Samarkand Adventure

The Sharq Taronalari International Festival

by Laurel Victoria Gray

This is part one of a two part series.

An unexpect ed adventure

Be careful what you wish for—you just may get it. I should have thought about this when I tied my ribbon on the Uzbek prayer tree during our closing ritual at the Central Asian Dance Camp in Santa Fe in July, 1997. My wish was the usual one—that I return to Uzbekistan. It was fulfilled with alarming speed.

Be careful what you wish for…. No sooner had Travis returned from taking the last camper to the airport, no sooner had I declared that I was looking to a few months free from hectic travel, no sooner had we made our plans for my remaining time in Santa Fe, than we discovered the message on Travis’ answering machine. It was an urgent call for me from the Uzbek Embassy: “You are a judge at the Sharq Taronalari (Melodies of the East) International Festival in Samarkand. All expenses will be paid from the Uzbek side. You must leave in ten days.” I was stunned. This would be my tenth trip to Uzbekistan, and the ninth one at the invitation of an official Uzbek entity, but the velocity of my wish fulfillment left me staring into space. “I don’t believe it,” I kept muttering to Travis. “I do,” she replied. “I am so happy for you that I feel like I am going with you.” Her words were prophetic because when I returned to Washington D.C. to apply for my visa, I discovered the official letter of invitation had included me and a guest. I called Travis: “Looks like you are going with me after all.” We now had just a week to prepare.

I should have become accustomed to the element of magical surprise which characterizes my trips to Uzbekistan. After all, my 1992 invitation from Tashkent’s Bolshoi theater of Opera and Ballet had been made possible by flying on a Soviet military transport plane—the Antonov 124 (world’s second largest aircraft—as I accompanied a shipment of humanitarian aid destined for Tashkent. Other invitations had materialized in equally astonishing fashion. At times it seems as if every aspect of my odyssey into Central Asian culture has been governed by kismet.

Kizlarkhon Dustmukhamedova. Photo: courtesy of Uzbek Dance and Culture Society

I recalled the 1979 concert which completely changed the direction of my life and set my feet upon a path which would forever tie my personal fate with that of a then obscure Soviet republic. Members of Uzbekistan’s celebrated Bakhor Ensemble had come to Seattle, along with guest soloist Kizlarkhon Dustmukhamedova. Kizlarkhon performed a solo which burned itself into my memory and gave birth to a wish. I had wished for dancing lessons so I could master the intricate gestures of Uzbek dance. The very challenge of seeking instruction in this elusive form had brought me other lessons—lessons about friendship, betrayal, loyalty, deceit, discipline, integrity, jealousy, honesty, disillusionment, love, and spirituality. My true lessons had been in the dance of life, and it was these lessons which brought a rich poignancy to the dances. The movements, no matter how perfectly executed, become empty gestures when the heart is not engaged. For Central Asian dance radiates outward for the heart; it is as much about sorrow as it is about joy. And it is the experience of sorrow which makes the joy more precious. Be careful what you wish for

Arrival in Samarkand

On the plane from New York, Travis and I discover that our fellow travelers in the so-called “American delegation” were famous Bukharan Jewish musicians who had emigrated from Uzbekistan and now made their home in Queens, New York. They were special guests of the festival and were returning to their homeland to share their considerable musical talents. The “Americans” immediately fell into the role of acting like our hosts, extending that famous Central Asian hospitality even while we were in transit. Travis and I appreciated having their watchful eye on us during our travels, especially since we were so exhausted.

We arrived in Tashkent in the middle of the night where we were met at the airport with flowers and refreshments, then given a police escort to the Hotel Uzbekistan. We noticed signs along the road from the airport greeting us as participants in the Sharq Taronalari festival. At the hotel itself, huge banners in Uzbek and English proclaimed the festival. We felt most welcome.

That afternoon we flew to Samarkand and were besieged by reporters as soon as we set foot on the tarmac. I was asked what I thought of the festival—a difficult question to answer since I had only just arrived! Still exhausted from traveling, we appreciated the lovely new Afrosiab Hotel where all the participants were staying. I walked out onto the balcony of our room to gaze out at Tamerlane’s tomb and heard my name being called. I noticed some men waving to me from another balcony; they were members of Uzbekistan’s beloved ethno-pop group, Yalla. In existence for over twenty-five years, Yalla was Central Asia’s equivalent of the Beatles. I waved back, then quickly ducked back into the room groaning a complaint to Travis. After going nearly three days with out a decent night’s sleep, I didn’t feel up to seeing anyone—not reporters, not even friends—until I got some rest. We both decided to turn in early for some beauty sleep.

The following morning Travis and I met with Arslan, a young Tadjik who had been assigned to me as an interpreter. I was surprised to learn of this, since I did not need one, but then realized he would be a great escort for Travis since I would often be tied up and unable to go places with her. The three of us set out on a sunny morning after breakfast after I had answered some questions from the now ubiquitous journalists who haunted the vicinity of the large marble fountain in the hotel’s lobby.

The city of Samarkand had greatly changed since my last trip. Old houses surrounding historic monuments had been razed to more completely reveal the gems of Central Asian architecture such as Gur-I-Emir—Tamerlane’s tomb. New parks had been planted with a statue of the enthroned Tamerlane as a centerpiece. Finding the conqueror Tamerlane too agressive for my taste, I preferred places linked to the astronomer prince Ulugbeg, who turned his thoughts skyward searching for the mysteries of the cosmos. The site of his observatory which overlooks the city of Samarkand is one of my favorite stops.

Pyramids in the Registan

We wandered over to the Registan to watch preparations for the opening program which promised to be memorable. The ceremony was under the able hand of Bakhodir Yuldashev, a gifted director who excels at those huge, “cast of thousands” festivities made so common during the Soviet era. I have known Bakhodir for many years; it was he who gave me the use of his theater for my 1993 Tashkent concert. I knew that we were in store for a visual treat and, with an outdoor stage built in the center of the Registan—the architectural heart of Samarkand— the festival events would be, quite literally, monumental.

At last the time for the opening ceremonies arrived and we returned to the Registan to hear the opening strains of the festival theme song , “Salom Samarkand,” composed by Dilorom Omonulaeva. The program theme was the Great Silk Road and depicted the many diverse ethnic groups, conquerors, and religions which had left their legacy in the region. The staging contained some breathtaking effects, such as the raising of the Himalayan mountains and a Tibetan demon dance. At one rather curious point in the program, giant pyramids also appeared on stage along with about a dozen young men dressed as pharaohs. But even more confusing than this plethora of kings was the appearance of a belly dancer standing on a giant tray carried on the shoulder of pseudo-Arabs. The musical choice was equally anachronistic—an Egyptian waltz sung by an Uzbek vocalist. I glanced at the Egyptian judge during this bizarre display and noticed that he was not amused.

Travis felt as though these outlandish scenes were nothing less than the fulfillment of some ancient prophecy:

When the mountains of Tibet come to Samarkand

When the Pyramids of Egypt appear in the Registan…

Then what? Peace shall reign on Earth? Tamerlane shall return? We could not come up with an appropriate prediction.

Still, many of the vignettes, set against the dramatic backdrop of the Registan, were most impressive, and the historical costuming worn by the supernumeraries made it easy to forget at times that we were in the twentieth century. Lengths of ribbons hung from wires strung up between the roofs of the Sher Dor and Ulugbeg medressahs (Islamic buildings), creating a giant loom that could be manipulated at times to depict weaving.

In spite of creative staging, the dance sequences were sadly lacking. Dancers wore pastel costumes, colored like after-dinner mints, in the maqom that did not suit the severe elegance of the classical Uzbek music. Other costumes, sewn from solid sequin cloth, glittered so brightly that the dresses, instead of the dancers, stole the focus. Where stately, dignified movements were called for, the dancers frenetically rushed around the stage. Instead of eloquent gestures and sculptural poses which could have conjured up images from old miniature paintings, the choreography was too busy. In addition to the professional dancers, scores of teenage girls from amateur ensembles had been employed as moving decorations. They were everywhere—even the second-story niches of the medressahs—waving their arms in accordance with secret signals of a dance conductor hidden out of sight of the audience. As the evening wore on, the girls wore out and flailed less energetically. Smoke machines and laser lights added to the sensory overload. As a finale, fireworks exploded from the roof on the central medressah, terrifying the local bird population. Travis felt the presentation eerily reminiscent of the half-time show at an American football game. I could only agree.

After the opening ceremony, we were ushered into the Ulugbeg medressah for a banquet. Decorative basins with mirrors stood near the entrance so we could wash our hands. The inner courtyard was covered with dark red kilims. Adding a surrealistic element, a chamber orchestra played Mozart as we entered, later switching to the theme from The Godfather. Guests were seated at large round tables covered with white linen. Travis and I discovered that we were to be seated with the Pakistani delegation who turned out to be the spiritual cheerleaders of the festival. Ever exuberant, they would always be the first to leap to their feet, chanting and dancing. The jewel of this group was Shazia Khushk, an exquisitely beautiful young woman with huge liquid eyes. She was a beloved singer in her native country and her particular genre was specifically designed to lift peoples’ spirits. We could not have found a jollier set of dinner companions.

The courtyard now hummed with a chorus of foreign languages, but I somehow caught an announcement in Uzbek which mentioned “a special guest dancer from America.” I noticed that the chamber orchestra had left the stage and Central Asia’s ever popular ethno-pop group Yalla was now at the mike. They announced that I would now dance—without having bothered to speak to me beforehand! Fortunately they had chosen music we had performed together before, so I stepped into the center of the courtyard for a formal Uzbek salaam before beginning the dance. I now no longer regretted the earlier delay caused by donning my silk costume beaded with stars and moons. Ulugbeg would have appreciated it. The spectacle of an American performing Uzbek dance in his medressah seemed to catch the fancy of the guests, so when I finished the piece, Faruk—the lead singer—signaled me to invite others to join.

Soon I had lured a regular United Nations out into the center of the courtyard and found myself surrounded by smiling people wearing their national costumes. A young Kazakh singer said he had been a long-time fan of mine and had always wanted to dance with Gray Khanum. The Korean delegation watched me closely for cues as to the appropriate dance movements, so I gave them the same sort of crash course in Uzbek dance as is generally awarded all foreign guests. I turned to discover myself dancing with a tall Mongolian man performing eerie Shamanistic movements which I tried to imitate. I turned again to dance with a smiling Turkish woman wearing a red costume. Once more I turned to discover Travis and our Pakistani fellows ecstatically dancing in a circle. This was surely paradise on earth, to dance with my brothers and sisters from the far corners of the planet. Every heart was light and I was glad that Travis was with me: otherwise I might have later doubted that such a glorious scene was possible.

We walked back home that night under the clear Samarkand sky. The lobby of our hotel, the Aforsiab, was a veritable Babel, brightened with costumes of every hue. And tonight was only the beginning.

Ladies and gentlemen of the jury

As our scheduled unfolded the next day, I learned that the adjudicated concerts would take place each evening in the Registan. Daytime would be filled by press conferences and other activities. The jury was to be somewhat sequestered with the rest of the festival participants, taking all our meals in a luxurious private banquet room. While I was sorry to lose access to the democratic spirit of the large dining room, I realized that the jury had serious and difficult work ahead. The members of the jury were specialists with impressive credentials who hailed from several different countries: Fahti Abdel Rahman (Egypt), Izzat Oza (Turkey), Shanta Singh (India), Soraya Mansor (Malaysia), Han Muin Hi (South Korea) Syan Yan (China), Angelina Jung (Germany), and Rustam Abdullaev (Uzbekistan). The chairman of the jury, Harumi Kashiba and the Unesco representative, Noriko Aikawa, both came from Japan. I was to represent the United States. As we got to know each other better during the course of the festival, I felt truly honored to work with such people of integrity and grew quite found of these remarkable individuals.

Our first hurdle came when we learned that each country would be given only ten minutes to perform in competition. For Eastern music this is almost unthinkable. Shanta Singh explained that in Indian classical music it took at least an hour of performing to warm up sufficiently. I campaigned for a longer time allowance, insisting that we lengthen the evening concerts accordingly. In the end, the performances were extended to twenty minutes per country.

Our second challenge was to decide upon the criteria for judging. My own experience of having been adjudicated in competition came in handy. I suggested that we evaluate technical merit, artistic impression and the appropriateness of the selection within the genre. The last category was especially critical since there were such a range of styles to be presented: classical, folklore, and contemporary. They could not objectively be judged side by side, but only fairly compared within the framework of a specified genre.

A renaissance of handicrafts

Even with the responsibilities of my work as a member of the jury, there was time to explore Samarkand during the day, before the evening concerts. A delightful discovery on this trip to Samarkand was encountering the obvious renaissance of traditional folk arts and crafts. In the past, handmade items, especially traditional clothing for the dance, were rare and difficult to acquire. But Samarkand was now fairly bursting at the seams with colorful examples of local craftsmanship. The elegant fringed silk scarves traditionally part of Central Asian women’s head covering could be seen in dazzling abundance and a delicious array of rich colors. Prices, of course, varied according to the bartering skill of the purchaser. Sumptuous velvet robes hung from the doorways of small shops, a happy reminder that the ancient art of zarduzi, gold thread embroidery, had not died out. Even the narrow braid which trimmed the edges of pants cuffs and robes—once nearly replaced by lurex thread trim from Pakistan—once again appeared in the bazaars.

Travis and I reviewed our shopping lists, which included wide embroidered sleeve cuffs for our traditional Bukharan costumes. We happened upon a shop featuring needlework by a Tadjik woman who understood exactly what we wanted. She took our orders and when we returned to pick up the sleeve ends we purposely overpaid her. “We understand the value of your work,” Travis explained to the surprised but pleased woman. She was happy to know her needlework would make it the concert stage in America, and we promised to send her photographs.

In addition to embroidery and weaving, we found lovely ceramics, miniature painting, woodcarving, and metal work. Even the exquisite tillyakosh (golden eyebrow) crown essential for classical dances had made a comeback from near extinction.

The state of the dance

I found it puzzling that while traditional crafts were thriving, traditional dance seemed to be suffering. I learned of major changes in the dance scene. The Shodlik Ensemble, run by Kadir Muminov and Dilyafruz Djabbarova, had been renamed “Uzbekistan”—the same name as Kadir’s short-lived independent ensemble back in the early 1990s’. Three of the professional companies—Bakhor, Lazgi, and Tanovar—had lost their sovereignty and had been subsumed into a single entity called “Uzbekraqs.” “Uzbekraqs” was to specialize in something they called “Uzbek stage dance”—whatever that meant. After all, stage dance was precisely what innovators like Isakar Akilov and Mukarram Turganbaeyeva had developed back in the 1950s. They had taken traditional elements and adapted them to Western proscenium stage presentation. Even though this meant less individual styling for the dancers with identical costuming and intricate stage patterns, it still retained its Eastern flavor. What was this new stage dance?

The dancers themselves were exquisitely trained with solid technique, but, with few exceptions, the heart-rending soulfulness of traditional Uzbek dance was absent. The old classical dances like Munadzhat and Tanovar, which layer nuances on top of subtleties, are seldom performed. It seemed to me that everything had become fast and flashy, like an MTV video. Choreographies were set to contemporary ethno-pop music instead of traditonal Uzbek music. Concerts in Tashkent confirmed this disturbing trend. Dancers whom I knew to be excellent and inspired performers seemed reduced to glittering decorations for singers as they darted about the stage. I could not help but wonder, if I were only now encountering Uzbek dance, would I find it so captivating?

I recalled the exquisite styling of Kizlarkhon, my first Uzbek teacher. When she taught me Munazhdat, she explained that it was an internal monologue. The dancer must actually hold certain thoughts in her mind as she performs the dance. Although I did not comprehend it at the time, I realize now that this is a most effective way of bringing pure emotion into a dance performance so it is not simply a gymnastic exercise. This spirituality is transmitted to the audience. When Uzbek Dance and Culture Society and the Seattle Soviet Theater Arts Exchange brought Kizlarkhon and the Uzbekistan Folklore Ensemble to the U.S. in 1990, the dancers won standing ovations from capacity crowd audiences. Dance critic Carole Beers, writing for the Seattle Times, found Kizlarkhon’s “refined, ultra-feminine dancing” to be “particularly memorable.”

But this evasive inner quality was exactly what I found missing from the current crop of young dancers. Perhaps most would not notice the change. Most of the girls were dazzling beauties. Their physical qualities, flashy costumes, and ability to move as only a trained dancer can move would distract many. But it left me cold. I surprised myself by actually feeling bored while watching the dances—something which never happened in the past.

To be continued next issue.

Laurel Victoria Gray is an internationally acclaimed dancer, scholar, instructor and choreographer who has taught and performed throughout the United States, Canada, Europe, Central Asia, and Australia. Her articles have appeared in many publications including the Oxford University Press International Encyclopedia of Dance, and the World Encyclopedia of Contemporary Theatre, and Dance Magazine. She teaches Persian dance at the Iranian Community School and is Artistic Director of the Silk Road Dance Company.

You can learn more about Central Asian culture and dance by visiting

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