ASTANA: 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 towards the sky.
The cast-iron abstract sculpture stands at the entrance of the second major ballet theatre to have opened in the new capital in the last 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 multi-million-dollar ballet boom has been funded by the government, but private sponsors and international partners have also stepped in.
President Nursultan Nazarbayev, 76, famously announced in 2013 that “a country that builds factories is thinking years ahead… a country that builds theatres is thinking in terms of centuries.”
At the Astana Ballet Theatre’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,” the neo-classical specialist, who has been working with the troupe for the last year, told AFP.
“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 recognised throughout Central Asia and unveiled in September.
Three years earlier, the city’s largest theatre, Astana Opera, also with its own ballet troupe, opened at a cost of $320 million (297 million euros). The building is considered one of the architectural showpieces of Astana, the capital since 1997.
– ‘Space exploration and ballet’ –
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 Saint 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-speakers and Kazakh-speakers” in a country where over a fifth of the population is ethnic Russian, says 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 Theatre.
“We used to have to go to Russia to see a ballet like that. Now we have it here,” she added.
– Pre-Soviet national culture –
After the end of the Soviet era in 1991, state funding for the arts shrivelled 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.
“They earn no more than $140 per month,” Aigul Muratalieva, a teacher at Kyrgyzstan’s main ballet school, told AFP referring to the country’s ballet dancers.
“They gain experience here then go abroad. Our repertoire has greatly diminished. We have no soloists to take on the leading roles in important productions.”
In other countries a new emphasis on pre-Soviet national culture has emerged at the expense of the classical arts.
Turkmenistan’s authoritarian first president Saparmurat Niyazov banned ballet along with opera, insisting both were out of synch with the country’s “national mentality”.
– Keeping ballet at home –
During early independence, Kazakh ballet artists would also leave for foreign countries where their classical training was appreciated and they were better paid.
Now, increasingly, the best ones stay.
The prima ballerina of Astana Opera, Aigerim Beketayeva, starred at the London Coliseum in 2014 in popular Russian choreographer Boris Eifman’s production of Rodin.
But like her international award-winning male counterpart Bakhtiyar Adamzhan, Beketayeva has remained attached to the Astana Opera troupe, which she joined after being offered a flat in the capital by the government.
“Often when you watch ballet artists you can see the effort, their straining for perfection,” Gulnara Zhumaseitova, a ballet expert at the Institute of Literature and Arts in Almaty, told AFP.
“But Beketayeva is so effortless and natural,” she said.
Zhumaseitova said however that the government must use the new academy to further develop “national dance that represents our culture and traditions” as well as find its ballet niche on the world stage.
“National productions based on our dances are something people might come from abroad to see. Currently, they can still watch a better version of Swan Lake in London or Paris,” she said.