Adventures on the Silk Road
An Interview with Laurel Victoria Gray
by Laura Rose
Laurel Victoria Gray is President of the Uzbek Dance Society and Artistic Director of the Tanavar Dance Ensemble. Trained as an historian, she has authored numerous articles on various aspects of Middle Eastern and Central Asian culture which have been translated into German, Uzbek, Russian and Georgian. Laurel also created the video “An Introduction to Uzbek Dance.” She has taught, performed, and lectured extensively throughout the United States, Europe and the former Soviet Union. www.laurelvictoriagray.com
Laura Rose (LR): Welcome back from Uzbekistan, Laurel. You’ve certainly been gone a long time.
Laurel Victoria Gray (LVG): Thank you. I’ve been gone almost two years. So much has happened since then, I feel out of touch with American society. When I left, Bush was still President and Habibi was facing extinction. Things have certainly changed!
LR: How are dancers treated in Uzbekistan? Are they respected?
LVG: Under the Soviets, professional dance was not only funded by the government, but dancers were awarded titles such as “Merited Artist” and People’s Artist.” They also enjoyed special privileges. But Soviet influence was simply a veneer which overlaid an older, Islamic culture where respectable women never danced in public. Court dancers were members of the Emir’s harem. That same mentality, that highly placed officials “own” dancers and that respectable women don’t dance in public, still remains. Many young dancers must give up their careers upon marriage because their in-laws will not allow them to keep dancing. Other parents refuse to let their daughters study dance because it might adversely affect their marriage prospects.
LR: Have things changed a lot for dancers since Uzbekistan became independent?
LVG: As you know, this was my sixth visit to Uzbekistan, giving me a good basis for comparison. I saw many changes in the artistic community and most of them were negative. The government can no longer support these huge performing ensembles. Bakhor, for example, always Uzbekistan’s premiere dance company, traditionally had a corps of about 45 dancers; they are now down to fifteen.
Before independence, dancers made a comparatively comfortable wage. Now they simply cannot support themselves with hyper-inflation making everything so expensive. Some dancers and musicians have left the field of performing arts to take more lucrative jobs elsewhere. Others have left the country to dance in nightclubs in Greece, Jordan, and the UAR.
One supplemental source of income is dancing at weddings. Uzbek weddings are huge affairs, especially those hosted by local mafia. Many leading performers are linked with the mob. The guests hand money to performeres and it is possible to make the equivalent of six months pay in one evening. But doing so ruins a dancers reputation because she is expected to be “available” to guests after the wedding — for an additional price. One of the worst insults one can hear about a dancer is “she dances at weddings.” Still, some dancers find it difficult to pass up the opportunity to earn such large amounts of money, especially those who may be divorced with children to support.
LR: How much do dancers make?
LVG: As of December, 1993, the average pay was about 45,000 sum (Uzbek currency). But when a chicken costs almost 25,000 sum and a kilo of sausage around 10,000 sum, it becomes apparent that this is not a sufficient wage. And this is only food costs. Clothing is astronomical. So is fabric. Imported materials can go for as much as 40,000 sum per meter.
LR: What kind of costuming materials are available? Have the shortages made things more difficult?
LVG: Uzbekistan is located on the ancient Silk Road, so, not surprisingly, the area produces silk — ikat, chiffon, crepe de Chine, georgette, brocade — but supplies are extremely unpredictable. They can disappear overnight from the government stores which have a virtual monopoly on these textiles. Such unannounced disappearances signal a price hike; the fabrics reappear as soon as the new prices are in place. Increases can be as much as 200%. Sometimes all stores are closed down completely and without warning for weeks at a time.
One learns to be very creative when resources are limited. I used gold-colored metallic subway tokens to create a coin belt with the assistance of an enthusiastic jeweler. The tokens had the right weight and sound; the result was stunning. Unfortunately, the government has switched to plastic tokens, so one more costuming source has vanished.
Velvet, metallics and sequin-cloth have started to turn up in bazaars, thanks to a jet-age variation on the ancient Silk Road. The new national air company Uzbekistan Airways, has opened routes to Turkey, India, and Pakistan. Many individuals have gotten into business by flying to Istanbul, selling Uzbek items in the bazaars, and returning home with suitcases full of scarce consumer goods which they then re-sell in Uzbekistan. (As a result, tourists in Turkey have started bringing home Uzbek items purchased in Istanbul, not knowing they were not of Turkish origin.) This is definitely a small-time sort of operation and not really business as we know it, but it has made some goods more available to the public, even though they are outrageously expensive by local standards.
Thread, zippers, sew-on jewels, sequin, trim and other such supplies are extremely scarce. the “Sequins for Peace” contributions which I brought were received with rejoicing. I saw several costumes which were created from various donations. One American dancer donated a belly dance costume which I helped customize for a dancer in Tashkent. She was absolutely thrilled, and it was great to help her because she was an excellent dancer who had a deep love for Arabic dance. Her debut (in this dance form) was with American-style costuming.
LR: What sort of dance is popular now?
LVG: Uzbek dance has deteriorated. The younger dancers are mixing styles indiscriminately and their costuming has gotten so modern it doesn’t even look Oriental anymore. The old, classical dances are rarely performed. The older women, keepers of the traditional styling, often complain that the younger dancers don’t listen to them or seek them out for consultation. Many admitted that they cannot watch dance on television or attend concerts because they find the dancing of such inferior quality they become upset. Just fifteen years ago there were many first-rate “stars” of Uzbek dance, but the new generation of dancers lacks artists of that calibre.
Arabic dance (the term “belly dance” is not used in Uzbekistan) has become popular but is performed by dancers who have never had a lesson in this style. What makes them different from untrained bellydancers in the U.S. is that these dancers are marvelously trained in other styles such as ballet, character dance and Central Asian dance. They are talented professional dancers; they just don’t know the technique and styling for Arabic dance. The result is pseudo-Arabic dance which combines elements from Uzbek dance, Indian classical dance, and ballet with some very uncontrolled shimmies. But they are eager to learn; they pick up movements very quickly. They have everything else required for Oriental Dance — excellent posture, fluid arms and hands, flexible back bends, dazzling spins, soulful expressiveness and good stage presence. It is very rewarding to work with these women.
LR: What kind of music is popular? What do they dance to?
LVG: With greater cultural contact between Uzbekistan and other Muslim countries, music from Turkey and the Emirates has flooded Tashkent. It is very modern and many Uzbek musicians have begun to copy this style.
Without a doubt, the single most popular music for Arabic dance is Jinuni, a Moroccan song performed by Uzbekistan’s outstanding ethno-pop group, Yalla. Everyone has a choreography to this piece and no major concert is complete without it.
LR: What kind of work space do dancers have?
LVG: The professional ensembles sponsored by the State Philharmonic — such as Shodlik, Zerafshan, and Lyazgi — have had difficulties since the building which housed the Philharmonic was gutted and is now being reconstructed. Companies have had to search for dance space, often settling for places with no mirrors and cramped quarters.
All of the dance studios and concert stages have terrible floors which are warped and full of splinters. This is a result of the practice of sprinkling water on the wood floors to give better traction. Studios lack sound systems, so dancers must carry their cassette players to rehearsals when musicians are not available. And since none of the dancers I knew owned a car, this meant lugging around these heavy tape players on public transport.
LR: How do they promote events? Do they have dance newsletters or magazines?
LVG: Because these state ensembles were supported by the government, they didn’t have to be commercially successful. Advertising is something rather new. Traditionally concerts are promoted with posters.
Right now dancers are fighting for survival; jealousy and rivalry are quite intense. The thought of networking, of co-operating for mutual benefits, would be alien to them. There are some government publications on the arts in general but no grass roots dance publications. It should be remembered that in many ways Uzbekistan is a third world country and very low tech. Communication of all kinds is difficult. Soap and sugar are so scarce they are kept under lock and key.
LR: Did you have language problems?
LVG: No. Although Uzbek is now the state language, Russian still exists as the lingua franca. I am fluent in Russian. I studied Uzbek prior to my visit and continued my lessons there. All the dance classes and rehearsals are conducted in Russian. Ballet classes, quite naturally, were in French and Russian.
LR: What were your dance classes like?
LVG: I had the opportunity to take ballet daily because all professional companies begin their work day with a ballet class. This is then followed by about thirty minutes of spin combinations accompanied by live drumming. After these two sessions, rehearsals begin, also accompanied by live music.
Teachers are very strict and often get quite personal with their comments, attacking the individual instead of simply correcting movement. Young children were quite devastated by this approach, so I went out of my way to teach with humor and love.
When I was working on solo choreography, I worked privately with my teachers who created special dances for me or taught me some classics of the Uzbek solo repertoire.
LR: What did you teach?
LVG: I taught Arabic dance to several professional state ensembles as well as soloists who commissioned choreographies from me. Two pieces I created — a six-person veil dance and a solo veil choreography — were set to music from Steve Flynn’s “Welcome to the Dance” album and marked the first time that Uzbek dancers performed veil work.
I also taught Arabic dance at the Choreographic Institute, but the younger girls kept begging me for “something American.” I had no American dance music with me, so when I was touring Europe in March of 1993, I asked a friend for some Charleston music and brought it back with me to create a choreography for fifteen girls. I designed and paid for the costumes, giving them as a gift to the Choreographic Institute. I also wrote and recorded a corny little song in Country Western style (Country-Eastern?) with lyrics in English about Uzbekistan. We made cowgirl costumes and performed in concerts and on television. For the Uzbeks, it was very exotic.
While in Andizhon as a judge in the National Puppet Theatre Festival, I met a group of gifted students from the puppetry department of Tashkent’s Theatrical Institute. The young men were such talented actors and dancers that they inspired e to choreograph a humorous number — a group bellydance performed by men in harem pants and veils. The setting was the stereotypical harem scene with “handmaidens” waiting upon a “princess.” But these young actors were such good acrobats that we incorporated some pretty wild moves into the piece, such as back flips and handsprings. At one point, the “harem girls” lifted the princess overhead while performing unison hip lifts. They also did splits to the floor while doing shoulder shimmies, jumping up in time to catch the “princess” in a swan dive.
The piece was such a success that the students talked me into creating several other numbers for them, including a hip-hop dance and a comic rendition of “Mustafa.” I would love to bring them to Europe or the United States. Humor needs no translation!
All of the choreographies I created were included in my concert which took place on December 19, 1993, and featured over forty performers in addition to myself. Uzbekistan television filmed and broadcast the entire concert.
LR: What was your concert like?
LVG: Since my concert took place just a few days before I returned home, it was designed to be a culmination of all I had learned — a “final exam,” if you will. People continually asked what I was doing in Uzbekistan at such a difficult time, and even became a little suspicious of my motives. My concert was my way of explaining why I had come. More importantly, it was my gift to the people of Uzbekistan — an expression of love and appreciation for being allowed to share their culture. Although there were some serious moments, the concert was light-hearted and laced with humor. In such stressful times, people need to laugh.
I performed ten pieces: several Uzbek numbers as well as Crimean Tatar, Persian, Uighur, Arabic and Russian Gypsy dances. Official state dance companies, established soloists, students from the Choreographic Institute and the Theatrical Institute performed choreographies and skits which I had created.
The members of the audience were a virtual “Who’s Who” of the Uzbek artistic community. Fortunately, I had no time to be nervous because of the whirlwind costume changes I had to make. After the final number and curtain call, no one would leave, so I left. I had already started to change back in my dressing room when a voice on the intercom requested that “Gray Khanum” return to the stage. When I returned, famous directors, choreographers and artists started to come up on the stage indicating they wanted to make speeches. This is precisely what I had taken out of my concert — the long, drawn-out speeches which typify Uzbek concerts. I thought I had outsmarted them by directing my own concert “American-style,” but these people wanted speeches, and they got their way.
LR: How did you get the name “Gray Khanum?” Did you chose it for yourself?
LVG: It was given to me. The word “khanum” is an honorific usually attached to a person’s first name, so technically I should be Laurel Khanum. However, back in 1985, I did a special New Year’s Eve broadcast with the famous singer Sherali Juraev. “Laurel” was just too hard for him to pronounce so when he sang his special composition about me, I became “Gray Khanum.” To this day, that is how I am known to the people of Uzbekistan.
LR: Tell us about some of your personal experiences.
LVG: If I told some of my most dramatic experiences, people might not believe me — or I might not be able to return to Uzbekistan since some of the parties involved are highly placed officials or powerful mafioso. Suffice it so say that I was living under extremely difficult, stressful conditions in a country undergoing major political, social, and economic upheaval. It was quite a contrast from the pampered treatment I had received during visits under the Soviets.
One of the most spiritual, uplifting experiences I had occurred while I was in Kokand (a town in the Ferghana Valley) on a television shoot. A female poet introduced me to a group of older women who sang and danced. They were very simple village women but their dancing was fiery and beautiful. It looked unlike the modern versions of Ferghana dance and reminded me more of the style of Tamara Khanum — a logical connection since she was born in the Ferghana Valley.
After performing some light-hearted songs and dances, the women began a zikr ritual. Their chanting was so powerful that I felt my heart catch in my throat and I began to cry. Several of the women achieved trance state. I then performed a zar for them, and they cried. Then we all cried. But we all felt healed afterwards, as if a great burden had been lifted from our shoulders.
The following day I was invited to another zikr. This one took place at the royal mausoleum and was held in remembrance of the women’s mothers. This, too, was a beautiful ceremony in which I participated. The women sang a farewell song to me: “We, the old callandars, bless you, the young callandar.” (Callandar is a term referring to a kind of mystic.) It is tragic to think this tradition is dying out.
LR: Did you perform much in Uzbekistan?
LVG: As I mentioned before, I made many television appearances, especially in connection with special holidays, such as International Women’s Day. I also performed at receptions for Union of Artists and appeared as a soloist in dance concerts. I represented the United States at Tashkent’s first “East-West” International Theatre Festival. But my most exciting performances were part of Uzbekistan’s Independence Day celebrations.
LR: Tell us more about that.
LVG: On August 31, 1992, Uzbekistan celebrated its first year of independence with the most elaborate concert I have ever experienced. Disneyland would have been challenged to equal it. It began with a pageant of historical costumes, including warriors of Tamerlane. Actors portrayed famous poets and leaders. A caravan, complete with camels and horsemen, depicted the ancient Silk Road. Representing more contemporary times were paratroopers and tanks and a military drill. There were tight-rope walkers, trampoline artists, and ballet dancers.
I performed a mass choreography with about 150 dancers — all members of Uzbekistan’s professional dance companies. I was the only “foreign devil” and the other dancers thought I was more than slightly mad to participate since the rehearsals were so grueling. It was the hottest part of the summer and rehearsals took place on the shadeless, open Independence Square (which used to be named for Lenin). How hot was it? Well, during the rehearsals for the second Independence Day Celebration in 1994, the barrett in my hair melted! It was quite a mess to get out of my hair. And although I am a redhead, the ends of my hair have turned very blonde.
LR: Is it difficult to travel in Uzbekistan? Would it be hard for American Dancers to study there?
LVG: At the moment, it is just about impossible. Currently Uzbekistan is not issuing visas within the United States. Dancers can buy a tourist package that goes through Moscow and get a tourist visa through Russia. Tourists must stay in the Intourist hotel. In Tashkent, rates are $160 per night and the rooms are far from luxurious. If one wishes to stay in a home, one must register with government officials within 48 hours of arrival and pay a fee — now more than $200. Hosts and guests may be harrassed by police.
Receiving dance instruction presents other problems. Language is an obvious barrier. The best choreographers are quite busy during the day and transportation in the evening is difficult, sometimes dangerous. Uzbekistan is a nation in transition; all the old structures are crumbling and have yet to be replaced. I would love to arrange small, specialized tours for dancers which would solve all these problems, but I am still looking for reliable partners on the Uzbek side.
LR: Overall, would you say you had a good time there? Would you go back?
LVG: Uzbekistan is not the place to go if you are only looking for a “good time.” My experience was intense, even soul shattering at times. I was challenged on all levels, especially physically, and often became violently ill from food poisoning. (I lost over 40 pounds.)
But I do not regret my time spent there and intend to return this year — but not for such a prolonged period. My primary focus at the present is to share what I have learned. These are exquisite dance forms which are presently in jeopardy in their place of origin. Teaching them to others is a way of ensuring their survival.
Laura Rose is the twelve-year-old daughter of Seattle’s Delilah. She made her belly dance debut at the 1994 Visionary Dance Retreat. Laura Rose has written several plays and wrote, acted in, and directed a screen play version of Freedom’s Crossing. www.thelaurarose.com