Lazgi landscapes and the alphabet of algorithms

Of ancient dances and new ideas

Honestly, why does theatre always convince me only when something really happens, when the real world shines into the theatre and it surpasses my own experience?

Can I be honest? Why don’t I like to go to the theatre so much any more? Or to the cinema? Or to other enclosed spaces where, despite their size, the confinement is – let’s say – to some extent staged? People do this to stow away as many people as possible, to keep them quiet, which is true even of clubs, the Berghain in Berlin, for example, which I loved on a hot summer day above all for the fact that it had an outdoor area, a dance venue for free people under free showers: But above all it was the open sky that fascinated me, the unshelteredness of the space … to not always have to enjoy theatre, dance, clubbing in a bunker. Why are open-air cinemas so popular? Because they do not intensify the constriction of the view of the screen by the narrowness of the space …

Well, all this is certainly a question of climate. When the weather is bad, people go to church, halfway protected from wind, rain and snow. It is the same in the theatre, in dance: one protects oneself twice, even three times: from the unpredictability of the weather, also from the light, which is excluded, so that these buildings not only protect the art but also protect from the gaze of others who (should) stay outside. That is what we call culture. Only culture is able to ignore day and night, heat and cold, rain and even drought: as a triumph of culture over nature.

Dioramas in the prehistoric museum of Tautavel. Copyright: Musée de Préhistoire de Tautavel

It was in the south of France, in a village called Tautavel. Here, a small museum sends visitors back 450,000 years to the landscape of Occitania, to a time even before the Neanderthals. Essentially, this museum consists of a multitude of dioramas, huge showcases like in a zoo, in which extinct animals can be seen next to extinct people in front of painted backdrops … The Musée de Préhistorie de Tautavel struck me as an open grave, a realistically painted sarcophagus from a time that only knew caves instead of protective culture bunkers, which romantically inclined visitors: Inside, the visitors are encouraged to imagine themselves in a time when early cultures coexisted with a seemingly untouched nature. The museum keeps quiet about the fact that it was a matter of life and death from dawn to dusk, of cold, hunger and raids – for the sake of the school classes.

Ein Angestellter des American Museum of Natural History bei Arbeiten an dem Condor-Diorama im Jahr 1963

An employee of the American Museum of Natural History in New York working on the Condor diorama in 1963

The Lazgi Adventure

As a dance director, I was immediately in love with this staging of landscape. I later found the image of a painter in the middle of a diorama, busy with high mountains he was dabbing with paint (as the artist Julius von Bismarck does with real mountains today), surrounded by life-size stuffed vultures circling him – a painter in the middle of the staging of the dead, his brush stretched into the past, a historian telling stories with paint: the epitome of our culture based on death, out of hereditary care, out of repetition, out of a passion for history. It was suddenly clear to me that the early avant-garde must have been a shock experience when art moved to radically ignore this past in order to finally design the future.

But what then led me to look for a dance that moves in the landscape, that is moved by the landscape? Why did I come across one of the oldest dances still practised today? Lazgi, a dance form deformed by the passage of time and folklorised in the Soviet Union … at home behind the Caspian Sea, on a steppe inhabited by Kazakh and, further east, Uzbek ethnic groups.

I found the dance in Khorezem province, not far from Lake Aral, which has dried up beyond recognition, and everywhere there: on the street, in restaurants, at weddings.

Lazgi is probably the oldest dance in the world still practised today. It originated in the province of Khorezm, once a huge Persian province. Here, the cult of Zoroaster was predominant as a religion that worships fire and the sun. According to some clay drawings found in the nearby Karakalpakistan Mountains near Nukus, Lazgi is about 3000 years old.

Lazgi Puppe Zeichnung

Lazgi is a strange dance – a continuous succession of fluttering fingers, bent joints and trembling limbs, as if a perpetually smiling puppet were rising elegantly from what appear to be broken bones. She shows the appearance of the sun, the movement of nature as inspiration for her own movement, the earthquake as a primordial tremor, the fire as a consequence of the quake. It seemed to me that the dancing herself was blazing like a flame.

Eternal Flames on Mont Chimera, Turkey

The wonderful Gavhar Matyokubova

Gavhar Matyokubova tanzt mit
Gavahr tanzt intensiv mit

Despite her 76 years, she dances incessantly on her chair with every arm movement, every finger point, every facial expression.

I owe my knowledge of this dance mainly to her: Gavhar Matyokubova, whom I was allowed to meet in her dance studio in Urgench, in her “philharmonic hall”, as she calls it. She is the luminary of Lazgi dance. In 2000, she was honoured as “People’s Artist of Uzbekistan” and received this very studio in gratitude. It was she who was instrumental in having Lazgi recognised as an Intangible Heritage of World Culture by UNESCO in 2019, She has been dancing this impetuous dance since 1960 and has researched it. She traced its origin and found it among the Zorastes, called fire worshippers, of whom the name Zarathustra has remained familiar to us. Gavhar Matyokubova has published two books on the origin and practice of Lazgi, of which only dreadful translations exist.

She found sources, for example, in the ancient scholar Ibn Zayla, who died in 1048. In his book “Kitab al-kafi fi al-musiqa”, Lazgi is considered the art of making shoulders, eyebrows, head and similar parts of the body dance in such a way that they imitate not only birds and other animals, but also the applause for this art.

All this is what Gavhar Matyokubova calls a dance reaction to the – and here I get the curve – landscape. The dancer first raises her hands to the sun. The vibrations of the winds, the trees, the flow of the rivers, the bending of the grass, all the moving surroundings are absorbed by Lazgi. The heat or the cold and the wind ignite the movement of the fingers, then the hands, then the wrists. The shoulders begin to tremble, then all the limbs vibrate. The dancer is awakened, takes in her surroundings – and what here may sound like esoteric attentiveness – explodes into dance shortly afterwards.

Real Lazgi

What Dilnoza Ortigova and the musician Otabek conjure up on the dance floor – I know it immediately – cannot be imitated. The dance seems to draw its own energy from fire and sun, and in all its wildness and agility it corresponds to the temperament of the steppe peoples of western Uzbekistan. It has nothing to do with the practice in the Soviet-style dance academy in the capital Tashkent, some 1000 kilometres away.

The Etymology of Lazgi

Where the word Lazgi comes from is unclear, as the word cannot be clearly assigned to a language family. It probably originates from a dialect of Khwarazm/Chorasmia, which may also contain influences from Farsi, Arabic or Turkic languages. It is interesting that all variants of meaning fit the dance.

Persian ларзагӣ لرزگى larz[a]gī “shaking; trembling”.

“The word Lazgi apparently originally described the trembling wrist, finger and shoulder motions employed by performers of the dance (compare Persian لرزيدن larzēdan “to tremble”, لرزش larzish and less commonly لرزگى larzagī such as زمين لرزگى zamīn larzagī “earthquake”). Languages commonly make use of action verbs that apparently describe an element of the dance: e.g. Mandarin 跳舞 tiàowǔ “to dance” from a verb 舞 meaning “to flutter; to soar”; Sorani Kurdish hałpařîn from the verb pařîn meaning “to jump; to leap”; Armenian պարել parel “to dance” from a word meaning “to encircle, to surround”; Persian پای کوبی pāy kūbī “dance” but literally “stomping one’s foot. ”
But the word Lazgi in the ancient Khorezm language has also a common meaning of “cooling” (catching cold or freezing), which means trembling (as well as “shaking”, ‘going back and forth’, “falling”) as written in the book “Lazgi” by Gavhar Matyokubova.

The dance of the landscape

It is the landscape that helped create this dance. It is the history that has also hurt the dance, unlike the culture of the steppe, which has long refused to be a sedentary cotton growing area, running out of water. Steppe folks are as agile, flexible and resourceful as their dance. It is not for nothing that it is rarely shown pure on stage. It is usually filmed against the architecture of the historic town of Chiva near Urgench, once the trading centre of the Khorezm region, now a picturesque museum town and backdrop for tourist Lazgi etudes. These have nothing to do with the art of Gavhar Matyokubova. Rather, they are dances that flare up spontaneously in the restaurants when the society of locals gathered here pushes away their table and makes space for their dance, which has allowed Lazgi dance to survive to this day.

Back in Berlin, none of this gives me any peace. It is clear to me that Lazgi cannot be repotted – not so much for reasons of appropriation, the appropriation of foreign cultural elements, because their culture would not be impressed for a second by a pretentious imitation. The Soviet reading as the colonial appropriation has not been able to destroy this dance, also thanks to Gavhar Matyokubova. Lazgi cannot be repotted above all because the contemporary dance of Western modernism and postmodernism knows no possibility at all for a dance that would be motivated from outside, from nature, from its necessities, to withstand heat or cold, hunger or drought. Western dance is too much an art that develops from the ego of the dancers and is often narcissistic. Yet I want to know how much outside, how much landscape, how much life would be possible for a dance that is fundamentally different from the familiar conditions demanded by a black theatre cube or a protected space, a club or a gallery. Would there be an alternative to the abstract, closed theatre space that can be filled “freely”, but rather: strictly analogous to the zeitgeist, with any content and any form?

The trembling

A concrete space would be needed. A landscape would be good. But what is landscape? As I write these lines, I am sitting in a landscape. I notice that it disturbs me. It is too bright to read well on the screen, it is cold and so windy that the flap of my laptop keeps blowing over. Nevertheless, there are mosquitoes that bite me as soon as I look for shade. In addition, construction, hammering and drilling are well audible in the landscape. Regardless of whether I were in a natural environment in the Palaeolithic era, as presented in Tautaval’s dioramas, or on an island, unprotected from storms and sparsely landscaped, the question would be: could I make this adversity productive? Can I, for example, make the trembling I feel inside me productive as the trembling with which Lazgi dance basically begins? As if Lazgi, reaching for the sun, allows the wind and the cold to challenge one’s pride within inhospitable nature?

The emptiness of the landscape

BU Landscape theatre “Lulleli” on the island of Ingøy in northern Norway. Photo: Susanne Naess-Nielsen

I remember my teachers and mentors, Helene Varopoulou from Greece, her husband, the theatre scholar Hans-Thies Lehmann, and his friend Knut-Ove Arntzen, in whose theatrical theories the landscape and the climate each create their own aesthetic in culture. In northern Norway, where Knut-Ove was born, he found an “Arctic aesthetic” that was already incomparable to the art of dance and theatre in Oslo.

Roman amphitheatre in Aspendos, Turkey.

Mining landscape on the Greek island of Milos

The term “landscape theatre” was coined by Helene Varopoulou, developed from the ancient Greek theatre, that was cut into the mountain valleys and used the resounding sea like a sound funnel.

Theatre, she says, was once just the place where spectators gathered, nothing more, nothing less.

Hans-Thies Lehmann told me: “A landscape is basically never just the visible. For me, it’s always also what I don’t see in the landscape, because it always hides something. There is always something in the landscape that you don’t get to see.

In his words, “landscape is first of all a very artistic concept:” landscape is not a picturesque space, but a space that hides something in its emptiness, in which time plays a different role than in a drama. He says: “I am really convinced that nothing exciting ever happened to me in the theatre that took place within the normal time frame. It was either too short, too fast or too long or too far.” On the other hand, if one is part of a landscape oneself, to notice in time the too short moment when a whale appears on the horizon, then this is as much an aesthetic moment as the too wide landscape is. You would first have to measure it laboriously in order to approach a herd of elephants, for example, which then moves away from you all the more.

Landscape, in our genetic memory, is a primal experience of looking at something too far away, of identifying subtle differences to bring something into focus with narrowed eyes, at the same time taking other phenomena as signs, the direction of the wind as the target you are approaching catches the scent. Or to watch out for obstacles in the path on which one approaches the object of desire. Theatre as we know it makes it easier, too easy. It focuses our gaze and forbids us to approach it. You stay in your seat. We think of staying seated as a cultural achievement.

The fullness of theatre

Theatres, cinemas and concert halls were built for this achievement, and we artists are supposed to use them. Obviously, culture is a matter that takes place behind closed doors and invites us, for an entrance fee, to allow the non-public, the private, the fantastic, the sexual behind these doors – the intimacy of the body in a club or the intimacy of the mind at a reading, for example. Whether ballet, cinema, opera – all art is always protected from the landscape: by architecture, which in turn belongs to be protected (and not for nothing devours the majority of all cultural budgets). Only the outside, as reality, to which Lazgi reacts in this way, does not belong in the culture of interior spaces and inwardness that every concert, painting or literary work promises above all.

Martin Kaltwasser, “Converter

The Converter

The landscape is the real challenge. I find a landscape in a gallery, the Kurt-Kurt in Berlin. The landscape was built by the artist Martin Kaltwasser. In his work “The Converter“, he had covered the gallery all over with sheets of paper. Although the paper obscures the view, it expands the small gallery into a dimension in which the gaze seems to get lost, as if in a vast cave. You stand in the middle of a diorama and move between the sheets of paper in the tiniest of spaces. It is the 1:1 construction of a landscape, which seems far more impressive than the usual taming of landscapes, as is usually done by reducing them in size, as we know it from model railways.

The Hiroma

When Martin Kaltwasser’s exhibition ends, I ask him not to dismantle the space, but to allow me to explore it. With the artist’s consent and the practised eye of the scenographer Jacob Blazejczak, we build a Japanese Hiroma out of the cave using the paper panels. A hiroma is a traditional house divided by paper walls. Depending on the number of guests, the hiroma can be enlarged or reduced.

Chihiro Araki, a Japanese dancer, takes us through her parents’ hiroma, interpreting the rooms as kitchen, room, bathroom. Imaginarily, she opens up the space through her narration, conjures up people preparing food and surrounding the fireplace, the foyer, the place where the audience gathers even of a theatre, literally the campfire as a temporary focal point in the landscape that warms, protects, focuses the eye and yet lets it wander, while the ear follows the stories into her parental hiroma – a hiroma that seems to play a strange role also in the Lazgi: Here as a kind of screen, not as a place behind which one changes one’s clothes shamefully, but as a windbreak in the middle of the steppe. Ancient Japan used these partitions made of paper for houses, in which walls can be opened and closed, but which provide only slight protection from a landscape that is always shaking.

Such a hiroma, a cave made of paper, narrows the view in order to widen it – ultimately what theatres also do, which can create an imaginary landscape reaching to infinity in a small space. I now understand Hans-Thies Lehmann, who perceived landscape as a “very artistic concept”.

Dance of the algorithms

I could return to the theatre with this, to a protected building in which landscapes of the imagination can be developed as if in front of an imaginary campfire, an art that is currently being nourished above all by virtual reality with its glasses. It takes the bodies of the spectators and sends them on journeys into an imaginary infinity of computer-designed landscapes in which these wanderers behind the glasses are confronted with unexpected dangers, fascinating landscapes and the strangest creatures – just like in the Palaeolithic era. Bringing such art worlds into the theatre, to people who in turn sit motionless on chairs – as if to prove their settledness – is repugnant to me.

Creating art from algorithms, on the other hand, is not repugnant to me. Algorithms are rules, and the dramaturge Astrid Schenka discovers these rules in the individual poses of Lazgi dance, as they have been captured in several pictures. The poses remind her of the script of Khwarezmian, the language of Khorazm that died out in the 13th century.

Otabek Ròzmeto

Otabek Ròzmeto

The script of the language consisted (probably among other things) of logograms and ideograms, a kind of hieroglyphics, an abstracted pictorial language. Astrid Schenka cannot shake off the impression that certain Lazgi poses and characters resemble each other. When I watch the dance, I also have the impression that its movements seem to be built like an alphabet. Movements are spelled out – in free improvisation – and these “letters” are based on pictorial abstractions, like copies and imitations from nature: puffy cheeks of desert mammals, whirring arm movements resembling dragonflies, light-footed stamping stress marks reminiscent of the run of goats.


In contrast to “official” stage choreographies, the dance of Dilnoza Ortigova in the “Philharmonie” in Urgench is an independent forming of sentences, which probably follow a certain alphabet and grammar on the one hand. On the other hand, it is above all the dancer’s inner attitude, as a narrator, who senses the next movement as the logical one with a dance “alertness”, an attentive observation of the audience and her own dance art. The same goes for her partner Otabek Ròzmetov, who as a “musician” never remains aloof, is often close to her, and whose castanets dance with her and imitate her movements or seem to respond to them.

Unlike improvisations I see in the West, it’s about feeling exactly what the audience and partner are doing. A watchful eye is on the move here, instead of the inward-looking, soul-searching eye often seen in contemporary dance. It is an alert dance that communicates with the audience and functions “like” a narrative – and “like” here does not mean inventing an old Khorezmian “story” by constantly spelling out an alphabet, but rather creating a continuous dialogue with the audience that leads through ups and downs. People look each other in the eye. These are not blinded as in virtual reality, nor turned inwards, but serve an open communication in the midst of a current, energetic landscape.

Quadira Öchsle-Ali

And what follows from this? A continuation: mining landscapes

see also


Lazgi – Fire dance by candlelight

Oh how the word shimmers: Lazgi. In French it sounds like “lascar,” a sly fellow. It puts us in mind of the word lasciviousness, or Lascaux for the more historically minded – of the cave paintings left behind by prehistoric humans. It was also the discovery of prehistoric rock paintings that saw the Central Asian Lazgi declared one of the oldest dances still practiced today.

Supported by
Bureau Ritter/TANZPAKT RECONNECT, supported by the Federal Government Commissioner for Culture and the Media as part of the NEUSTART KULTUR initiative. Support Programme Dance



Bureau Ritter
Neustart Kultur
Die Beauftragte der Bundesregierung für Kultur und Medien

Thanks for the meetings and cooperation to the

dancers and choreographers

Gavhar Matyokubova (Uzbekistan), Dilnoza Ortigova (Uzbekistan), Aguibou Sanou/Tamadia Dance Company (Burkina Faso), Serge Aimé Coulibaly/Faso Dance Theatre (Burkina Faso), Stefany Ursula Yamoah/ National Dance Company (Ghana), Tchina Ndjidda (Cameroon), Ochai Ogaba/Mud Art Company (Nigeria), Chef Kossi (Togo), Anamaria Klajnscek (Slovenia), Magi Serra (Spain), Irina Demina (Germany), Julek Kreutzer (Germany), Mariko Koh (Germany), Chihiro Araki (Germany), Qadira Oechsle-Ali (Germany), Cordelia Eleonore Lange (Germany), Maria Walser (Germany), Viktória Kőhalmi (Germany), Ghazal Ramz (Germany), Anne Mareike-Hess (Germany), Neta Henik (Isreal/Germany), Sho Nakasatomi (Germany), Zumrad Mukhrimova (Netherlands/Uzbekistan), Xchel Mendoza Hermández (Germany), Lea Martini (Germany), Katharina Maschenka Horn (Germany), Zula Lemes (Germany), Manto Nosti (Greece), Filio Louvari (Greece), Nir de Volff (Germany), Anna Demiclova/Urban Forest Echo Theatre (Russia/Germany), Kasia Wolinska (Germany)

Composers and musicians

Otabek Ròzmetov (Uzbekistan), César B. (Germany), Midori Hirano aka MimiKof (Germany), Alejandra Cárdenas Pacheco aka Ale Hop (Germany), Mauricio Takara (Brazil/Germany)

Costume designers

Carolin Schoggs (Germany), Mascha Mihoa Bischof (Germany), Justyna Gmitrzuk (Germany), Lauren Steel (Germany)


Diana Liu (Germany), Astrid Schenka (Germany), Thomas Schaupp (Germany), Foteini Micheli (Germany), Klara Kroymann (Germany), Maja Zimmermann (Germany), Nadine Vollmer (Germany), Ioanna Valsamidou (Greece), Helene Varoupolou (Greece)

Live Audiovisual Artists and VJs

KALMA (Germany), Claire Fristot aka A_li_ce (Germany)


Michi Muchina (Germany), Lena Loy (Germany), Cristina Nyffeler (Germany), Jacob Blazejczak (Germany)

Lighting designers

Emilio Checa (Germany), Matthias Singer (Germany)

Visual artists

Martin Kaltwasser (1965 – 2022) (Germany), Simone Zaugg (Switzerland)

Lazgi dance teachers

Malika Khaidarova (Uzbekistan), Katja Hillebrand (Switzerland), Zumrad Mukhrimova (Netherlands, Uzbekistan)