Butterflies and Spider Webs. A few words about Belarusian theatre

If you are looking for a pastime in Minsk, a visit to a theatre could be an option worth to think about. After all, you don’t risk much: a nice seat in a major theatre would set you back about five euros. Thus, in terms of money you have a fair choice between a six-pack of local beer (another affordable way to spend a nice evening in the Belarusian capital) and a theatre ticket. Not to offend the feelings of beer-fans, what does Minsk have to offer for a theatre-lover? After all, the capital reflects the most recent trends of national theatre culture.

What surprises you the most, is how traditional Belarusian theatre is. In the West, it wouldn’t be a novelty to see, for instance, Hamlet reciting his famous monologue while lying down on a couch of a psychoanalyst. In Belarus, however, Shakespeare is quite often taken literally. The première of “Mackbeth”, which took place at the Yanka Kupala theatre in 2006, offered enough sword fights, armour rattling and bellicose screams to please the entertainment-hungry crowd visiting The Globe in its early times.

For a present-day Westerner, used to minimalist scenery sets, flamboyant decorations found in major theatres of Minsk may look impressive. However, those who search for bold versions of drama classics and are craving to discover new names and plays will have a hard time in the capital of Belarus, let alone the rest of the country. In a fight “tradition versus innovation” the former still poses as a heavyweight. For most of the 20th century, Belarusian theatres were run and financed by the state. Top directors occupied offices with comfortable armchairs, being typical Soviet-type managers rather than innovators. In the Soviet time, theatre was supposed to provide support to ideological dogmas or merely serve as a living illustration to the printed editions of drama classics, something like a visual aid for groups of school pupils studying the history of literature.
The Soviet legacy of artistic apathy can still be felt today, even though the financial situation has changed. The state dramatically curtailed its support, which is now limited to providing maintenance costs for theatre houses and salaries for their employees. In order to stage new plays, theatres must earn money themselves. As an exception, the state budget provides financial assistance to certain “socially relevant” performances – domestic and international classics, or modern plays dealing with Belarusian history. Of course, if you want to secure financing for such a play, you soon become entangled in procedures required by the Ministry of Culture and various ideological institutions. The spider web they have woven is apt at capturing butterflies of innovation.               
Rather than getting involved in a risky business of uncovering new approaches and names, many theatre directors choose to bet on the safe horse by accepting state-sponsored commissions for plays. As a result, different theatres closely resemble each other in their repertoire, which, to a large extent, reflects the current tastes of officials in the Ministry of Culture.
While the uniform state ideology is omnipresent, the unique ideologies of theatre creators are lacking. “The biggest problem of Belarusian theatre is, perhaps, the absence of “ideologists”, the shortage of theatre-makers (actors, directors as well as playwrights) which have their own programme to offer, their idea of theatre, which they firmly believe in,” writes Belarusian theatre critic Tatjana Kamonava in her comprehensive article “World Seen in a Mirror” published in the edited book entitled “Landvermessungen” (Theater der Zeit, Berlin, Germany, 2008). “And this doesn’t have anything to do with censorship. During the last century we relied upon ‘great masters’, artistic directors of state-run theatre companies, which held their offices for decades. As a result, the subculture of creative directors, so vital for the diversity of theatrical life and healthy artistic rivalry, was neglected. The generation of 25-, 30-, 40-year-old theatre directors is lacking in Belarus.”
Today, the state not just gives away money – it invests into culture and expects to have a return on its portfolio. The reconstruction of Opera and Ballet theatre in Minsk is the most recent example of this controversial approach. The theatre is an imposing constructivist landmark, built in 1934-1937 by Joseph Langbard, architect, who largely shaped the image of the new Soviet-era Minsk. For decades, this grey concrete barrel silently overlooked the Belarusian capital, slowly eroding and hosting flocks of ghostly pigeons under its tin roof. Now, the theatre undergoes an unprecedented renovation. On the outside, the walls are freshly painted and decorated with large but somewhat kitschy sculptures, on the inside a state-of-the-art hydraulically powered stage is being constructed under the guidance of specialists from the tradition-rich Semperoper opera theatre (Dresden, Germany). However, for Valyantsin Elizaryeu, the legendary director of the Ballet theatre, this sight brings no optimism. Having returned from a month-long tour of South Korea with his ballet company in December 2008, Elizaryeu learned that the Ministry of Culture ordered to reorganize the theatre. He was offered a position of artistic director, subordinate to a new general director, who still had to be appointed. “Our Opera and Ballet theatre needs a strong “hozyaystvennik” as its head,” he was told. “Hozyaystvennik” is the Russian newspeak term for a “gifted manager”, some kind of “apparatchik” with a business grip. Elizaryeu rejected the offer, wrote an open letter to President Lukashenka, called a press-conference – to no avail. Finally, he resigned completely, and was dismissed in an instant – despite of his 36-year-long experience of making the Belarusian Ballet one of the few truly profitable and internationally demanded products of our modern culture. Will the new “hozyaystvennik” manage to keep up his successes – even with a hydraulically powered stage?  
But a crisis can also force a theatre to reinvent itself. Towering managerial, financial, and artistic problems brought the Yanka Kupala Theatre, another pillar of Belarusian theatre scene, to the verge of collapse. The Yanka Kupala Theatre is situated in an old park in the heart of the Belarusian capital. Built in 1888, it is the oldest Belarusian city theatre house, which survived until our days. Today this is the leading Belarusian theatre, which stages plays in the Belarusian language. After a long period of lethargy, a big scandal erupted in October 2008. Miniscule salaries, administrative pressure, and stagnation of creativity forced a group of actors to voice their concerns, which climaxed in an open letter to the president, blazing with fury over the inadequate state policy towards the Yanka Kupala Theatre in particular and the whole sphere in general.
The situation was so severe, that usual tactics of firing dissenters would not have worked. In the end, the Ministry of Culture made a bold move. It proposed Mikalay Pinigin, a relatively young and ultimately talented theatre director, to become the head of the Yanka Kupala Theatre. Pinigin made a name with staging plays by classical Belarusian authors like Yanka Kupala or Dunin-Martsinkevich. He turned every play into a parable of the present Belarusian reality. His works are anything but politically correct, and yet witty enough to escape ideological Scylla and Charybdis. It seems that Milakay Pinigin, (born in Ukraine, studied in Belarus, worked in Russia) has a unique multicultural view of Belarus, which allows him to see the country from a new angle. At the same time, he would not be a very comfortable figure for the Ministry of Culture, because of his independent attitudes. Nevertheless, the deal was made. Actors welcomed Mikalay Pinigin the way Americans greeted Barack Obama on the Mall. Many, reportedly, had tears in their eyes, and most had new hopes for a better future for their theatre. The address of Pinigin to his new company was short. “There will be no long speeches, the work begins.”
Actually, Yanka Kupala does seem to have a rebel aura. In 1917, its building hosted the First All-Belarusian Congress. It was the first attempt by the Belarusian nation to make important decisions in a parliamentary way. The idea was to bring 1800 delegates representing all regions of this land and all strata of the Belarusian society in order to decide upon the future of the country. The Congress was boiling up with ideas and emotions for more than a week. Some delegates supported independence of the country, others stood for a union with Russia. After it became clear that the Congress was likely to vote for the independence of Belarus, Bolshevik troops surrounded the theatre and dismantled the gathering in a dramatic showdown, which involved a lot of swearing, swinging pistols and some skirmishes. Belarusian theatres may seem to be havens of tranquillity, but there are times when they become places of exciting performances.
But let’s go back to our time and listen to Tatjana Kamonava again. “If you speak about contemporary Belarusian theatre, it becomes obvious that although there are singular personalities who think in terms of modern art, still most of Belarusian theatres have effectively shut themselves out in isolated cocoons, like caterpillars. They will turn into butterflies only when they have courage to look around. They will be surprised to see how diverse and exciting life around them is.” One should only add here: watch out for spider webs.  


Yanka Kupala Theatre in Minsk 



 New director of Yanka Kupala Theatre Mikalay Pinigin


A scene from a play “Pinskaya Shliahta” (Noblemen of Pinsk) 



One of the leading actors of Yanka Kupala Theatre Mikalay Kirychenka 


 Belarusian ballet dancers with maestro Elizaryeu