An explosion of applause

Lazgi is a dance with fire that originated in ancient times: courageous, challenging, intense. And as imbued with flame as artist Tobias Staab's "Autonomous Avatar."

Lazgi makes the body shake like an earthquake. Wild and spirited, it is one of the oldest dances in the world still practiced today, with rock paintings showing it to be at least 3,000 years old. If you want to experience it in its purest form, you have to travel to a city called Urgench in western Uzbekistan.

At least 3,000 years old? Cultures this old are most likely to be found along rivers: the Nile, the Indus, the Tigris. And another such river emerges from a confluence in Afghanistan, too, not far from Kunduz. As a border river, it flows westward past Uzbekistan into Turkmenistan and then northward through Uzbek territory near the provincial city of Urgench, before struggling to join the famous Aral Sea, once the world’s fourth-largest inland lake. Instead of reaching its destination, however, the river trickles away into a huge delta. The lake itself is so salinated and silted up that old ships lie rotting on the desolate land miles from its current shores.

The Aral Sea is famous for its stranded ships, rusting sources of shade in the salt desert.

Today, the Aral Sea is just a puddle compared to the huge inland lake it was during the 1960s.

Wassermuseum Bukhara

At first glance, the provincial city of Urgench, south of the Aral Sea, is little more than a modern settlement. Lined with cafés and small shops, its poker-straight main street leads to a market hall surrounded by taxis in the middle of a prefabricated Soviet-era housing development. There is an airfield on the outskirts of the city, where tourists in search of the Silk Road land to marvel at nearby Khiva, the ancient capital of the former province of Khorezm. It is a tiny region, a mere speck on the map. Yet Khorezm was once a vast empire, also known as the “Land of the Rising Sun.”

The ancient city of Khiva at sunrise.

Helena Waldmann

Khiva, the ancient capital of Khorezm, is a village more than 2,500 years old and dominated today by a mosque, complete with a tiled minaret as thick as a chimney. This was built in the 19th century next to the historic caravanserai and schools (or madrasi) and protected by a well-preserved city wall. Silk Road tourists have seen similar settlements in Bukhara and Samarqand. Only here, everything is smaller, more clearly arranged, well-preserved, and rather untouched by the usual bazaar hustle and bustle of such tourist centers. The trading town on the old Silk Road is picturesque – or it was for as long as it could feed its inhabitants and guests from the alluvial deposits of the Amudarya River, which kept changing course, sometimes threatening to flood the city, only to recede so far from it that the oasis on the steppe it left behind could no longer produce enough food.

Forty kilometers away in the administrative center of Urgench, we sit in one of the typical huge Uzbek restaurants that open late in the morning and close very late at night – meeting places for families and friends, who joyfully greet and say goodbye to their constantly coming and going guests. Whole days pass effortlessly in this way. People meet, chat, do business, argue, and reconcile without having made prior arrangements. The later the evening, the sooner the tables are moved, the more exuberantly the guests tremble. That is the name of their dance; Lazgi means “to tremble.” It is this custom of dancing after dinner that has allowed this ancient dance to survive to this day.

In fact, it looks like electric shocks are running through the dancers, and one wonders why. Perhaps, one suspects, this trembling is an early cultural imitation of the seismic and volcanic activity of those ancient Paleolithic times when humans first settled on these fertile alluvial lands of the Amudarya, most of whose water is now used on cotton plantations. Thirsty cotton is the region’s main source of income, but is now causing the abundant water in the steppe-like Khorezm to dry up once again.

A second explanation for the trembling movements of Lazgi is as true as it is likely: It goes back to the Zoroastrian pre-Islamic fire cult. Commemorated by Friedrich Nietzsche, Zarathustra is the more common name for the religion’s founder. Zoroastrians guard the eternal flame, worshipping it and the sun – even here in Khorezm, where the sun rose for the Parsis, as the Persians have been called since their flight from Islam.

Lazgi dance begins with a frozen posture. First, and hardly noticeably, the fingers tremble, then the hands, the arms, the shoulders, then the whole body. It looks as if the dancers are thawing out, as though they had been frozen by the winter or during the night, and now, with the beginning of spring or sunrise, new life is entering them. The sequence of fluttering fingers, bent joints, and trembling limbs becomes increasingly wild. All of this is structured in such a rhythmic complexity of head and limbs that it looks as if a smiling doll with seemingly broken bones were elegantly rising, shaken as if by an earthquake, and now becoming fire itself, as a result of the quake that sets its body ablaze like a flame.

Dilnoza Artigova, whom we are about to meet, is a Lazgi star.

Fan-Site Dilnoza Artigova

There is the dancer, leaning slightly to the side, with a smile on her face that looks as though it has been sewn on. First you hear the soft clicking of the fingers, then you see the tentative steps searching for support and posture, and then you see a jolt go through the body as the eyes and hand rise to the sun in a movement called “Dutor Lazgi.” The movement, the dance, takes possession of the body. The eyes twitch, the head trembles, as do the shoulders. The mere sight of the dance’s now ever-increasing speed takes your breath away until you are gasping for air: as sizzlingly as the dance rises, so abruptly and quickly does it fizzle out – in a shout, a resolute conclusion, an explosion of applause.

In 2019, Lazgi was placed under the protection of UNESCO as an intangible cultural heritage, thanks mainly to Gavhar Matyokubova. The evening before, she – as choreographer and mentor – had organized a dance festival on the occasion of “Teacher’s Day.”

Nigora is a teacher of German. On “Teacher’s Day” she is showered with gifts.

Helena Waldmann

Yes, there is still such a thing in post-Soviet Uzbekistan – a celebration of merit for the good of the people. There is also a “Fireman’s Day,” a “Farmer’s Day,” and of course, a “Worker’s Day” to thank them for their service. In the West, too, there are such days, the “Day of German Unity,” “Garbage Can Day,” or “World Climate Day,” which has a different political motivation than in Uzbekistan, where the students come together to celebrate their teachers, including their dance teachers.

Gavhar Matyokubova, the luminary of Lazgi, at her workplace

Helena Waldmann

Gavhar Matyokubova does not look tired the next morning. We meet the soon-to-be octogenarian in her dance studio on a side street in Urgench – in her “philharmonic hall,” as she calls it. It is a more than spacious, almost temple-like studio. The vivacious Lazgi expert was awarded the title of “People’s Artist of Uzbekistan” in 2000. She succeeded in gaining international recognition for Lazgi and having it declared a cultural heritage. As a mark of gratitude, she received this dance studio from the President of Uzbekistan.

Gavhar Matyokubova has published two books on the origin and practice of Lazgi, of which only terrible translations are available. She searched and found remote sources, such as the writings of ancient scholar Ibn Zayla, who died in 1048. In his “The Complete Book of Music” (“Kitab al-kafi fi al-musiqa”), Lazgi is described as the art of dancing with the shoulders, eyebrows, head, and similar parts of the body in a way that imitates birds and other animals and even the applause for its own art. So, according to the old encyclopedist of the Middle Ages, Lazgi is a pantomime art. This is true, but only to a small extent.

Born in 1943, Gavhar Matyokubova began her career as a dancer here in Urgench at the city music school, and from there joined the local ensemble run by popular folk artist Komiljon Otaniyazov. Today, Otaniyazo would be called a singer-songwriter, but he also had his own orchestra and dance company, and is known for a modern interpretation of Lazgi, the “Yallali Lazgi,” which defied the prevailing Islamic influence with Soviet furor. Parallel to her work as a dancer in this company, Gavhar Matyokubova studied history and began to research Lazgi in all its forms and origin. She completed a correspondence course as an ethnographer, since the university in the capital Tashkent, was a thousand kilometers away and therefore too away far to attend.

“What is perfection if you don’t know why it exists?” she asked at the time. As a researcher, she also became a choreographer for the local Khorezm State Philharmonic in 1976. Her first book on the art of Lazgi was published in 1993, the second in 2021. In these books, she dug down to the roots of the dance, questioning the motives that make people dance, but also laugh. Dancing and laughing? For Gavhar Matyokubova, both are protective mechanisms against the inclemency of nature, against the two months of heat in this region, followed almost without transition by ten months of freezing winter. The theory of the thawing of movement was born, and the second line of Lazgi discovered, which does not fit with the first at all: clownery.

In her bright, spacious studio, lit by mirrors and windows on the large first floor of her villa, Gavhar Matyokubova greets two of her allies in the morning: Otabek Ròzmeto is a burly clown, dancer, and musician. Lazgi requires rhythmic talent, as the separation between dance and music is almost abolished in this ancient art.

Dilnoza Artigova in a black costume, with tools and an attitude against ornamentation

Helena Waldmann

With two stones struck on metal plates, and with an optional hand drum, Ròzmeto appears to set his partner in motion on the wooden floor, to lure her in, to spur her on with clacking whetstones, first like an acoustic puppeteer, then like a precise responder to the improvisations of Dilnoza Artigova, winner of the Nihol Prize awarded by the President of the Republic of Uzbekistan and currently one of the best Lazgi dancers in the country.

Dilnoza Artigova: Lazgi-Improvisation

Helena Waldmann

In her simple black costume, reminiscent of Mary Wigman’s modern style, she seems intoxicated for a few seconds. Immediately, the situation takes a new turn, with the stone beater asking and the dancer responding. Matyokubova calls this encounter or dialog, “Kayrok Lazgi” – and insists that technical precision in the execution of the dance is not the goal, but that precision is above all a means of taking a stance – a fearless stance with respect to nature. It is thanks precisely to improvisation that such a stance is possible, rather than reducing the understanding of the mastery of nature to mechanization and perfection, as became practice in the West with the industrialization of the 19th century – an approach that was then also integrated into ballet.

Matyokubova rejects perfection for perfection’s sake. She sits behind a table covered with a green cloth. Dancing from a sitting position, she traces every movement she sees with her body – or in some cases anticipates them, if what she expects does not happen.

Dancing from a sitting position, Gavhar Matyokubova traces every movement she sees

Helena Waldmann

She stops the dancers, speaks with them spiritedly, paints what she means in the air with expansive gestures: attitude, attitude, attitude. This also means a hostile attitude, a belligerent attitude, which – accompanied by a wind instrument – enjoys special popularity as “Surnay Lazgi” (Victory Lazgi): a dance battle between men or even man and woman, which is an essential part of any wedding.

Lazgi is a “dance around the fire, a dance with fire, a risky venture,” says Matyokubova. And the clown – she points to Otabek Ròzmeto – is not a fool, but the greatest daredevil, the bravest. He may look highly comical in his leather jacket, grabbing its collar with his mouth, but he then uses this jacket to extinguish a spreading fire. Attitude is when you laugh no matter what is happening.

Otabek Ròzmetov

Helena Waldmann

For Matyokubova, attitude is the humor that characterizes pantomime… the comic imitation of the chubby-cheeked gophers and gerbils of the steppe – which Ròzmeto demonstrates – as well as the acrobatic mastery of daggers, plates, and cups. “We should not underestimate this art,” she says. It is folk art as a skillfully humorous attitude towards the challenges of natural events like storms and earthquakes or even towards political events, bad caliphs and khans – in short: the rulers. “Clown’s Lazgi,” as Matyokubova calls it, challenges the audience to become more sovereign.

And, of course, the landscape that has helped create this dance. Steppe people are as agile, flexible, and resourceful as their dance. There is reason Lazgi is rarely performed on stage. When it is, it is usually in the capital Tashkent, where it often appears to be fused with the Russian ballet tradition, as German ballet choreographer Raimondo Rebeck last attempted to do in 2021. On the relevant video channels, on the other hand, Lazgi often appears as a harmlessly sashaying adornment in front of the historical architectural backdrops of cities such as Khiva near Urgench: Lazgi exercises in front of monumental ancient architecture that are supposed to bring tourism to the country. Whether it is ballet masters asserting their influence or cameramen promoting the beauty of Uzbekistan with pretty Lazgi dancers in flowing costumes and intricately braided hairstyles, however, neither could be described as the Lazgi that Gavhar Matyokubova has cultivated and nurtured in Urgench, the Khorezmian epicenter of Lazgi, since her childhood.

“Lazgi”: The Uzbek National Ballet at Ballett Dortmund

Berin Iglesias Art

On her advice, we drive forty kilometers across flat, fertile land to Khiva, not far from the border with Turkmenistan. The Khorezmian puppet theater Qòĝirchoq is located just one street away from the mighty city wall that surrounds the historic old town district. No one would have expected to find dance in a traditional-looking puppet theater.

The Khoresm Puppet Theatre Qòĝirchoq

Xorazm Viloyati Qòĝirchoq Teatri

The entire ensemble of the theater, led by Davronbek Ataboyev, has gathered in this modest building. They sit on chairs in a small square, in a room where children usually marvel at the puppet show.

The puppet workshop

Helena Waldmann

Next door is the puppet workshop. “Our theater,” says Davronbek Ataboyev, “has an educational mission. Of course it does. And that’s why theater is not primarily an art, but a school. It is great for us to educate and guide our young people. We are the counterweight to their cell phones.”

The director of the theater: Davronbek Ataboyev

Helena Waldmann

With this educational mandate – required by the state – Khiva’s puppet theater also teaches children and adolescents the tradition of Lazgi in a playful and clownish way. It makes the puppets dance. And it looks like this: A dancer trembles, she burns like a flame, and a man behind her moves a mask in sync with her movements, covering her face. Already it is puppetry. Then there is a grotesque struggle: A man fights a life-size puppet to the death – and it is the puppet, not the victorious puppeteer, who dies.

The puppet fighting puppeteers: already in 1920 a khoresmic art

Doll Museum Bukhara

On the stage is a plate no larger than a dinner plate – the smallest stage imaginable, which the dancer never leaves. This is the most difficult form of dancing this genuinely spirited Lazgi, the “Khiva Lazgi”; the only way to make it even more challenging is to dance on a brick, in such a small space that allows the dancer to keep dancing even in the tiniest of yurts.

There is no separate training for dance, music or theater in this region, says Davronbek Ataboyev. It is too far from the capital. Anyone can do anything here – play an instrument, operate puppets, dance, and take on any role imaginable. He calls it a “steppe musical” and complains, at least a little, that only those who excel in a single discipline are considered artists, while his team even masters educational wit and humorous enlightenment but would never receive the same recognition as the “big stage.” They are simply too close to the people and yet internationally present. The Qòĝirchoq puppet theater likes to travel to the Fringe Festival in Edinburgh or visit Jürgen Zachmann’s Chamäleon puppet theater in Darmstadt, Germany. At the farewell, after the great spectacle for us few guests, Ataboyev says triumphantly: “Lazgi can do anything: pointe dance and tightrope walk. A dance as old as this is always able to absorb any kind of innovation. Only the other way around will never succeed.”

What he means is that nobody but the locals can dance Lazgi. The pride in their own physical culture can hardly be explained other than through their history.

The expansion of Khorezm in the Middle Ages

Creative Commons

Until the Mongols conquered the empire in 1219, Khorezm included not only all of Uzbekistan, but also part of Afghanistan almost as far as Kabul and extended far into present-day Kazakhstan. Just a hundred years later, Khorezm was a divided country. First, the Sufis took their share. The conquests that followed soon left the once great empire with access only to the Caspian Sea. In 1920, the Soviets proclaimed an even smaller remnant a People’s Republic, and a mere five years later divided this mini-country again into two parts, which merged completely into the newly-formed republics of Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. What remains is only a hint of its former, historical significance. And the pride in its dance, which now serves – must serve – as the last remaining identity of Khorezmian culture.

And even in this regard, the greed is great. It started with the Sufis in the Middle Ages: Isn’t it obvious that their typical sun salutation, the right hand raised to the sky and the left stretched towards the Earth in a grounding fashion, comes from the same gesture found in Lazgi? Lazgi, unlike Sufism, has nothing in common with Islam, but goes back to the fire cult of the Zoroastrians. The Soviet Union, with its folkloric zeal, also targeted Lazgi and established an academic dance center in the Uzbek capital of Tashkent. Here, Lazgi, now considered a national dance, was placed on an almost equal footing with ballet. “Almost” means that the academic methodology of ballet originated in Moscow and St. Petersburg. The Central Asian dance art, on the other hand, was “traditionalized” and “folklorized” – all differences in local interpretation were leveled out, the written material was codified, and the dance form of Lazgi was cemented with the same academic seriousness as the city of Tashkent itself: a marvel of Soviet-influenced concrete culture, and thus completely mistakable for any other city in the former Soviet Empire.

At the Tashkent Choreographic Academy

Helena Waldmann

Guests at the Tashkent Choreographic Academy in this prestigious building of a state ballet school learn a completely different version of the origin of Lazgi from the teachers. Religious roots, be they Zoroastrian or Sufi, are completely ignored here in line with the post-Soviet interpretation. Even the trembling is reinterpreted as a spasmodic curvature of the limbs and muscles. Tea is served, and in the neon light of the rehearsal rooms, the story of Lazgi is transformed into a fairy tale from Arabian Nights.

The first story goes like this: Once upon a time there was a dancer who was chosen to perform in the king’s palace. But her competitors broke her hands, arms, and legs. The dancer performed in front of the ruler anyway – with broken legs, arms, and hands. This is how Lazgi was born – in defiance of the envy of the competition.

The second story is as follows: Once upon a time there was a dancer who was to perform before the ruler and his ministers. But prior to her performance, she had to join in the drinking, got drunker and drunker, and when she fell, she broke her hands, arms, and legs. Nevertheless, she danced. This is how Lazgi was born – her will to dance was stronger than any poison.

The strange thing about both stories is the way they are oriented toward a ruler who inflicts violence and pain on the dancer. Her smile, which looks as if it has been sewn on, is never an expression of pleasure, but is rather a mark of the defiance of dancing against all odds. What appears be the story of a heroine is in fact a rape in which the man’s role is omitted.

On the one hand, there is that. On the other hand, there is the fact that, of all the things, the dance of a semi-nomadic steppe people – a dance that originated among tribes such as the Mangit and Qongrat, among the Kazakhs, and especially among the Karakalpaks of the mountainous region northwest of Khiva, where the legendary and oldest rock paintings depicting Lazgi, created 3,000 years ago, were discovered – is supposed to kowtow to a sedentary ruler in a palace.

The oldest depictions of Lazgi are found in 3,000-year-old rock paintings in Karakalpakstan, northwest of Urgench

Of course this is also clear to the teaching staff gathered here at the academy, and perhaps even to the students inside. Such stories go back to Russian and Soviet colonialism and are passed on because they are part of a self-contained curriculum.

Nevertheless, there is a grain of truth in these stories. In the tradition of the “Hafmon Lazgi” all-female dance, there was a dancer named Onajon Sabirova in the 1920s who made a name for herself following an accident. On her way to a bride she was supposed to dance alongside, the carriage she was traveling in overturned. She was crushed, her bones broken so irreparably that she should never have been able to dance again. But she continued to dance with a shortened leg and a disfigured hand; she danced limping with a bent hand and thus accentuating what has always characterized Lazgi: the swaying, rocking, and slanting lines of its expression.

Tschachzod, a student of the Academy in his Lazgi dance uniform

Helena Waldmann

The European eye, at least, has the audacity to perceive here echoes of popping in breakdance and krumping movements, i.e. elements of what is actually contemporary folk dance. But the teaching conditions at the Tashkent Choreographic Academy are not made for such ideas. Rather, the aim of the training is to prepare dancers for the representative state theaters and to present their image – that of classical, even pre-classical mastery. Thus, in conversation, a younger professor at the Academy demands: “The movements we teach should remain beautiful and aesthetically appropriate to the tradition because only professional dance is beautiful.”
“But what would not be beautiful?”
“Disgraceful movements would not be beautiful; in general, all movements that are reminiscent of nightclubs, that want to drag the elegance of Lazgi through the dirt and reinterpret the smile as seductive, or that consider its wildness lewd. Such attempts,” she says, “were already made in the 1990s. The Lazgi smile has nothing to do with seduction. The dancers only ever smile in defiance of the pain.”

Her statement is in line with the Islamic understanding of dance that dominates the country, and also maps a definition of academic dance: When you perform a dance, you are always competing with yourself. But you can only win if Lazgi adopts a methodology that clearly identifies a wrong and a right in the end. This is the only way an academy makes sense, explains Academy prorector Mirmusin Gafurov: “Until recently, there was no professional training for Lazgi. The State Choreographic Academy has changed that, and it will do even more. In Urgench, the home of Lazgi, we want to create a department that will study the dance in even greater depth, and we also want to undertake another project to make the dance better known internationally.”

A promise is a promise. The power of the institution is sacred because it alone is allowed to create the aesthetically correct image of Lazgi on a scientific basis and with the appropriate methodology. To this end, while tea is being served, the students of the Tashkent Choreographic Academy come into play in the dance studio.

Students practicing the palace dance

Helena Waldmann

The men wear wig-like wool caps and guards’ uniforms. The women have braided each of their wigs into six braids and float through the door in flowing Oriental silk costumes to perform a “Palace Lazgi” – a form of Lazgi that developed in the courtly context of the 19th century and today seems more suited to the stage than clowning, fighting, and improvisation.

Even back then, some knowledge of dance was required to pass and be accepted as a “palace dancer”– but it was still a danced game, a play with the audience, as a then 92-year-old dancer recalled to ethnographer Gavhar Matyokubova: “We played the palace dancer just like we usually played the clown.” But the palace increasingly pushed women off the stage. More and more often, male dancers in women’s clothes played the role of palace dancers. This was because Islam considered the female dance as performed by a woman to be improper, but the exact same dance performed by a man was not. The influence of Islam on the development of types and varieties of Lazgi dances in general is enormous. In the early 19th century, Shiite Iranians in exile in Khorezm established their own style of Lazgi, “Changak Lazgi,” simply to set themselves apart from the Sunni competition in the country. A dance that repeatedly freezes the movements and stiffens the limbs for seconds at a time, as if a strobe light were chopping up the dance, “Changak Lazgi” is considered an actual precursor to breakdancing.

Finale of a textbook pantomime

Helena Waldmann

Of course, it is not taught at the Academy. At the Academy, pantomime prevails as an interpretation of Lazgi that is particularly suitable for the theater. The students dance – in a post-Soviet manner – in parallel movements picking cotton or, with their arms stretched a little higher, picking apples. An imaginary apple tree is approached by a clown who steals some apples and, barely caught, drops his imaginary apples with a decisive gesture. He wants to show how innocent he is. What is taught at the Academy seems equally innocent: memorizing every gesture according to the textbook. Perhaps, one might think, the Academy itself is the real apple thief.

At least that is the opinion of Iranian-born Sashar Zarif, whose 2019 performance “Lazgi Transformation,” dared to strip this ancient dance of its ornamentation. First, he eliminated those dubious costumes from the workshops of equally dubious designers – because choreographers have no right to participate in the selection of costumes. Instead, Zarif’s six dancers simply performed in shirts and sweatpants. Second, he eschewed the custom of having to follow the music – this hierarchy is indeed a European import. Once again, musicians and dancers improvised as equals.

And third, he defied the custom of having to dance Lazgi on a neutral stage in chaser or laser light. Instead, slide projections in the Bonum Factum Gallery in Tashkent showed the very landscape from which Lazgi once emerged and to which it responded.

For those representatives who canonize the national cultural heritage of Uzbekistan, the performance was a slap in the face. Since Sashar Zarif received no support from the Uzbek side from the very beginning, the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation and the Swiss Embassy in Uzbekistan came to his aid. This, in turn, was seen as interference in the country’s own culture. Yet Lazgi, as an art form, had ventured into the 21st century for the first time. But in the ancient Khorezmian capital of Khiva, at the Raqs Sehri (Magic of Dance) Festival in September, the audience effortlessly understood that a dance handed down from generation to generation over thousands of years should be allowed to develop as freely among the people as the people themselves.