Sunday, February 26, 2012


In a marvellous collision of unlikely events, a Russian theatre group has been staging Othello here in Bishkek at the same time as I've been teaching it to my 11-12 class. Despite the fact that it was performed in archaic Russian, I was determined to get my students to it; most of them have never even seen a stage performance of any sort, as the TCK life doesn't exactly lend itself to the pursuit of artistic cultural experiences. So, we all went along tonight, and I'm very glad of it!

Othello himself wasn't black, which was disappointing, but we decided that the proportion of black, dramatically inclined, native Russian speakers would be very small indeed, and forgave them this infraction. The casting was very good: Othello was sensual, commanding, noble; Iago was bold, arrogant, manipulative; Desdemona was fair, Emilia was brassy and loveable, and Cassio was the very picture of blond Slavic charm. They were first-rate actors, and the production, despite taking place in a rundown plush theatre, was full of imaginative touches. The set, for instance, was composed of a piece of netting that could be raised and lowered from the ceiling and five black blocks that were combined in thrilling ways that a conventional and far more expensive set could not have achieved; they were particularly effective as mirrors for Othello's changing state of mind. The costumes had Russian touches, too, with fur and heels and leather. Othello wore a headpiece like a pirate's bandanna, and Iago wore a tunic like a nineteenth century Russian peasant. There were drums and native dance at the start, intimating Othello's exotic origins, and at various points cast members would finish their parts and pick up the spotlights at the front of the stage, and becoming the lighting masters. It was really magnificent, all the more so given the limited resources available to theatre-makers in Bishkek (as I've discovered in recent experiences).

It's the first decent live performance I've seen for over a year, and I'm profoundly and surprisedly satisfied by it. The kids were pretty intrigued - most of them - and many of them had Russian language enough to be able to experience it properly. Their next task is to write a critical review and then perform a section of the play in the groups I allotted them. 

When I visit home to Australia in July, I'm going to see every performance, of any sort, that I can possibly manage. I realised tonight that I'm starved for theatre, music, dance. If you're a Melbournite, and you know me well enough to know what I love, then go ahead and book me in for any cultural experiences in July and August! I will owe you a debt of gratitude, which I shall pay back in felt goods and plov dishes.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Ustatshakirt and Red State Ramblers: Indian Ate the Woodchuck - Koyrong Kuu

A marv'lus and rare concatenation of Kyrgyz and US tradition, thanks to the US Embassy. So jolly! Enjoy.


Wednesday, February 22, 2012


Yesterday, I partook in some time travel. Having accompanied a group of our students to the local high school across the road - School No. 4 - in a friendly ambassadorial exchange of cultures, I found myself immersed in a classic Soviet experience.

First of all, our students were performing a modern Korean dance, but the majority of the local student performances were deeply traditional: Turkish and Afghan dance, Tajik, Uzbek and Russian songs, and of course, lots of Kyrgyz instruments and dances too. It was really very enjoyable, but extraordinarily timewarp-ish: at the end, there was a great deal of flag waving and chanting of "Kyr-gyz-stan! Kyr-gyz-stan!" which conveyed a general impression of forced patriotism. I also learned that the Kyrgyz national anthem has too many verses to count. The whole thing was a very Soviet production, and rather fun.

The truly cultural experience, however, came afterwards. Before I even had time to speak to her, the Director of School No. 4 grabbed me by the elbow and whisked me down the corridor, into a room full of gold-toothed local officials. Hoping very much that my students would figure out how to get back to their school on their own, I took a place at the table laden with festive dishes, next to an official from the Ministry of the Promotion of the Kyrgyz Language. Thankfully, our own Director came along at the last minute, and he too was seated at the prestigious head of the table. We soon discovered that by attending, we had conferred a great deal of honour on the Director of School No. 4, and had achieved a kind of temporary fame as foreigners (and therefore supposed sources of great wealth and power). As we were served plov and manti, each official around the table stood and gave a longish speech: we were given snifters of cognac (which kept getting refilled), and after twelve toasts I began to wonder if the end was in sight.

Of course, the end came finally, but not before far too much cognac and several conversations which hinted at, well, reciprocal benefits: if you contribute to our building project, we'll let you use our hall! If you send your students to talk English to our students, maybe we'll invite you to meet important people! Our Director fielded these suggestive conversations with aplomb, and we finally walked out feeling a little dazed by the whole thing.

Returning to school was like waking up from a dream. Really, it was. The Soviet Empire may have collapsed twenty years ago, but it lives on in the institutions and rites of millions. There is no easy exchange of pleasantries and ideas between people with power: there is instead an uneasy tension between people with authority and those under them, in which a deferential system of obligations and reciprocations exist. For instance, the regional political Head of Education was seated on my right, and she wouldn't look at me, and always made a point of toasting our Director first, and then me if she felt like it. I tried a conversation, but it was obvious that I was below her, unable to offer her anything, and therefore undeserving of attention. To my egalitarian ego, it was rather a blow. 

Still, this experience has opened up the possibility of a relationship between our schools, and we very much hope to foster a sense of community by getting our students involved in things like their English Conversation Club and their sporting events. It's exciting to think of the ways our students could be challenged to leave the safe bubble of our school. I hope very much to be able to report on similar events in the future - sans cognac, perhaps.