The formation of the Yakut national theatre: from the 1990s to the present day

Anna Lifirenko

A new milestone in the formation of the Yakut national theatre came with the collapse of the Soviet Union. In the 1990s, the Yakut theatre developed at an uneven pace, although a generally positive tendency may be observed in the dynamics of its development. And it was precisely in the 1990s and 2000s that the Yakut theatre began to focus particularly on revival of the national culture and identity.

Yakut theatres began to tour abroad, participating in international festivals where they received recognition, and it was this recognition that so contributed to the birth of a new phenomenon in the global theatrical arena – professional theatre pertaining to the culture of the Sakha people. Apart from this, an intense search for new forms of stage expression took place, manifesting itself in the combination of dramatic and musical theatre, in attracting young directors, artists, composers, choreographers from the metropolis, from other regions and from overseas.

New collectives began to appear and there was a significant rebranding of the major theatres that had existed in Yakutia in the Soviet years, as most of them were renamed and given new premises. These theatres and their place in the modern theatrical process in Yakutia will be discussed in more detail below.

The first institution worth mentioning here is the Yakutsk Drama Theatre and the changes it has undergone. In 1990, the theatre was renamed the P.A. Oyunsky Sakha-Theatre. In the same year, director Andrei Borisov became its artistic director, later going on to become the Minister of Culture of the Republic of Sakha (Yakutia). Extraordinary new performances staged by Borisov began to fill the theatre’s repertoire: Vasily Protodyakonov’s Songs Left by Me, plays such as Kudangsa the Great and Nikolai Dorogunov, Child of Man based on works by Platon Oyunsky, Alampa Sofronov’s Stumbled, Bertolt Brecht’s The Good Person of Szechwan, and Freedom’s Hot Day by Suorun Omolloon. The theatre began to go on tour abroad – appearing in Finland, Germany, Norway, Poland, Mexico, the USA, Switzerland, Turkey, France and Japan.

In 1995, the Sakha-Theatre was granted academic theatre status and became known as the Sakha Academic Theatre named after P.A. Oyunsky. In 1999, the play King Lear based on William Shakespeare’s work and directed by Andrei Borisov was awarded the State Prize of the Russian Federation.

In 2000, the theatre obtained a new building, and the first performance in it was the play based on the olonkho Kyys Debiliye – a production subsequently awarded the National “Golden Mask” Prize for the nomination “Theatrical Critics Award”. This play went on tour in Japan, playing in the cities of Tokyo and Osaka, aroused great interest among the public there, and marked the birth of the classical national theatre of the Sakha people.

The performance of Macbeth, based on the play by Eugène Ionesco and directed by the young Yakutia native Sergei Potapov, received a special jury award at the Golden Mask National Prize. In addition, the P.A. Oyunsky Sakha Academic Theatre served as the base for the republic’s newly inaugurated drama festival “Desired Shore”, which later acquired an international status. And it the Sakha-Theatre that was the venue for the presentation “Theatre of Olonkho”, the brainchild of Andrei Borisov.
A separate place in Yakutia’s theatrical process is occupied by the unique phenomenon of contemporary culture that is “Teatr Olonkho”. Founded in 2008 by Andrei Borisov, its main aesthetic principle is the revival of a distinct Yakut national phenomenon – the epic heritage of the olonkho, declared in 2005 a masterpiece of the intangible cultural heritage of humanity by UNESCO.

The Olonkho Theatre successfully tours in many countries around the world and participates in numerous festivals, repeatedly receiving nominations for the Golden Mask award and taking part in the International Theatre Olympics. Andrei Borisov is responsible for devising the whole system and aesthetic programme of the Olonkho Theatre, having penned several articles on this topic.

He analyses in detail the differences between olonkho drama and the Western theatrical tradition and has introduced several new terms and concepts to explain the essence of the theatre’s aesthetic programme. “The dramaturgy of the Western theatre takes the event as its basis, treating it as a fact that turns the action. It has the concept of the “main event”, which determines the theme of an entire work. The actor in olonkho theatre makes an event out of the energy of the text, feeling the rhythm of the energy pulsation, and, by reproducing it, hypnotises the viewer.

The energy is possessed by the main means of expressiveness – toyuk – which contains the rhythmic-intonational ideal of melos pertaining to the entire oral and non-material culture of the Sakha people.” In addition, Borisov defines as follows the manner of existence of an actor of the Olonkho Theatre, a person who by nature is close to the olonkhosut – the performer of the olonkho: “If Stanislavsky’s actor prompts sympathy, and Brecht’s – contemplation, then that which the olonkhosut stirs is shared perception. He leads the viewer on through sympathy, heightening the power of magical rhythms to meditation and to attaining harmony in life through the excitement of his creative energy.

The spatio-temporal art of the theatre benefits greatly from the experience of performing epic poetry. First of all, there are the aural, vocal, tempo-rhythmic, and timbre characteristics of the characters. It is like music... The olonkhosut pronounces one complex sound with subtle overflows and violent vibrations, and we see and hear the horse – images are born from the sound. He sings in such a way that you believe him, that you see everything through intonational nuances.”

In the Olonkho Theatre, performances are solely based on the olonkho epic or else on plays based on the olonkho. The repertoire of the theatre has included performances of the plays Kyys Debiliye by N. Burnashev, Ellei Bootur by Altan Saryn, Kuruubai khaanannaakh Kulun Kullustuur and Uluu Kudangsa by Platon Oyunsky, and Oyuun tuule by Alexei Kulakovsky. Andrei Borisov has been the ideological inspiration and chief director of the theatre throughout its existence. He believes that the olonkho is not a phenomenon of literature and not even a phenomenon of folklore in the sense we are accustomed to, but rather that “the uniqueness of olonkho lies in the fact that it is always played; it is, first and foremost, theatre.”
The Russian Drama Theatre likewise underwent significant changes in the 1990s. In 1990, a branch of the Moscow Art Theatre (MKhAT) studio-school was opened at the Russian Theatre, and two of its graduates replenished and rejuvenated the troupe. Both Russian and foreign directors began to be involved in its productions at this time.

The Moscow directors Vladimir Komratov and Yevgeny Radomyslensky staged Mikhail Bulgakov’s plays Zoyka’s Apartment and Bliss, while Saint-Petersburger Vladimir Golub staged Mad Money and Enough Stupidity in Every Wise Man by Alexander Ostrovsky. The Russian Drama Theatre had returned to Ostrovsky once more. The Far-Eastern director Anatoly Shutov staged the two comedies Family Portrait with an Outsider by Stepan Lobozerov and Vladimir Gurkin’s Quadrille.

In 1999, the theatre was renamed after Alexander Sergeyevich Pushkin, an event that was commemorated by the installation of a bronze bust of the poet in the theatre’s garden square, and the theatre went on to celebrate Pushkin’s 200th anniversary with performances of The Tale of Tsar Saltan and Little Tragedies staged by Stepan Yemelyanov, a native of Yakutsk.

From abroad, the directors M. Lawrence (Holland) and K. Rice (USA) were invited to stage performances. Along with Russian and foreign classical works by Alexander Ostrovsky, Anton Chekhov, Maxim Gorky, Dmitry Averkiev, Alexander Pushkin, Ivan Turgenev, Nikolai Gogol, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Mikhail Bulgakov, William Shakespeare, Pierre Beaumarchais, John Galsworthy and Eugene O’Neill, there were also productions based on plays by contemporary authors – Mikhail Vorfolomeyev, Vasily Sigarev, Ivan Vyrypayev and Nadezhda Ptushkina – as well as foreign playwrights such as Claude Magnier, Álvaro Portes, John Patrick, Ray Cooney, and others.
It would be impossible not to acknowledge the fundamental place that ballet and dance came to occupy in Yakut national theatre. The 1930s witnessed the birth of the art of ballet in all the constituent Union republics of the USSR, and the Yakut Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic was no exception to this tendency. “The originality and distinctiveness of Yakut folklore and the rich heritage of folk art helped create an interesting ballet theatre based on the poetry and theatricality of the national olonkho epic, a complex model of rituals combined with the Russian school of classical dance.” The particular ballet marking the birth of Yakut national ballet is Sir Simege (Field Flower). Its libretto was written by Suorun Omolloon on motifs taken from the Yakut folk tale Old Woman Beiberikeen, and the music composed by the Yakut composers Mark Zhirkov and Genrikh Litinsky. The premiere of Field Flower took place in 1947 at the Yakutsk Music and Drama Theatre.

In 1991, the Yakutsk Music and Drama Theatre received state theatre status and became known as the “State Opera and Ballet Theatre of the Republic of Sakha (Yakutia) named after D.K. Sivtsev - Suorun Omolloon”, the only such institution in Eastern Siberia and the Russian Far East.

The director and ideological inspiration of this theatre was Ivan Parshagin. It staged the ballets Paquita by Édouard Deldevez, Aurora’s Wedding by Pyotr Tchaikovsky, along with an “Ancient Choreography Programme”. The second half of the 1990s saw the addition to its repertoire of the ballets Classical Symphony by Sergei Prokofiev, Night Tangos by Astor Piazzolla, The Adventures of Cipollino by Karen Khachaturian, and Festivals of Dance directed by the Petersburger Alexander Polubentsev.

These performances were connected with the search for a new direction, fresh plastic solutions and modern choreography. Since 1997, the ballet troupe has been headed by Honoured Artist of the Republic of Sakha (Yakutia) Maria Saidykulova. She staged the ballets Light Breathing by Yegor Neustroyev, The Nutcracker by Pyotr Tchaikovsky, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and Le Corsaire by Adolphe Adam, Ancient Dances by Ottorino Respighi, Light and Shadows by Martha Graham, The Aroma of Death, or The Confession of Mr Y by Valery Shadrin, Sacred Ilmen, and many others. In 1999, the premiere took place of the ballet Swan Lake staged by the famous choreographer and ballet master Yuri Grigorovich, which proved a significant event in the cultural life of the republic. The first graduates of the Republican Choreographic School, which had been established in 1992, took part in this ballet.

In the 2000s, the State Opera and Ballet Theatre continued to put on both one-act and full-length productions, with a repertoire comprising Russian and foreign classics, ethnic, contemporary and children’s performances. In particular, Sergei Prokofiev’s ballet Romeo and Juliet directed by Yuri Grigorovich occupied a very prominent place in the repertoire. The Opera and Ballet Theatre often collaborated with prominent choreographers, giving rise to such collaborations as seen in the ballets The Golden Cockerel by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, Mtsyri by Andrei Balanchivadze, Princess of the Moon, and the contemporary ballet In the Shadow of the Winds. In 2000, ballet festivals were resumed under the new name Sterkh (the great Siberian white crane), and in 2011 the 6th All-Russian Festival of Classical Ballet was held.
As already mentioned, considerable attention is paid to dance in Yakut national culture. In 1980, a professional folk dance group was formed, going under the name of the State Dance Ensemble of Yakutia affiliated to the Yakut Philharmonic. In 1992, the ensemble was transformed into the National Dance Theatre of the Republic of Sakha (Yakutia), under its first artistic director Gennady Baishev. During the 1990s, many original performances were made, based on Yakut folklore: the ethno-performance Uruu (“Earthly Kinship”) by composer Arkady Samoilov, introducing audiences to the traditions of the old Yakut wedding ceremony; the ethno-ballet based on shamanic mystery cult motifs Bokhsu-ruyuu (“Healing the Soul”) by composer Vladimir Ksenofontov, which revealed the highly complex spiritual worldview of the Yakuts; and the folk drama Atyyr Mungkha (“Big Fishing Trip”) by composer Nikolai Berestov, concerning one of the most important subsistence crafts of the Yakuts – ice fishing. In addition, an interest was expressed in the folklore of the smaller ethnic groups that also inhabit the territory of Yakutia.

For example, the play Yarkhadana based on a legend told among the Yukaghir people and created by the Yakut composer Zakhar Stepanov became the first music and dance work to draw on the folklore motifs of one of the smallest peoples of Eastern Siberia. The ethno-ballet Osuor Tuos (“Birch Bark Canoe”) by composer Vasily Zyryanov is based on a folk legend and relates the tragic fate of the only daughter of a famous female shaman. The solo performance Seveki, set to the music of the composer Valery Shadrin, is based on a folklore motif of the Evenks. In 2005, the team was renamed after the founder of Yakut stage dance, the folk singer and storyteller Sergei Zverev aka Kyyl Uola.

An important milestone in the life of the National Dance Theatre was the staging of the first music and dance performance based on an olonkho plot – Bert Khara. This production was conceived as a trilogy consisting of three separate performances; parts of a single whole, uniting pictures of three different worlds and the foundations of the ancient beliefs of the Sakha people. The author of the project and the choreographer of the trilogy is Gennady Baishev, the permanent artistic director of the theatre. The first part – the play Aiyy Aimaga (“The Middle World”), with music by Nikolai Petrov, was first shown in 2004. The premiere of the second part – the play Yuyeden tugege (“The Lower World”), with music by Polina Ivanova – took place in 2006. Part three, Yusse doidu dokhsunnara (“Warriors of the Upper World”) to the music of Vladimir Ksenofontov, was presented to the public in 2009. All three parts were united by the character Burt Khaara – a hero from the Middle World, the world of human beings. There is also an olonkhosut-narrator in the performances, who connects all three parts in a common narrative.

The current repertoire of the National Dance Theatre includes more than 40 full-length performances, most of which are folkloric and ritual in character, though there are also children’s and youth performances. The playbill of the Theatre features 25 concert programmes, and there is a creative and research laboratory for the study of ethnic dance.
The field of children’s theatre was also subject to a range of reforms. In 1990, the Theatre of Variety Miniatures was established under the auspices of the Yakut State Philharmonic, known from 1992 as the Naara Suokhtar State National Theatre of Variety Miniatures. In 2000, it was transformed into the State Theatre of Humour and Satire of the Republic of Sakha (Yakutia), in turn serving as the basis, in 2008, for the founding of the State Theatre for Young Spectators of the Republic of Sakha (Yakutia), aimed specifically at children and adolescents. The initiator behind its creation and the ideological inspirer of the theatre is its artistic director Alexei Pavlov. Pavlov began his creative career with the study of the distinct culture of humour found among the Yakut people, based on folk drama performances.

The repertoire of the Theatre for Young Spectators today includes performances based on the olonkho, performances based on classical children’s works, and modern drama (e.g. To Everyone it Concerns… by Dana Sideros). Also found at the Theatre of the Young Spectator is a children’s studio named “Naara suokhchannar”, with the theatre providing a venue for the “Dyibe, dyebe ogolor” children’s festival-competition of humour and satire. The Theatre of the Young Spectator puts on shows in both the Russian and Yakut languages.

Mention must be made of the drama theatres in the smaller towns of Yakutia, which have grown out of amateur theatre groups, clubs and societies. These include theatres in the towns of Neryungri, Mirny and Nyurba. The Neryungri Actor and Puppet Theatre was founded in 1985 and remains the only theatre in Southern Yakutia. A distinctive feature of the Neryungri Theatre is that it hosts two troupes – one Russian and one Yakut. The first performance of the Russian troupe was Vadim Korostylev’s fairy tale What the Magicians Told Us About, and that of the Yakut troupe was the puppet show An Evening of Fairy Tales, based on the play by Ivan Gogolev. In 1992, the group was granted official Actor and Puppet Theatre status, involving expansion in both the genre range of productions and the audience. The institution has been a regular participant at many Russian and international theatre festivals.

The Mirny Drama Theatre was founded in 2008. Its repertoire comprises around fifteen performances from Russian classical and contemporary drama, five of which cater to a children’s audience. The works include a production based on Nikolai Gogol’s play The Gamblers, plays based on Anton Chekhov’s The Bear and The Proposal, Nikolai Kolyada’s Baba Chanel, and My Way based on the play by Yaroslava Pulinovich.

The Nyurba Drama Theatre was founded in 1966. The first performances of the young theatre were of Mikhail Sholokhov’s Virgin Soil Upturned, Vladimir Mayakovsky’s The Bathhouse, Lope de Vega’s La Discreta Enamorada, and Chingiz Aitmatov’s My Little Poplar Tree in a Red Scarf. During the half-century and more of the theatre’s history, over a hundred performances have featured on its stage. The Nyurba Drama Theatre was the driving force behind the “Sata” Republican Theatre Festival, first held in 1993 in Nyurba, for the second time in 1995 in Yakutsk, and for the third time in 1997 in Neryungri. At present, the Nyurba State Mobile Drama Theatre is the centre of theatrical life in Yakutia’s Vilyui group of uluses (administrative districts).

In the present day, the professional Yakut national theatre represents a unique phenomenon, which is a symbiosis of Yakut folk traditions and the Russian school of psychological theatre. In it, we note a very close interaction between theatre schools, trends and aesthetic programmes. The Yakut theatre is no stranger to contemporary forms of theatrical existence – the latest Russian-language and foreign dramaturgy is eagerly brought onto the stages of Yakut theatres and an array of young directors are currently at work in the republic.