Son of the Mountain Folk by Raisa Akhmadova
It is hard to convey the power of his dancing in words. People call him the “Chaliapin of the dance”, “Paganini of the dance”, “Stradivarius ıf the dance”, and it isn not surprising. Everywhere people love him as they love sunshine and beauty. He gets round after round of applause wherever he dance: in Moscow theatres or in distant Brazil, in a tiny mountain village or sun-bathed India. Who is he, this wizard who has come to know the spirit of the dance, who is this man about whom legens spring up?
The mountain-dwellers in his part of the country refer affectionately to him as “our Makhmud.” Makhmud Esambayev is a whole world of images, characters, emotions, thoughts and passions.
Chechen-Ingushetia will seem familiar to you, reader, even if you have never been there. Gren strips of woodland pleasent with the smell of trees and the aromatic wild strawberry, and with the sound of springs bubbling unseen. The water in them looks black, pine needles float lazily on the surface, but if you bend right down and take a sip you will probably be sorry that you have never before tasted this life-giving beverage. And those mountains of the Chechen-Ingushetia! They are slashed by a multitude of gorges, with rivers roaring like monsters in their depths. For a second you halt on the brink of a dizzy precipice and take a great lungful of the surprisingly fragrant mountain air.
You have in fact known that happy mountain land, dear reader, if you have seen the magic dances of Makhmud Esambayev.
…Like huge peas of the stars hung low over the mountain village of old Ataghi, hemmed in by jagged mountain tops. Slender poplars ran down the banks of the never-silent Argun. Resilient sticks crackled in the fire. The flames flared up and it seemed that the fiery tongues would envelope the fragile body of the little boy at any moment. The old musician threw dry twigs into the fire from time to time and sang: “I see the mist stealing down from the mountain tops and settling on the plain-tree leaves. I see the pink clouds awakening above the mountains and a young eagle bathing in them of a morning…”
Makhmud sat cross-legged, looking into the starry heavens. How beautiful they are, those stars! But there was one, the very brightest, the very furthest, that fascinated the mountain dweller. Can it be my star? He wondered excitedly, if only I can reach it…
This old musician, whose fame had spread far outside his mountain village, loved Makhmud dearly. He often took the boy with him and willingly sang him songs about legendary heroes. All life Makhud was to remember that quiet voice, the dark hands with prominent veins and the grey, proudly-held head of singer.
The Argun was roaring on, dislodging white stones. From the sandy bank rose a pungent smell of cool mint.
The first incomprehensible sense of anxiety filled his heart. If only he could tell of all this in dancing… But were there movements capable of expressing the sound of early morning? One could hardly tell about these heavenly expanses, the serrated mountains, the Rolling hills covered wih nut trees. Could one really convey the Argun’s restless song?
Away in the distance twinkled the lights of the town. They would vanish, then flare up again. They had been troubling his imagination for a long time. What kind of place was it, this town, flooded with light? Probably the lights would blind eye, there were so many of them. It was a long, hard dusty road, scorched by the August sun. Ahead the vastness of the sky merged with the earth. The wheels of the cart, laden with a handful of domestic utensils, squeaked quietly. The father walked silently after the cart. The mother wiped her tear. Their native village was left behind. Who knew what awaited them in the town?
The town of Grozny gave Makhmud a noisy greetings. The boy didn’t have time to see everything, to look round at the many townspeople, to keep an eye on the traffic, to admire tall buildings. Everything was new for him.
Makhmud’s family settled in a little house in Poselyanskaya Street. The younger inhabitants of this street were fated to be first viewers of the first performances given by the young dancer. It began like this.
The circus came to Grozny, an done evening Makhmud went to see it. A thin little boy wearing a shining costume, wriggled on the arena, like a snake. It looked to Makhmud as if the boy’s body were made of rubber, otherwise how could he tie himself up in the knots, and then suddenly straighten out again?
“I am going to learn to do everything that he did,” he said, “I shall become an artist! I’ve made up my mind!”
“I shall never allow you besmirch the name of our clan,” his father shouted. “I won’t allow it! It’s not for a man to earn his bread by amusing other people!” But neither his father’s ban nor the endless lamentations of his mother had any effect. He organised a “theatre” in the courtyard of the house next door and time and again the girls and boys of Poselyanskaya Street would gather there in secret from the adults to watch their friend dancing.
“Bravo, bravo Makhmud!” they shouted.
Shy and happy, he would bow awkwardly to his familiar “public”.
The old maple covered the small square in front of the house with shade and from time to time yellow leaves would fall from the branches. Alisultan, Makhmud’s father, sat here sunk in reflection. For a long time he had had a scrap of land, and with his wife Bikatu had toiled on it from dawn to dusk. One day his land was taken in payment of a debt. He sent a petition to tsar’s ministers, and all his carefully hoarded savings went to draft court documents, for he could neither read nor write.
The revolution came to the soil of Chechen-Ingushetia with the thunder of guns and the smoke of battle. The sun of freedom rose over the valleys and gorges, its rays penetrated the dark hovels of the mountain people.
At one of the first village assemblies Alisultan was elected chairman of the village Soviet. With first-hand knowledge of the injustice of tsarist regime, he cherished the dream that his son would become a judge.
But even engrained respect fort he authority of his parents could not break Makhmud’s burning wish to become a dancer. The conflict with his father lasted for many years, but Makhmud went on stubbornly working to achieve his purpose. He used to g oto dancing classes, working with great determination and putting his heart and sould into it.
During the war, at the age of sixteen, he appeard with a group of performers close to the front line, travelled to mountain villages in slush and cold, not stopping to rest, and danced for workers in the factory shops. At last he danced on the Professional stage, joining the company of the Alma-Ata Opera Theatre.
In every man’s life there are events which remain in his memory forever. Makhmud looks upon the Moscow Youth Festival in 1957 as one such event. Lev Komarovsky, the choreographer, accepted Makhmud in his home like one of the family. Elenora Grikurova worked with him to prepare the Indian dance “Golde God”. Alexandra Gryaznova and Mariette Alberingo helped with a Spanish dance, and Tamara Zeifert and Igor Moiseyev with a dance with knives.
The seven months he spent in Moscow brought Makhmud Esambayev two gold medals: he won awards at the USSR and international dancing contests. His name began to appear with increasing frequency on the posters, and number ıf his fans mounted up.He was becoming famous.
Talent and temperament.. As far as Makhmud is concerned one has to add: great efforts. Extraordinarily hard-working, with great will powe and dedication to art- there are vital qualities of his talent.
Complex art demans rigorous, even harsh discipline. To make a dance unique, each movement has to be repated hundres of times over. What difficulties Makhmud had to overcome before the harsh discipline of his lessons was transformed into its opposite – freedom! That freedom withput which superb artistry is unthinkable in a dancer. Esambayev’s specific, original style of dancing began to win increasing recognization. His dancing is emotional, precise and classical. The dances of countries all over the world pass before the audience in a fantastic pageant. Different rhythims, different colouring, different times and nations, and in each dance – whether Chechen-Ingush, Spanish, Indian, Jewish, Negro or Tajik one not only sees a specific style of the people has been caught and kept alive.
Once after Makhmud performed a Spanish dance well-known Spanish dancer Marietta Alberingo commented: “Makhmud, you were born to dance in Castille and Aragon…”
This praise was a great tribute.
It is a true that Soviet dancer not only has a wide range and a great gifts of transforming himself into different characters. There is something else. Esambayev’s dance Express and reflect all spheres of people’s emotional life. To use the words of Stanislavsky, Makhmud Esambayev has brought “the life of the human spirit” to the world of dance.
The plane was flying at the great height over the Carribbean. On the board were stars of Soviet balet on their way to Caracas, capital of Venezuela.
The theatre in Caracas was packed. Makhmud was profoundly agitated; fort he first time in his life he was performing abroad. He felt keenly that people would look upon him as a part of his homeland.
That evening he danced “Golden Gold”, based on highly expressive mime, and unusual fluidity and grace of the arm movements. The dance makes considerable use of motifs from ancient Indian folklore, telling of the rains, of the Ganges, of the blues god of night and the golden god of day. In his dancing Makhmud spoke of eternity, of absolute peace, of the aternation of day and night. He dances a bacchanalia of the elements run amok.
Suddenly he slowly sank to the ground, taking up the pose of seated god, and did it so smoothly that it was impossible to notice any one seperate movement.
“Fantastic!” spectators called out as they applauded.
The triumphal tour of the Soviet dancers through Latin America was coming to an end, behind them were Venezuela, Columbia, Mexico and Cuba, thousands of kilometres, a mass of delighted reviews, endless handshakes, flowers and fond farewells. Ahead were Brazil, Chile and Argentina, where would be more concerts, more meetings with more spectators.
Makhmud will never forget his meeting with the magnificant Brazilian dancer Mercedes Baptista. With her small company she toured America and Europe and their performance always drew an enthusiastic response. As a token of her respect and admiration Mercedes staged fır Makhmud the dance “Macumba”.
It was a small temple 45 kilometres from Rio de Janerios, built by Jose Gomez, the finest performer of ritual dances in Brazil, at his own expense. Once a year the “Macumba” is danced in his temple. But this time it was danced twice – an exception made in honour of the Soviet artists.
It was seven o’clock in the evening and Makhmud was waiting eagerly fort he ritual to begin. A priest come out with Jose Gomez. Young, well proportioned and extremely lithe, Jose was wearing a white shirt and a grey trousers. He began to sing and through some iner doors people came out holding one another by the hand. That evening Makhmud Esambayev danced the “Macumba” with Jose Gomes. When they said goodbye to Makhmud, his Brazilian friends presented him with a leopard skin costume and a huge hat made from the skin of the anaconda.
The Soviet dancers spent seventy days in Latin America, and among them Makhmud Esambayev, son of the mountain folk. One hundred and forty thousand people applauded them.
Grozny was welcoming its favourite. Each trip Makhmud makes his native haunts becomes a kind of festival. The big auditorium was packed to overflowing. People were impatiently waiting for his appearance.
The curtain rose to show a bright moonlit night. The audence was hushed. Suddenly the silence broken by an unfamiliar melody. Makhmud began to dance a fiery dance of incantation, a dance of self-immolation- the “Macumba”.
Disaster dogs the Indians. Only the sorcerer can free them of ill-luck. He appears at night, dressed in a leopard skin. The feathers of his head-dress gleam in the twilights; his face smeared with blood, he impersonates the evil spirit, deceiving it with this likeness. Wild, rushing music is heard and the sorcerer begins to dance. During the dance the evil spirit enters his body and kils him. With the sorcerer the evil spirit dies, too, and the tribe is saved from misfortune. The “Macumba” brings happiness to the house which it is danced.
The entralling expressiveness of this dance, the incredible intensity of man’s dramatic struggle with the evil spirit which has taken possession of his body gripped the audience. They couldn’t tear their eyes from the stage, afraid tos tir or take a breath even when dance was finished. But one minute passed, than another, and everyone leapt to their feet to demonstrate their delight and gratitude at the unique talent of the dancer.
Makhmud Esambayev lives through this rhythmic, exotic ritual dance in the way a dramatic actor lives through his part in a play. This is what makes the dance unusual, unique. “Makhmud Esambayev is a kinsman of the god of dance,” wrote newspaper after he had danced the “Macumba” in Brazil.
In all countries where Makhmud has performed he has displayed an interest in folk and ritual dances. He studies them, introduces them into his repertoire and shows them to audiences in other countries.
“Are you staying here for long, Makhmud?” I asked.
“This time I’ll try tos tay longer,” he replied with an enigmatic smile. He was scheduled to appear in the film “I Shall Dance”.
We walked unhurriedly out of the theatre. The summer night had descended upon the town, and unusually mild breeze was blowing from the banks of the Suznha, scarcely ruffling the leaves of the trees. Now and again we met some late passers-by. Recognising Makhmud, they would stop and follow his progress with affectionate eyes. And he, handsome and lithe, walked in his gareceful way through the town which once upon a time in his childhood had son fascinated him.
“I have been in many countries and seen many beautiful cities,” Makhmud said, “but I wouldn’t change Grozny for anywhere else in the world. Wherever I have been, I have always felt nostalgic for Chechen-Ingushetia,” he said with a smile. His blue eyes recalled the sky of his own land, and a trim, upstanding figure, with a waist small enough to arouse envy – a young horseman from an old mountain legend.
That evening he and I talked a lot about the original culture of our small people – of thw wonderful melodies of our folk songs and dances, of the composers Alexander Dhalebsky, Umar Beksultanov and Adnan Shakhbulatov, of the asbug Idris Tsitskiev; of Zulai Sardalova, soloist in the State Ensemble of Song and Dance, and many others.
The mountain village of Old Ataghi lloked festive and young. The gathering gloom laid a dark shawl with miracle stars on the sharp mountain summits. No one stays at home on an evening like this – neither the elderly savan tor the young and daring horseman. In the club a film was to be shown about their compatriot. The old people stil remember Makhmud’s father Alisultan, recall how the little boy grazed cattle, ran along the precipitous mountain tacks, and caught trout in the rushing Argun.
Since then the mountain tops have more than once put on their shaggy white caps of snow, more than once have nut trees bloomed.
In the noisy, brightly-lit theatre he audience saw upon the screen Parisians applauding a Soviet dancer, a Chechen from the little village of Old Ataghi.
Makhmud delibaretly opened his programme with the Lezginka. The fresh breeze from the mountains burst into the crowded hall, the roar of mountain rivers was heard, the audience saw the mountain waterfalls iridescent in the sun’s rays. The dancer was performing a poem about his joy on returning to his homeland. After a long absence a young man, visits the places dear to his heart. He walks along familiar paths and feels the familiar coolness of the forest. Suddenly he comes upon a spring. He bends down to it eagerly, a tear running down the young man’s cheek. The curse of an old vendetta threatens him with death here. He cannot enter his mountain village, yet he cannot make himself leaves it forever. Beter death on his native soil that eternal parting from it. Each movement of this dance evokes in the hearts and minds of the spectators a whole world of thoughts, feeling and associations –joyful, sorowful, but always poetic.
Now the camera switches to Makhmud as he stands by the window admiring view of Paris. The city is beautiful, magnificant. The Seine leisurely carries its waters to the sea. Peircing a light flock of snow-white clouds, the sun’s rays tinge Notre Dame with gold. The awakening city is enchanting in its mysterious beauty.
Makhmud says goodbye to Paris, to a city which has been captivated by his artistry. “Eys that speak”, “flying hands” – these are typical of the comments in the Paris newspapers. The plane heads for Moscow. Just a few hours seperate Makhmud from his homeland. Relaxing in his seat, he gives himself up to pleasant reminiscences.
Once a reporter in New York had asked him: “Say, Mr.Makhmud, has art a homeland?”
The reply had been laconic: “You can’t be successful in the arts without being rooted in your homeland”.
The truth of these words of Makhmud’s has one numerous occassions been borne out by the wisdom of his talent, by his unusual life-story. Makhmud Esambayev, fro the mountain village old Old Ataghi, is now a People’s Artist of the Chechen-Ingush ASSR, a People of the RSFSR, a deputy to the Supreme Soviet of his republic. He has won prizes in a USSR contest and in two international competitions at youth festivals, holds the Order of the Red Banner of Labour, and has become the pride of his people.
The pleasent voice of the air hostes announced: “We are approaching the capital of our homeland, Moscow…”
Makhmud glanced down thourgh the round porthole. In the sunshine the cupolas of ancient cathedrals shone gold. New building sites flashed beneath the wings.
The newst day Makhmud gave a concert in the Tchaikovsky Concert Hall.
On the stage was a man with a white marble face, bright lips and frozen glassy eyes. He was elegantly dressed in black evening suit, top hat, black patent leather shoes, white gloves, white tie and spats. He was a fine figure of a man but lifeless. Here was a man whose heart had died. He was an automation. He danced to order, each of his movements highly polished but without the vital spark. He was like a huge clockwork doll with a mechanism that would run down and would have o be wound up again. So it went on from day to day.
“The Automaton” is one of Makhmud Esambayev’s sketches. It tells of a man who has been turned by the world of capital into a robot devoid of human qualities: the ability to feel, to love, to think and to create. Here profound psychological insight, devasting satire and hopeless melancholy are combined with graceful fluid and dynamic movement.
The art of Makhmud Esambayev is in essence optimistic, even when he creates tragic characters.
In her reminiscenes Anna Pavlova wrote at the height of her world fame: “Now I see that my life represents an integrak whole. To pursue unceasingly one and the same goal – this is the secret of success…”
Makhmud Esambayev does not do anything by halves. He devotes himself completely to his art. He discovered his life’s aim when he was only nine. It is realised in the “Macumba”, the “Golden God”, the “Automaton”, the “Gay Tailor” and many other dances and choreographic sketches. The name of this son of the mountain folk from the village of Old Ataghi has become symbol fort he wonderful, inspired art of the dance.
Translated by Hilda Perham
*Text was taken from the book “They Found Their Voices” which was published in 1977.