Can a theater, which has never belonged to mass art, somehow influence the outside world and bring people together in it? Does the country need its own international theater festival? Will the theater, which has already become part of the country’s history, receive the right to remain within its native walls?
Questions that remain unanswered and continue to cause judgments, reviews, remarks in social media. From the very day in early February, when clouds were gathering over the Ilkhom Theater, caused by progressive commodity-market relations, it became clear that dispersing these clouds only with the hands of people, who are not indisputable in estimates, but always indifferent to the fate of the beloved theater, will not be easy.

Wounded voices continue to be heard from all over the world, where its spectators live today and where this illustrious team once happened to visit.
Meanwhile, I remember one of its trips. It happened in October 2016, when the Mark Wail’s Ilkhom Theater became a participant in the 15th HIGH FEST International Performing Arts Festival in Yerevan. There the traditional theater festival brought together 250 participants from 20 countries on 12 venues, including from Uzbekistan. For Ilkhom, it was the 35th one on the track record of festivals, and Armenia became the 23rd country where the popular Tashkent band introduced their art to the audience. Upon returning from Yerevan, we had an interview with Boris Gafurov, the artistic director of the theater and Irina Bharat, the deputy Director.
B. Gafurov: “5 years ago I happened to visit the festival of modern dramaturgy of the CIS countries in Yerevan, but Ilkhom with a team of 26 people went to Armenia for the first time. We had the honorable mission to open this famous show. Its uniqueness also lies in the fact that there are no tickets for HIGH FEST, anyone can come and see world-class performances.”

Earlier, Artur Ghoukassian, the chairman of the HIGH FEST festival, shared his impressions: “Ilkhom” is the absolute top in Central Asia and along with the Almaty “ART&SHOCK” is rightfully considered the most famous theater in the festival world. We have long dreamed of seeing it among the participants. However, the need to independently raise funds for the trip delayed our meeting. In addition, it was an issue of such a voluminous performance in the number of participants, scenery and props, as “Seven Moons.” The sophisticated Yerevan audience is spoiled by high-level performances: the director from France Philippe Genti and London choreographer Akram Khan happened to be “under the roof” of HIGH FEST, while Oskaras Korshunovas and Mark Ravenhill staged their premiere here, so the premiere performance should have been appropriate. The opening of the festival took place on the stage of the famous Yerevan Russian Drama Theater after K. Stanislavsky. “Seven Moons” set the bar and tone high for the whole festival: a full house, a worthy performance, an unceasing ovation, excellent press reviews.”

For reference: “Seven Moons” is a joint project of the Moscow studio SounDrama under the direction of Vladimir Pankov, the Ilkhom Theater and the Omnibus band. From the moment of the premiere in May 2010, and until the next 88th show, which took place in November, the audience, plunging into the poetic work of the 15th century, which found a fascinating musical and dramatic embodiment after 500 years, has not ceased to share rapturous emotions. The performance is based on a part of the poem by the founder of Uzbek classical literature, humanist and thinker Alisher Navoi, “Seven Planets”, which is part of the Hamsa cycle (“Fivefold”). This is not historical research, but a living story – a story about the love of the Iranian Shah Bahram Gur (5th century) and the skillful singer and musician beauty Dilaram. Navoi, sharing his thoughts about life and society, denounces ignorance and bigotry, often inherent in rulers, praises a person and his love, draws a thematic line – the evolution of Bahram’s character from a frivolous and tyrannical to a fair prince, capable of self-sacrifice.
The experiment on combining the European concept and oriental aesthetics found its successful embodiment: multifaceted paintings in the old Uzbek and Russian language and musical presentation were filled with intricate plastic and choreography of actors and musicians intertwined into a whole, representing multi-genre music. Thinly woven Sufi symbolism immerses the viewer in the plot subtleties of the action: seven parts of the sublunary circle, seven palaces of seven colors, corresponding to seven planets – the patrons of human destinies and characters, seven eternal wanderers in the universe and seven fairy tales, animated by verses and like petals of lotus broken down in seven days.

The plot of each story is a love experience, and with a gradual transition from black to white, abrupt sensuality is replaced by spiritually enlightened love and the glorification of a person’s high moral qualities. In a word, according to the description of Navoi himself, “the living word is life’s best color, cognition is a magical gem…” The action paintings, saturated with the sounding decorative poetry of oriental romanticism, sometimes remind the picturesque scenes of the unrivaled miniature painter “Raphael of the East” – Kamaleddin Bekzod, who illustrated the first edition of Seven Planets”.

Founded in 1976 by Mark Wail, the director and inspirer of an experimental theater youth studio, and a group of graduates of the Tashkent Theater and Art Institute, Ilkhom was one of the first professional independent theaters to invade the theater culture of the former Soviet Union. Those days, simple non-participation in the choir was already perceived as an action, and the Tashkent theater very soon turned into a coveted place where the intellectual audience could be fed. It would express the time: by rejecting hand-feeding, it won the right to freedom to build its own life.

– Can a theater, which has never belonged to mass art and always had a special elite audience, somehow influence the outside world and bring people together in it?

B. Gafurov: “Life is so interesting when we are all different; with different tastes, passions and do not suffer from like-mindedness. But the world has changed, and its inhabitants do not live in the present, but in the future. In a situation where everyone has diverged on different sides, when people do not enter into dialogue, but exchange monologues, and with the feeling that it is already impossible to talk about anything, try to master a language that most people can understand. Theatrical art is more than others, similar to a doctor, because a real theater is a conversation about unpleasant things, it is about scratching the wounds. By twisting and talking about injuries in a living word and manner, the theater promotes healing. This is the only non-political way where we can become more understandable and close to each other; only through the culture that we have preserved and developed. I am not talking only about the theater, but also about music, painting and literature; striving to ensure that in any case the corridor of cultural communication and exchange is maintained.”
The real acquaintance of Boris Gafurov, the artistic director and leading actor, with the theater took place in 1991, when he became a student of his first studio (a drama art studio based on the theater was created in 1989). After a while, after the Mark Wail’s tragic death in September 2007, Ilkhom didn’t break up under the influence of circumstances and trials, did not turn into a decorative space for the production of designer products, but it was often heard from the outside that it became “not what it had been before”, arguing at the same time the common postulate that “theater cannot live longer than its creator.”

B. Gafurov: “In some ways they are right, as it is also true that it is impossible to become a second Wail. The theater that existed with him then can no longer exist the same way. But, dividing into “before” and “after”, saying that this is no longer the “Ilkhom” means to devalue the name of the Master. The question is different: whether you accept this new Ilkhom or not.”

I. Bharat: “The Theater, when the Master leaves it, inevitably changes, but continues to carry the potential and the spirit that are inherent in the scale of its personality. That’s why – “do not lie, be brave and experiment.” We continue the tradition, but in our own way, and our masters convey to the young – the students of our studio – the aesthetics of Ilkhom.

They are convinced that present theater experience is the liveliest of all the arts as it continues to fill up halls every day. They are interested in thinking and searching spectators. But at the same time they reject any coercion of the young minds, equating art with service and capable of killing love for it; insist that the theater should go first to meet youth. Ilkhom lives in a rich repertoire: along with the performances staged by Wail, including “Happy Beggars” a comedy by K. Gozzi, the graduation performance of the first studio in 1993, which synthesized the dell’arte comedy traditions with elements of traditional Uzbek folk comedy and became its “Turandot” from Ilkhom; classical plays and the ones by contemporary authors are staged here. They continue the project of readings and work in the “Theater + Music” laboratory. In a nutshell, Ilkhom keeps being the center of contemporary art, under a single roof of which directors, writers, actors, artists, stage designers and musicians “boil” together in several “cauldrons”, and young artists who do not yet have a “name” get an opportunity to realize their ideas.

– How do you remember Yerevan?
B. Gafurov: “Yerevan greeted us cheerfully, warmly and cordially. The festival was eventful, its agenda included exciting multi-genre theatrical art, and in addition to performances, workshops, master classes and meet-the-artist sessions took place. I would like to note one important feature: not one, but three international theater festivals are held there annually – in addition to the HIGH FEST held since 2003, Shakespeare and the ARMMONO festivals have been held since 2005. We would really like to have our own international theater festival in Uzbekistan. ”

– The recent festival was held under the motto “Fulfill the Dream with HIGH FEST.” Each participant had the opportunity to go up to the festival stand, make a wish and leave it on a symbolic “tonatsar” (wish tree). What wish did you make?
B. Gafurov: “You never talk about the wish you made out loud.”
Saying good bye to my interviewees, I admitted that, being a loyal admirer of Ilkhom, I had not seen their performances for a long time. Irina invited me to start with “Seven Moons”, – the performance went on the same day. “It still smells of Yerevan,” she said. Having received the invitation, I went to rediscover the theater again. There were no spectators yet, and I fully managed to feel the whole aura of this magical space – from the portrait of Master Wail wishing you a good journey to the portraits of actors accompanying you in the images of his unforgettable productions. The narrow gallery extended to the audience hall is still framed by a wall with autographs and wishes of famous theater guests and just spectators who have been here for all the time. But here is a surprise – on one of the walls I found an inscription in Armenian – “thank you!”

And how many of them all, these thanks in different languages with the hope of a new meeting; it cannot be counted. But this is the corridor of cultural exchange. Here is the wide-open door to the very heart of the theater – a magical space connected together with the audience. Every detail, even a special smell, begins to act on the consciousness under the melodious lingering “Peace…” An action is born, and the world around is transformed.

Georgy Saakov.