I went last night to see the ballet Don Quixote at the Abai National Opera & Ballet Theater. Despite having read Cervante’s work, I was totally confused as to what was happening on stage since, as I discovered from the Wikipedia article about the ballet, the ballet excerpts only one episode from the long novel and focuses on a love story between two younger characters rather than on the title character himself. This was made more confusing in the Abai Theater production, since they further truncated the narrative. Don Quixote played almost no role at all except in the obligatory tilting-at-windmills scene. Nonetheless, it was enjoyable, the music was wonderful and, according to my companion at the ballet, a young woman who used to dance, the corps’ technical skills were respectable. And 4th-row seats cost me $4.50.
It was striking, however, that although the production was notably low-budget in some regards, the company seemed quite large – at one point there were easily 30 dancers on stage – and that only two (possibly three) of the dancers were visibly ethnically Russian. This speaks to a set of problems confronting Kazakhstan that has received unfortunately little journalistic or academic attention: Kazakhstan’s once-strong arts are under threat.
I can speak better about the situation in painting better than in dance, but my experience at the Abai Theater suggests that the concerns in the plastic arts are generalizable.
One of the (few?) benefits of Russian Imperial and Soviet government in Central Asia was the introduction of a fully developed fine arts culture. Eastern Europeans and Russians in the 19th and most of the 20th centuries attained the highest levels of literary, musical and artistic achievement, and through a mix of purposeful colonial “civilizing” projects and historical accident, these people’s’ accumulated skills and knowledge were shared with societies that, though accomplished and developed in many respects, did not have a fine arts culture.
For an example of the first type of transmission, the State Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow, still considered one of the finest museums in the world, sent paintings from its storage holdings to museums throughout the USSR, reflecting an educational mission not unlike that of the BBC. Museums in Almaty, Tashkent and Ashgabat had paintings from major artists working in Moscow, Kiev and elsewhere (even if these weren’t always the artists’ best works). When the USSR collapsed, the new countries simply kept the art that had been bequeathed to them. Thus the Kasteev State Museum of Arts, where I work on Tuesdays, has a painting by Olga Rozanova, a well-known Russian avant-garde painter from the 1920s.
The sexier, more interesting way that fine arts culture was transmitted to Central Asia was through the exile of Jewish, Polish, German, Ukrainian, &c. artists to Central Asia, which was particularly common during WWII amidst the widespread internal resettlement of “social enemies” living on Russia’s militarized borders. These artists continued to work and teach in Central Asia, thereby fostering in the heartland of Eurasia a branch of European modernism. It is on this mode of transmission that the new documentary film “The Desert of Forbidden Art” focuses, but with regard to Uzbekistan’s very remote Nukus museum rather than relatively urbane Almaty, Kazakhstan.
As a result of both modes, however, native-born citizens of Kazakhstan began also to produce genuinely high-quality art: they adopted and adapted the styles, techniques and theories of European modernism and, later, Social Realism to domestic and local themes and problems foreign to Europeans. The result is a rich and wonderful synthesis of civilizations (eat that, Samuel Huntington).
However, since the collapse of the USSR, demographic and economic challenges have conspired against the arts. In the first place, many Russians initially left Kazakhstan after it became independent, and since Russians occupied a privileged position in the Central Asian SSRs, they took with them much of the talent and education. In the second place, although Kazakhstan had marvelous economic growth between 1999 and 2008, the country had suffered greatly in the 1990s and is now again in trouble. The result is decreased spending on the arts.
The results are visible. The Kasteev Museum is currently closed for much-needed repair, but these are progressing slowly, and the staff are concerned about maintaining the integrity of its collection. There is also intellectual confusion tied up with questions of national identity, breaking from the Soviet yoke, and finding an authentic Kazakh voice in arts that were introduced by the colonial power. The Abai Theater also appears in need of funds and public interest. Since I’m in the Museum every Tuesday, I’ll be returning to this and related topics many times in the future, I imagine.