Международный фестиваль Балета/The International Festival Ballet
Академический Театр Оперы и Балета/Opera and Ballet Theater
Абдрахманов (Совиетская) ул/Abdrahmanov (Sovietskaya) St.
Tickets: 500-1000 som/$10-20
When a friend suggested spending an evening at the ballet, I leapt at the opportunity. While ballet may not necessarily spring to mind when thinking about Kyrgyz culture, I thought it would be both an entertaining artistic outing and a chance to experience some remaining effects of Soviet cultural policies.
The Soviets built theaters across the USSR, including in the capitals of the fifteen Union Republics. The State Opera and Ballet Theater in Bishkek was built in the early 1950s, and at its peak the opera and ballet companies maintained an extensive repertory, with over 200 productions per year. This emphasis on art and culture brought Russian art forms, artists, and productions to the outermost regions of the USSR, while also creating opportunities for national cultural expression. Traditional art forms were reinterpreted and incorporated into European performance platforms: orchestras of traditional instruments, or ballets and operas with national themes and costumes, for example.
Opinions on the merits of these policies are divided. While some praise the Soviet recognition of national cultures and their elevation to the grand stages of state theaters, others point out the continued dominance of Russian productions. Within the diverse cultures of the Union Republics national art forms coexisted alongside Russian forms, but the Russian forms benefitted from state-level support, lending prestige against which national forms couldn’t compete. Regardless of the debate over the effects of these Soviet policies, national cultures were significantly altered by their Russian encounters, hybrid forms were created, and European arts like opera and ballet persist in Central Asia to this day. Unlike Turkmenistan, where ballet and opera were banned as foreign influences by President Niyazov in 2001, ballet remains popular in Kyrgyzstan and ballet schools are full of eager young students.
Thus I found myself one Saturday night at the International Festival Ballet of Kyrgyzstan’s production of Swan Lake. Full disclosure: I am a former professional modern dancer with eighteen years of ballet training under my belt, so my eye may be more critical than the average ballet-goer’s. Was this production the most professional ballet I’ve ever seen? No. The lead male and female roles of Siegfried and Odette/Odile were performed by guest artists from the Universal Ballet in Seoul and the Moscow City Ballet. The use of such guest artists usually indicates that there are no local dancers capable of performing the demanding roles. The corps de ballet dancers were sometimes not in unison, the décor was sparse, and the costumes seemed on the verge of unraveling onstage. There were a few visible mistakes, most notably when the lead ballerina was dropped in the final, dramatic scene.
These observations are shared by others I’ve spoken with, including locals who have told me that the ballet company is criticized for its lack of training and preparation for performances. Technique, scenery, and costumes only carry a production so far, however, and there were many enjoyable aspects to this production of Swan Lake. Early on in the performance I caught two of the male corps de ballet dancers lock eyes and smile, and their joy in performing was palpable among the other dancers throughout the evening. As far as I’m concerned, that enthusiasm among the corps and the generosity of the dancers in their performance is far more laudable than flawless technique.
Beyond the drama playing out onstage, the audience experience was entertaining, too. I entered the beautiful theater among other patrons dressed to the nines; clearly, the ballet is an event here. I saw more than a couple young women in floor-length gowns, and cursed the fact that I hadn’t thought to bring a ball gown to Bishkek. Up in the balcony surrounded by families with young children, however, I fit right in wearing pants and a blouse. Rows and rows of kids were seated up in the balcony, including girls lost in the magic of the ballet and boys lost in their cell phone games. This was my favorite part of the evening. The whispers and candy wrappers and exclamations were a little distracting at times, but the sheer delight radiating from the kids in the audience was heartwarming. The little girl next to me leaned over to ask me a question in the first act, and confessed shyly that she studies ballet. By the third act she and her friends were shouting “Bravo” after each solo, and the applause lasted so long when the curtain finally came down that she complained her hands were hurting from all the clapping. The kids around me certainly didn’t care about a few mistakes or less than perfect technique, and by the end of the performance, neither did I.
I would definitely return to the Opera and Ballet Theater for another performance. In fact, I’m looking forward to catching an upcoming performance of Чолпон/Cholpon, which, when it was originally performed in 1944, was the first Kyrgyz ballet.
Lauren Bisio is an MA candidate in Russian, Eurasian and East European Studies at the Harriman Institute, Columbia University. Her research interests include post-Soviet national identity, material culture and handicraft traditions, and the development of the NGO sector in post-communist countries. She is spending summer 2014 in Bishkek as an intern at the Union of the Artistic Crafts through SRAS’s NGO and Cultural Internship Program.