised to the sky (1, p.10).
Gobustan’s ancient artist, performing his magical incantation over animals he intended to kill, drew their image on the rock, picturing the scene of the forthcoming hunting. Then, with the image in view and the shamans chanting and dancing, hunters performed a magic ritual, wearing skins of animals they killed, playing the part of their prey. In the 7th-5th millennia BC the emergence of magical and totemic rituals gave rise to the folk theatre where humans acted as animals, elements, and deities. “Applied Magic” practiced by the ancient man manifested itself in the calling for rain and sun, hoping for good harvest, and anticipating love and the birth of a child. The first record of the ancient ritual dance as a magical act is the Gobustan Yally round dances. The dance born at the dawn of humanity has lived through the history of civilization and enriched modern dancing with the wealth of experiences, notions, styles, and meanings – everything it had absorbed over the millennia. Naturally, the contemporary Azerbaijani composers, choreographers and artists could not overlook this exciting material. In 1969, choreographers R. Akhundov and M. Mamedov staged the “Shadows of Gobustan” ballet by F. Karaev (stage design by T. Narimanbekov). Harmonious and expressive ballet music, rich in modern rhythms, is divided into four “pictures”: Fire, Sun, Hunting, and Painter. Dramaturgy, laconic yet expressive “ancient” choreography, and expressive “Gobustan-like” set design have made this production stylistically fresh and unique. The ballet was a huge success at the World Dance Festival in Paris in 1970.
Dance, no doubt, is another universal language of mankind, besides speech. Ancient historians believed dance to be a gift of heaven associated with divine power, a reflection of the divine energy. Most likely, this concerns ritual dances accompanied by the perfect sounds of harmony, reflecting the sounds in cosmic space. Ceremonial and ritual dances, as well as mysteries performed by a special group of people, drove theirs spectators to ecstasy – state of coming close to the divine energy of the sky.
Medieval folk dance that was naturally incorporated into rituals, customs and ceremonies is the second most powerful instrument, after rhythmic incantation, in the disciplinary and organizing environment cultivating nation’s mentality. Everything that is essential for developing and saving life magically draws human beings – this is how nature works! To do good is sensible and beneficial for the evolution of life, and nature encourages man to do so, just as ancient nature-driven laws of society do. In this sense, the “Procurement Ritual” is the manifestation of social, political, moral and aesthetic values of the nation (2, p.66).
All rituals had specific, meaningful, justified and explainable paraphernalia, which, in turn, made the ritual not only useful and instructive, but also colourful, vivid, and captivating. It is this paraphernalia and this very stratum of rituals that are usually played around in theatrical performances today. For example, during a ritual celebrated on the eve of the manifestation of Khidir Nabi, messenger and giver of prime elements (Fire, Earth, Air and Water), people took to the top of the mountains, holding candles:
На белом коне возлежа явился, [Reclining on the white horse’s back,]
Хан Хыдыр верхом явился. [Khan Khydyr appeared, riding.]
All this imagery and attributes eventually provided rich material for set design that lent theatrical action the flavour of time and ritual expressivity.
Our purpose requires explaining the term ‘scenography’ [stage design] and how it evolved. Scenography (from the Greek words scaena, scene, and grapho, I write) is space in motion. Exposing the action, creating a place for the action, and taking part in the play – these are the basic principles of scenography.
During the initial phase in the evolution of the world’s art of stage design the term ‘scenography’ and its meaning have undergone a number of transformations closely related to the development of dramatic art itself. Scenography, as part of ritual, ceremonial, festival, religious and secular performances (mysteries, myarasim, myarsiye, etc.), in which movements, pantomime and dance played an important role, was originally play-based, with mobile attributes that determined the type of action and time period having immediate functionality for the action on stage (syncretic folk theatre) (3, p.10).
The second phase of stage design evolution dates to the age of the European Renaissance (starting with the XVI century Italian theatre) and is linked to the development of secular professional theatre. (In Islamic culture the process is somewhat blurred, as popular and professional performances co-existed and mingled up until the XIX century.) This is set design scenography where the dominant feature is the representation of place, time, style, etc. on stage. Different theatre-related professions appear.
The third phase falls on the early XX century. Action-based scenography is characterized by its focus on the very action that unfolds on the stage and its synthesized fusion with the dramaturgy of the show.
Scenography of a ballet performance developed and changed in line with the overall stage design evolution, being closely linked with dramaturgy, music, and social and historical processes taking place in society in a given period of time.
As already noted, the dancing art of Azerbaijan has its roots in rituals, ceremonies, and magical notions recorded in the rock annals of Gobustan, as well as in ceramic and metal objects found during archaeological excavations on the territory of Azerbaijan. The dance, cosmically driven, uses rhythm and plasticity to accumulate focused energy, “programming” the tribe to succeed in hunting, war, etc.
In the Middle Ages, along with folk festivals, people actively engaged in religious practices, developing mystery performances, ceremonies and Sufi rituals where dance and facial expressions also played an important role (4, p. 338). This is supported by unique miniature paintings, particularly those of the Tabriz school, which offer an encyclopaedia of lifestyle, including costume, dance, musical instruments, etc. In his writings, prominent art critic Kerim Kerimov noted on several occasions that the palace court scenes in the miniatures showing female dancers, dervishes, domestic life and festivities provide an inexhaustible source of information about the epoch (5, p.7).
Ancient rituals were truly popular and aimed at channelling energy in a certain direction (e.g. magic rituals performed to attain a desired result). Naturally, just as hunting and ritual dances of Gobustan, the dances and games of Novruz, such as Yally, Kesa and Kechal performances, Khidir Nabi, and Springtime-Bride, were intended to bring Good, Fertility, Growth and Vitality. During the Novruz celebrations popular performances, equestrian games, sabre fencing, lasso throwing, and weight-lifting contests (Zorkhana), rope-walking, acrobatic tricks, songs and dances represented the best examples of folk theatre genre. “Scenography” in such a performance was the natural environment or an outlined circular space around a ritual fetish (fire, water, earth, air). As know, the Terrain-Ethnos-Landscape triad determines the nation’s identity. Lev Gumilyov noted: “Space is a landscape and ethnic environment. The landscape environment affects economy and lifestyle pattern of an ethnic group and determines its opportunities and prospects. The ethnic environment and relations with neighbours, friendly or hostile, have a strong influence on the culture being created.” (6, p.121) People that evolved following this cultural and social programmatic course turned into a separate socially coherent nation with stable characteristic features and consistent psycho-genetic properties unique to it. Subsequently, in the play-based scenography, by bringing only the attributes into the stage circle (for example, candles in the scene of waiting for Khydyr Nabi on the mountaintops) actors presented a familiar situation understood by the entire audience, and there was no need to fill the stage space with redundant details.
The term ‘dance’ (Polish taniec; German Tanz), is an art form where the means of creating a character or image are the movements and positions of human body (7, p. 503). Primitive dances are, certainly, the second most important human “language” after the spoken word. E. Korolyova divides ancient dances into characteristic groups. She writes that the most prominent feature in the ancient people’s totemic dancing is an “accurate imitation of the totem” (8, p. 3). Totemic dance lexicon is the plasticity characteristic of the represented animals. Thus, “functional” dances are related to fighting, hunting, farming, and exercising rituals, as well as to daily life preoccupations. Plasticity of a “fertility magic” dance involves oscillatory movements of hands and torso, which help identify the meaning of the dance movements and its origin.
The most ancient space for ritual performance is a circle: the concentrated energy of the masses directed at an object. Symbolic attributes (drums, jars, etc.) did also play an important role. The nation’s rich folk art (games, lamentations, and proverbs) testifies to the existence of ancient shamanic rituals involving dancing, singing, and beating the tambourine.
With regard to the evolution of a ballet theatre in Azerbaijan, we should note the fundamental role of mugham, since the emergence of Azerbaijani professional dance was driven by the country’s brilliant professional composer music based on mugham. Prominent Azerbaijani composer Uzeirbei Gajibeili metaphorically described the evolution of mugham in his fundamental work “The Origins of Azerbaijani Folk Music”: “…The musical culture of Middle Eastern nations reached its heyday by the XIV century, standing tall and proud like a twelve-pillar and six-tower structure (dəstğah), offering a view upon all four sides of the world from its height: from Andalusia to China, and from the middle Africa to the Caucasus. This “palace of musical culture” was built by architect-scholars such as Abu Nyasr Farabi, encyclopaedist and expert in ancient Greek musical theory; Abu Ali Ibn Sina, scientist and thinker known in Europe as Avicenna; Al-Kindi, and others” (9, p. 10). Stressing the rich diversity of Azerbaijani traditional music he wrote: “A research into Azerbaijani folk songs, tyasnif, renghi, rhapsodies, dance music and other forms suggests that the musical art of the Azerbaijani people is founded in the most harmonious and orderly system. All academic and theoretical provisions in Azerbaijani traditional music come out of this system.”
Examining the dramaturgy of mugham that played a critical role in the evolution of the synthesized musical genres of Azerbaijani histrionic arts (opera, ballet, etc.), Sh. Arhaft, supporting her argument by reference to a synopsis of Rena-khanum Mamedova, “Azerbaijani Mugham: Origins and Functions”, noted: “The primary layer of intonations in Azerbaijani mugham is defined by ritual songs and instrumental dance music intonations of the folklore; the secondary one was formed immediately in the context of mugham. In other words, the structure of Azerbaijani mugham incorporates, in a collapsed form, the dramaturgy of the visual image and folklore-type action.” (10, p. 12)
It is essential to note the ashug roots in stage-related dancing and singing art. Ashug, representing by his sole person the spontaneous synthesis of arts, substituted for script-writer, singer, dancer, director and designer, and since ancient times was the favourite hero of folk festivals. “Ozan […] was the name given to this wonderful singer and storyteller, sage and seer, mage and healer, holy ancestor, hero and demiurge by the Oguz tribes, which played a decisive role in the formation of the Turkic ethnos”, Aydin Talybzade wrote (11, p. 66). It is easy to see why in 2005 the Azerbaijani State Opera and Ballet Theatre staged the “Love and Death” ballet by Polad Bulbul-ogly, inspired by the ancient Azerbaijani epic tale, “The Books of My Dede Korgut” (XI century).
In its medieval miniatures (K. Kerimov, Sultan Muhammad and His School) the Azerbaijani culture has also found an inexhaustible source of discovered synthesized artistic techniques for presenting the “theatre of action”. Masterpieces of spatial division of the medieval miniature composition and subtly coordinated rhythms of the drawing – the colour patches (Man-Architecture-Nature) – can be found in the ingenious works of the Tabriz school of miniature painting, created by Sultan Mohammed, Mir-Musavvir, Mirza Ali, Mir-Seyyed Ali, Muzaffar Ali, Muhammedi, Sadig-bek Avshar, et al. This is the storehouse of information about lifestyle, rituals, architecture, costumes, gestures, facial expression, dance, body language, musical instruments, animals, etc., as well as a vivid example of the discovered aesthetics of a synthesized beauty. Specific mention should be given to the semantics of body language as portrayed in the miniatures. Gesture is an immediate response to man’s spiritual impulse. Like a mathematical formula, it signifies a certain situation and is a physical manifestation of one’s emotional state. Gesture, be it universal (commonly understood) or conditional (recognized in a certain milieu or a particular historical period), carries a profoundly meaningful, psychologically justified and vital causation, an element of relief through the physical discharge of emotional intensity; it is an instantaneous response to a current event. Therefore, gesture, extensively used in epic tales, poems, ritual celebrations, ceremonial performances and dances, has been honed to canonical expressivity.
The present author, having thoroughly researched the material, gave a presentation at the international academic symposium marking the 90th anniversary of Zia Musa-ogly Bunyatov, the full member of the National Academy of Sciences of Azerbaijan, Hero of the Soviet Union; the topic of her presentation was “Dance as Portrayed in Medieval Oriental Miniature”. She demonstrated medieval Azerbaijani court dance she choreographed on the basis of postures, gestures, facial expressions and costumes pictured in the medieval Azerbaijani miniatures, to the music of Abdulgadir Maragai, Azerbaijani scholar and musicologist of the XIV century.
For conclusion: The country’s rich historical prerequisites such as magic rituals, customs, festivals, rituals, mugham music, ashug art of story-telling, stunning medieval miniatures, etc. were instrumental for the evolution and establishment of Azerbaijani ballet theatre.

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