Autumn 2002 (10.3)
as Azerbaijan's First Ballerina
by Gamar Almaszade
Above: Students at the Kivorkov Ballet Studio
in Baku. Gamar is at left. Photo: April 2, 1929.
When Gamar Almaszade (1915- ) was a young girl, the very idea
of becoming a ballerina was scandalous. "Good girls"
did not perform in public, much less expose their legs. In fact,
Gamar was just three years old when opera singer Shovkat Mammadova
became the first Azerbaijani woman to ever perform in public
without wearing a chador, or veil. (She was unceremoniously run
off the stage.)
Despite her father's objections, Gamar persisted in her ballet
training and became Azerbaijan's first world-class ballerina.
In 1940, at age 25, she performed the lead role in the premiere
of Azerbaijan's first ballet, "Maiden's Tower" (Giz
Galasi). The ballet was composed specifically for Gamar by her
husband, Afrasiyab Badalbeyli (1907-1976). Now, at age 87, Gamar
reflects on her career and the important role she played in bringing
about the birth of Azerbaijani ballet.
When I was 10 years old, I had
a Russian friend named Shura Stepanova who was taking ballet
classes. At that time, there was no ballet school in Baku, only
the private Kivorkov Ballet Studio, which opened in 1923. Each
time Shura returned from class, she would show me the new ballet
moves that her teachers had taught her. I was so jealous; I would
wait impatiently for her to come and show me what she had learned.
Eventually, I got up the courage to go to the studio myself,
but without letting my family know. When I went to register,
the instructors asked my name. "Almaszade" I told them.
They were shocked. Never before had an Azerbaijani girl studied
ballet with them. The admission fee was six manats, but I had
only managed to save up five manats. The teachers sensed my passion
to learn ballet, so they let me enroll anyway.
For a long time, only my mother knew
about my ballet training. She supported me and kept my secret.
My father, a shoemaker, didn't know about my lessons; he thought
I was participating in sports.
Left: Gamar, performing the leading role
in Azerbaijan's first ballet, "The Maiden's Tower"
by Afrasiyab Badalbeyli, Gamar's husband. 1940.
In 1926, the students of our ballet studio performed Leo Delibes'
"Coppelia" at the Opera Theater. At the beginning of
the second act, the curtain rose to reveal a stage full of dolls
that had been made by Dr. Coppelius. I was among them. The audience
hushed. Suddenly, a child in the audience started yelling: "Mom,
mom! Look! That's Gamar!" Then a doll dressed in a beautiful
pink dress-namely me-suddenly started to move to the edge of
the stage to comfort my brother Anvar. Eventually, I moved back
to my assigned position and turned back into a lifeless doll
again. That wasn't the end, however. Though many in the audience
found the incident amusing, my mom and brother were immediately
ushered from the hall, and I received a severe reprimand from
After the staging of "Coppelia", my secret was exposed.
My father was shocked by the news. He could not accept the fact
that his daughter was performing onstage at the theater. He became
so angry that he started smashing everything in our house. I
was afraid and tried to hide but he discovered me. I started
running around the table in the middle of the room. My father
ran after me with a stick in his hands, shouting: "Have
you lost your mind? Mashadi Hajiagha's daughter is going to dance
in front of men showing off her legs? What does this mean? I'll
Left: Gamar Almaszade with Maestro Niyazi
My mom tried to calm
him down and convince him to let me continue taking ballet classes.
In the end, he agreed to let me stay at the studio, but warned
me never to perform onstage again. In 1930, I graduated from
the Ballet Studio and accepted a position at the Opera Theater.
Following my father's advice, I also entered the Pedagogical
Technical School. This time my father thought I was going to
school to be a teacher; he didn't know about my work on the side
at the Opera Theater.
I remember those first few years at the Theater. All of our performances
turned out to be great successes. But every night after I performed
onstage, I was scared to go home. I didn't want to incur my father's
wrath. I knew that no matter how hard I tried to keep it a secret,
sooner or later he would find out.
One night I was sitting in the makeup room. The program was just
about to start. Suddenly the cloakroom attendant [woman] rushed
into the room and warned me: 'Your father is in the audience!'
I didn't know what to do. I knew I couldn't walk out of the program,
so I pulled myself together and went onstage. After it was over,
I hung around the theater for a long time before heading back
home. That night my father didn't say anything to me. After that,
he often came to see my performances, but never again did he
say anything to me about my dancing.
My dad told me that I could do anything I wanted after I was
married. So I was lucky that Afrasiyab Badalbeyli proposed to
me when I was 16. Afrasiyab helped me gain recognition for my
dancing. At that time, he was working as the Director of the
Opera and Ballet Theater.
The great Azerbaijani composer Uzeyir Hajibeyov also played an
important role in my life. He was very concerned about my future
and encouraged me to go study in Russia. He inspired me to work
Study in Russia
In 1932, at Hajibeyov's suggestion, I went to Moscow to get professional
ballet training, entering the ballet school
of the Bolshoi Theater, where I took classes from famous ballet
masters such as Leontyeva, Chekrigin and Monakhov.
The following year, Afrasiyab and I decided to go to Leningrad
to continue our education. I entered the Leningrad Choreography
School in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) and took classes from
Maria Romanova-Ulanova, the mother and teacher of the world-famous
ballerina Galina Ulanova. Maria was fascinated by my talent.
I felt that she treated me more seriously than the others. Those
were the years when everybody at school called me "Almaz"
In 1936, the year that I graduated from the Leningrad Choreography
School, I became a soloist at the newly established Opera and
Ballet Theater in Baku. Hajibeyov was aware that I had received
a very good education, so he created the Azerbaijani Folk Dance
Ensemble of the Azerbaijan State Philharmonic and appointed me
as its artistic director. I led this ensemble from 1937 to 1938.
Hajibeyov assigned this ensemble the task of collecting folk
dances from all of the regions of Azerbaijan and then introducing
them onstage. We organized special expeditions of musicians,
composers and cameramen, and then sent them to various regions
of Azerbaijan, where they collected folk dances. Those dances
were later included in the repertoire of the ensemble and thus
performed on a professional level.
The year 1940 marked the premiere of "Maiden's Tower",
the first ballet ever composed by an Azerbaijani. My husband,
Afrasiyab, composed the music; I worked out the choreography
and played the main role of the young girl, Gulyanag. We worked
on the ballet at home between 1938 and 1940. You could say that
Afrasiyab and I were the driving forces behind the creation of
this Azerbaijani ballet.
"Maiden's Tower" has always
been my favorite ballet. Isn't the first child always the mother's
favorite? I was so excited during its premiere. I kept running
backstage after every act to sip some water. I was so excited
that I could hardly breathe.
Left: Collecting and documenting folk music
and folk dances in villages, 1930s and 40s.
The storyline of the ballet is based on a legend about the Maiden's
Tower, Baku's most-distinguished landmark, which dates back to
at least the 12th century. A poor young man falls in love with
the khan's daughter, but the girl's father wants her for himself.
The heroine resists her father's advances by jumping off of the
tower. Actually, the ballet does not end "happily ever after",
but its implicit meaning is that love may end in tragedy, but
virtue always triumphs.
When the ballet was first written, the plot was specifically
contrived to fit Soviet ideology, as it depicted the khan as
being so abominable. This storyline was completely rewritten
in 1998, however, through the urging of Afrasiyab's nephew Farhad
Badalbeyli, rector of the Music Academy. He thought the details
of the story didn't ring true for Azerbaijanis. Incest is such
a forbidden offense in Azerbaijani and Muslim culture that there
was no need for a folktale or legend to warn against it.
Left: Gamar in floral printed dress and colleagues
with Founder of Composed Music in Azerbaijan, Uzeyir Hajibeyov.
is considered to be a milestone for several reasons. In nearly
all other classical ballets, the plot is developed through the
dancers' movements on the stage as an imitation of specific actions.
But in this ballet, everything was expressed through the movement
of dance instead of through pantomime. For instance, when the
dancer expresses her love, she does it with her dance only; she
doesn't go up and gesture to the male dancer. Love is expressed
in the emotion and movement of the dancer alone - not in her
interaction with the other dancers.
The first national ballets of the other former Soviet Republics
were completely based on folklore. As a result, some of the plots
themselves were fairly simple. The "Maiden's Tower"
story is also quite straightforward.
However, the introduction is depicted as a dream and becomes
the first divertissement, or interlude, in the ballet. That way,
the ballet dancers have a chance to show their pure choreographic
technique. This method of using divertissements is used in nearly
all of the classical ballets.
When you watch "Maiden's Tower", you can sense immediately
that it is an Azerbaijani ballet. One of the ballet's scenes
features a wedding party with a number of traditional Azerbaijani
dances. I introduced the idea of using "Azeri hands",
which means the way that Azerbaijani women actually use their
hands in dancing. The movement applies only to hands - not to
legs. This interpretation is still being used in the ballet.
Ever since "Maiden's Tower" was restaged in 1949, my
brother has been the artist for the ballet-55 years. He also
designed costumes for the ballet using both national and classical
elements. For instance, for the female dancers he created dresses
that were short enough so that the legs could still be seen.
After all, ballet is the art of the legs. These costumes also
included light chiffon sleeves and tights. In the scenes depicting
national dances, however, the dancers wear traditional Azerbaijani
Variety of Roles
I have played numerous roles during my career as a ballerina.
For instance, I performed the part of Tao Hoa in "The Red
Poppy" (sometimes performed in the USSR under the title
"The Red Flower") by Russian composer Reinhold Gliere
(first staged in 1931). This ballet is set in 1920s China. The
main character, Tao Hoa, is exploited by an evil capitalist named
Li Shan-fu; obviously, this plot served to support Soviet propaganda.
I also portrayed Medora in "The Corsair" by Adolph
Adan (1936); Maria in "Bakhchasaray Fountain" by Asafiyev
(1939); Raymonda in "Raymonda" by Alexander Glazunov
(1943); Odette and Odilia in Tchaikovsky's "Swan Lake"
(1945); and Masha in Tchaikovsky's "Nutcracker Suite"
In 1952, I received the USSR State Prize for my work. The following
year, I started working as head balletmaster for the Azerbaijan
State Opera and Ballet Theater. I staged a number of ballets
there, including: "Gulshan" by Soltan Hajibeyov (1950);
"Seven Beauties" by Gara Garayev (1952); Tchaikovsky's
"Sleeping Beauty" (1955); "Giselle" by Adan
(1961); and "Don Quixote" by Ludvig Minkus (1973).
In 1959, I was awarded one of the Soviet Union's most respected
titles: People's Artist of the USSR.
Sometimes I toured outside of the Soviet Union, to countries
like India, Nepal and France. Every time a group went on tour
outside the country, the KGB would send along a "curator"
with them. Actually, the guy who accompanied us to France was
a very nice guy. I knew him well. But what could he do? He had
been sent there to make sure we didn't do anything that was counter
to Soviet policy.
During our 1969 tour in France, the KGB warned me not to speak
with the great ballet dancer Rudolf Nureyev (1938-1993), who
was there at the time. One of the most celebrated dancers of
the 20th century, Nureyev had defected from the Soviet Union
in 1961. But during one of the performances, Nureyev bought a
ticket for the seat exactly beside mine. Who could ask him to
leave his seat? It was accidental, he said. And so we got a chance
to talk. After I returned from France, I wasn't sure if the KGB
would arrest me or not, but they didn't.
I went on another tour in France with my group in 1974. That
time, the authorities didn't let me take one of my dancers; I'm
not sure why. His name was Baryshnikov. He was so disappointed.
[Baryshnikov defected from the USSR that same year, during a
dance tour in Toronto.]
Between 1970 and 1972, I worked in Iraq at the invitation of
the Iraq Cultural Ministry. They asked me to create an Iraq Folk
Dance Ensemble, a professional ensemble that could perform national
dances. In the end, I managed to create a very good Dance Ensemble
that went on to perform in more than 50 countries and participate
in many international dance festivals.
I also worked hard to establish a Technical School of Choreography
in Baku. I went to Heydar Aliyev myself to ask for this school.
I also went and asked for apartments and national honors for
the members of my artistic group.
Dancing has been my life. The Soviet school of ballet trained
so many talented ballet dancers. I just happened to be one of
them. I was very disciplined. For example, I didn't smoke like
so many of the other ballet dancers did, and I tried never to
be haughty or arrogant. Success seemed to come naturally for
Even though I basically stopped dancing in the 1960s, I still
hear from fans who remember my work. It's very touching. Ballet
is the art of youth. I'd like my audience to always remember
me as a young girl.
To learn about the recent rewriting
and restaging of Afrasiyab Badalbeyli's ballet "Maiden's
Tower", see the article "Maiden's
Tower Ballet: New Plot Rids Soviet Propaganda" in AI
7.4 (Winter 1999). Search at AZER.com.
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