WORLD TOUR 5: AZERBAIJAN
Theatre critic, professor
SOCIAL PORTRAIT AND AESTHETIC “MAP” OF AZERBAIJAN THEATRE
First of all, I would introduce my country: Azerbaijan, a country located in southern-east of Caucasus, on the coast of Caspian Sea, combining 9 conditions of climatic zones; a country of oil, gas, tea, grape, carpet, great ethnic music and jazz and most importantly, it is a multicultural country.
Now, I would show you historical development trends, tendencies of theatre and scenery of contemporary theatre process in the frame of an aesthetic “map”.
Development of theatre in Azerbaijani culture begins with the theatrical elements of open-air folk performances, the zorkhana games performed by pehlevans (wrestlers and weightlifters), folk sketches, religious ceremonies and rites, from ashyks (Azerbaijan folk poets and singers) playing the saz (an Azerbaijani long-necked lute) and narrating folk epics, to traditional Islamic mystery plays, mythology and dervish dances. However, professional theatre only became part of institutional culture in the end of the 19th century.
After 20 years’ lapse following the creation of a dramaturgy that could be classified as “national” by its artistic and aesthetic parameters, if not by its form, a group of Azerbaijani intellectuals prepared an amateur performance of the comedy “The Vizier of the Lenkaran’s khan” by Mirzah Fatali Akhund-Zadeh in 1873. This was in the eve of “Novruz” holiday. Therefore, 10th of March is celebrated as the creation day of national Azerbaijan theatre.
From 1873 until the 1920s, the Azerbaijani theatre was the theatre of strong passions - “theatre of hot-tempered heroes” which was created by a few amateurs combining of rough severity and shy naturalism. In 1883, the first permanent establishment known locally as “the Taghiyev’s Theatre” opened in Baku. This was a period of large-scale development in the oil industry, the shaping of the national bourgeoisie and increasing economic interest from the West and Russia in this eastern city.
In the first stage of development, this theatre has nothing to do with the state: it survived only at the expense of actor selfless, box office and donations. Finally, after 46 years from the date of the first performance, in October 1919, the Democratic Republic of Azerbaijan announced the opening of the State Theatre. Meanwhile, Azerbaijan theatre was reaching the point of balance between the borders of amateur and professional art. It started forming as a primitive romanticism, intuition and passion theatre.
From 1920, following the incursion of the Bolshevik Red Army into Azerbaijan, a process dynamic Sovietization of the European-type theatre began. During 1920 to 1990s Azerbaijan theatre took advantages of professional Russian theatre traditions, took principles of Stanislavsky system as priority of creative process and theatre education. Azerbaijan Soviet theatre was formed as monumental theatre, inclined towards Baroque style in terms of distribution of sound and emotion, turned into pathos and pathetical theatre, always imported contemporary theatre tendency from leading Moscow theatres, even in some cases was engaged in direct imitation of performances. Azerbaijan theatre has formed itself in philosophical and poetic embodiment of social and moral themes, permanently performing social-ideological orders of government and only after 60s tried to re-establish itself in existential conflict direction.
Summary: During 1920-90 formation and development of Azerbaijani theatre was accordance with Russian theatre model. In this model, theatre is absolutely depending on government, government budget and subsidies for culture.
After gaining independence in 1991, Azerbaijan Democratic Republic remaining faithful to this tradition, patronizes Azerbaijan theatre, funds it from budget. Now there are 26 State Theatres in the country and 11 of them are Drama theatres.
There is an officially registered (2013) independent “Oda” Theatre (“room theatre”), lives with self-financing principle. In terms of classification, it can be considered as amateur vanguard-basement theatre type. “Oda” in its “Ado” variant tries also to show interactive performances, tends to primitive version of epatage of western contemporary underground.
Azerbaijan theatre has neither donors nor sponsors. Of course, sometimes local amateur play writers by providing their plays to the theatre also bring sponsors along with them. Usually these sponsors are relatives or friends of playwright and have no specific goals. Theatres decide whether to work with such playwright or not. Lack of independent theatres in Azerbaijan, absence of theatre fundraising system is explained with the fact that theatre is out of audience interest. Theatre does not wish to or cannot speak the language that the nation understands; the mass does not understand or does not want to understand the language that the theatre speaks. Overall, the national theatre having leading role in the society and culture, nowadays is closer to periphery. Although Azerbaijan government doesn’t decrease efforts in order to keep the theatre alive. In 2007, President of Azerbaijan Republic Ilham Aliyev, signed order “On the development of the Azerbaijani art of theatre”. Two years later, president also signed State Program- “The Azerbaijani Theatre in 2009-2019”. I can’t even remember whether presidents ever have signed such decrees in the history of world theatre or not? I think, this step of Azerbaijan President is an extraordinarily event in history of culture!
Summary: Just after these decrees Ministry of Culture and Tourism intensifies projects with theatres. All state theatre buildings get reconstructed according to European Standards. Material and technical base of theatres get increased to normal level, books about theatre art get published by the Ministry, national theatre festivals are being held, logos of International Puppet Theatre Festival, Baku International Theatre Conference are being added to the “theatre map” of Baku with an interval of 2 years.
Despite of all efforts in 90s, Azerbaijan theatre could neither realize itself nor turn into the instrument of national identification. In these years State “Yugh” Theatre performed as vanguard of national theatre culture, tried to synthesize national art tradition with dervish dances in epic theatre parameters using post-modernist tendencies, focused to the attention of art elites, but couldn’t open up for a wide range of audiences and currently lives due to inertia of rich experience.
In 2000s Azerbaijani theatre had difficulties to find the ways of active interaction with audience due to experienced processes in the republic: neither could develop aesthetic principles of old soviet theatre nor Modern Europe theatre models or own program based on its traditions could be convergent for audience. Meanwhile plays of Elchin Efendiyev and Ali Amirli absurd comedy and comic adventures of real life gave great opportunity for formation of more relevant theatre performances for the audience.
During 2005-2015, till aggravation of Suria crisis in political and economic view of the world, Ministry of tourism sets up active relations with theatres of Western Europe and CIS countries, international theatre organization such as UNIMA, ASSITEJ, IFTR, ITI and tries to revive theatre using assistance of external specialists, holding international theatre festivals and launching pilot programs.
This resulted in that Azerbaijan theatre artists saw harvest of productive creative process in the context of pure professional interests. For example, Azerbaijan State Theatre of Young Spectators, with the troupe of 96 actors that are mostly youths who want to study the core of the troupe, to change and renew it. Theatre prefers stage realism in the performances prepared for adults but uses of aesthetic of fairy tale, hyperbola magic for children. The staff of this theatre is open minded to any growth of professional skills, any projects purely related to art.
There are two such performances in the repertory of Azerbaijan State Theatre of Young Spectators that no one can remain indifferent and these performances are often invited to festivals in the CIS countries. One of them is “I have come, girls” spectacle staged by head director of the theatre Behram Osmanov (2013) based on “War” play by Lars Noren. The director score targets an important statement: If the house of god is forgotten, is used as a garage then everything becomes possible and wars become inevitable.
The other successful spectacle appeared in the result of realized project by Ministry of Culture and Tourism and The British Council. On this project, Jan Willem van den Bosch was invited from Great Britain to stage trilogy of Irish playwright- Martin McDonagh- The Leenane Trilogy in 2014. The spectacle was very attractive due to stage arrangement, light, clothing texture balance and fully imitated Irish village life in authentic domestic format. Director staged each performance according the idea- “all social aggressions are product of intrafamily egoism and fascism”.
However, historically, Azerbaijan State Academic Drama Theatre, always considered as a central theatre determining the theatre fashion in the republic, which is true until nowadays. The theatre that defined as word, declamation, passion, repertory theatre, nowadays cannot exactly specify the functions, aim and the audience segment that it is working for. Therefore, mostly plays about historical problems of national identification (rarely deconstruction characterized) take place in the repertory.
One of them is "Agha Mohammad Shah Kadjar" (2013) spectacle about ruler, conqueror. Play owner A. Amirli and stage director Azer Pasha Nemet interpreted blood-thirsty, cruel and despot ruler as a smart infantile warlord. Agha Mohammad Shah Kadjar is an ugly person created by traumatic childhood. Spectacle is a drama staged on flashback episodes of historical fragments and personal memory.
Theatre also tries to prepare and present psychological and intellectual drama, absurd comedy for the audience. The most successful of such stage games is “Shakespeare” spectacle staged by Moldavian director, Petru Vutcarau in 2014 based on Elchin Efendiyev’s cognominal. Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet tragedy is the only intercourse chain, means of mutual understanding between mentally ill patients of the psychiatric hospital and alien. Score of director was adjusted to “romanticism of fantasy and absurd lie”. By the way, I would like to mention that the play was even staged in London Vanguard Theatre.
The youngest and most dynamic spectacle of 2015 (maybe the last 10 years’) in the repertory of Azerbaijan State Academic Drama Theatre is "Monsieur Ibrahim and the Flowers of the Koran" which was staged by Arshad Alekperov based on cognominal composition of Eric Emmanuel Schmitt, tuned on mood of 60s, created an interesting “bicycle and flowers” story.
Azerbaijan State Pantomime Theatre is representative of physical theater in Azerbaijan. It finds its existence in the synergy of clowning, dance and physical theatre.
Azerbaijan State Puppet Theatre usually uses sprinkles puppets in their spectacles. Mostly puppets are played by rods, actors walk together with the puppets and don’t hide under the folding screen.
Azerbaijan State Opera and Ballet Theatre had its wonderful building since 1910 according the highest standards of that particular time and was constructed in order to bring the best European Opera singers and traditions to Azerbaijan. But genius composers of Azerbaijan, U. Hajibeyli and M. Maqomayev created absolutely a new genre- mugham- opera. Hajibeyli’s “Leyli and Majnun” mugham- opera which is still being played in different new modifications, was written in 1908 and based on cognominal poem of classical poet of XVI century M. Fuzuli. Azerbaijan composers- Q. Qarayev, F. Amirov, A. Malikov’s “The path of thunder” and “Seven beauties”, “Thousand and one nights”, “The love’s legend” ballets were staged on the most prestigious opera theatres of the world. Today, Azerbaijan State Opera and Ballet Theatre actively invites famous opera and ballet soloists and also choreographers.
Azerbaijan State Musical Theatre reaches early XX century for its traditions. Film version (1945) of first Azerbaijan operetta- “Arshin mal alan", written by U. Hajibeyli in 1913, travelled all Europe and conquered USA. Now spectacles are prepared in two languages- Russian and Azerbaijani, success of the theatre mostly are local classical compositions. Historically troupe of the theatre was formed not as operetta, but like musical comedy theatre.
Theatre life in Baku is centralized and fashion of other village theatres are determined specially from here. If you asked for an opinion of leading theatre critic, in the context of all he would tell you that if theatre pass to self-financing, many of them will be faced with threat of closing. But I hope that Azerbaijan State will never give up the theatre.
Aydin Talibzadeh, theatre critic, researcher, writer and professor of Azerbaijan State Culture and Art University. Member of international institutions and organizations such as IFTR, UNIMA, ASSITEJ. Author of books “The Master and the Mirror”, “Mehdi’s mystery or the concept of hamletizm in art”, “Thousand masks and I”, “The theatrical frescos”, “The history of the East theatre”, “The theatre and theatrics in the culture of Islam” and more than 500 articles published worldwide. As well as author of several novels like “The model of the butterfly 102”, “Abuhyub”, and the plays like “Tubinot”, “Pokémon” and “The aunt”.