Thu, Feb 02, 2017 - Page 6 News List

Kazakhstan seeking to leap onto ballet world stage

LONG TERM:Kazakhstan has opened a second ballet theater in the capital, as the government attempts to transform its Soviet-inherited dance form into a unique art

AFP, ASTANA

Dancers perform at the opening of the Astana Ballet Theatre in Astana, Kazakhstan, on Dec. 11, last year.

Photo: AFP

In the snowy foreground of a brand new steel and glass building in Kazakhstan’s capital Astana, a dancer in national dress stands frozen in a dramatic flourish, her body arching toward the sky.

The cast-iron abstract sculpture stands at the entrance of the second major ballet theater to have opened in the new capital in the past few years.

Together they point to the energy-rich country’s ambition to stamp its own mark on an art form inherited from its Soviet past.

Since the breakup of the Soviet Union 25 years ago, ballet has enjoyed mixed fortunes in the Muslim-majority Central Asian region’s newly independent countries.

Much of Kazakhstan’s multimillion US dollar ballet boom has been funded by the government, but private sponsors and international partners have also stepped in.

Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev, 76, famously announced in 2013 that “a country that builds factories is thinking years ahead... a country that builds theaters is thinking in terms of centuries.”

At the Astana Ballet Theater’s opening last year, stars of its troupe wowed spectators in a production curated by Brazilian resident choreographer Ricardo Amarante.

“The artistic level here is very strong: they can do Kazakh national dance, classical ballet and contemporary,” said the neo-classical specialist, who has been working with the troupe for the past year.

“The support from the government is there and now it is important local ballet keeps its mind open to new styles to add, to build on, its classical foundations,” he added.

Next door to the 800-seat auditorium is the first certified professional choreography academy recognized throughout Central Asia and unveiled in September last year.

Three years earlier, the city’s largest theater, Astana Opera, also with its own ballet troupe, opened at a cost of US$320 million.

The building is considered one of the architectural showpieces of Astana, the capital since 1997.

The money being poured into ballet and other arts, even as Kazakhstan suffers an oil-linked economic downturn, testifies to the enduring appeal of cultural tastes popular in the Soviet era.

Russian dancer Galina Ulanova, widely considered one of the greatest ballerinas of all time, has helped drive the development of Kazakh ballet.

Ulanova taught and danced in the country’s former capital, Almaty, during World War II after being evacuated from the Kirov ballet in Leningrad, the former name for St Petersburg.

Under the USSR, ballet became particularly popular in major cities, where Russian-speaking elites helped buttress a cultural agenda driven by Moscow.

Now ballet is “equally popular among Russian and Kazakh speakers” in a country where more than one-fifth of the population is ethnic Russian, said Svetlana Dzhalmagambetova, a former senator who sat on the parliament’s social and cultural development committee.

“The Soviet Union did two things very well: space exploration and ballet,” said Kazakh-speaking Zhanat Zhunusbekova, after watching Amarante’s ballet Diversity at the Astana Ballet Theater.

“We used to have to go to Russia to see a ballet like that. Now we have it here,” she added.

After the end of the Soviet era in 1991, state funding for the arts shriveled up across the region, which suffered a protracted economic slump.

In the resource-poor countries of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan it has never recovered to pre-Soviet levels, driving artists abroad in search of work.

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