Between late 2020 and early 2022 TaikaBox was busy building a relationship with the art collective ALIF, an incredibly talented group who use dance and music to promote and re-contextualise the Tatar culture. One of our projects – #RememberingFutures – was dedicated to finding new ways of exploring and sharing the interlacing of Tatar and Finnish folklore. The project took place in a hybrid live/online connected studio in Kazan, Tatarstan, Russia, and Oulu, Northern Finland. 

Separated by miles, borders and time zones, we managed to share our improvisations with a live audience in Kazan as part of the biggest independent book festival in the region, accompanied by traditional Tuva music and throat singing, suggesting innovative perceptions and interpretations of the old tales we wouldn’t want to be forgotten, especially now.

In this TaikaTalk we meet the leader and cofounder of ALIF – dance artist and choreographer Nurbak Batulla – who is passionate about dance, storytelling and the ancient traditions of the Tatar people.

Nurbak Batulla

You started “Remembering Futures” with improvisational research on folklore characters. You chose a cute and quite weird one. Would you tell a little more about him? And in general – in every culture, in every constellation of fairy tales there is a temptation to find some general vibe. Would you maybe try to formulate such a vibe for the Tatar folklore?

I would start with my character. This was Div, as it sounds in Russian. He is a negative character in Tatar fairy tales, yet I indeed ended up making him quite sweet. Maybe because the very vibe of our project was kind, and the atmosphere was friendly. So the negative character came out to be quite funny. That’s the way he emerged from me, anyways. Traditionally he basically steals beautiful ladies. 

If we take the researches made by Propp (Vladimir Propp; 1895 – 1970, a folklorist and notable pioneer researcher of the folktales’ structure – TaikaTalk), we would see Div as an inhabitant of the other, deadly, world, usually opposed by heroes who free the beautiful ladies and thus make them come to life. 

Propp created a common scheme for numerous fairy tales and was insisting that one of the basic elements is the character of the magical helper. What was the magical helper – traditional for Tatar folklore?

In ”Remembering Futures” project we, the artists, all were somewhat of magical helpers. Everything grew up from us in its own way. Tanja (Tanja Råman – TaikaBox cofounder and artistic director, dance artist and choreographer – TaikaTalk), in my perspective, got close to our deadly world – and we in ALIF were representing the land of the dead, helping her go through the rite of passage. 

research into Finnish & Tatar folklore as part of Remembering Futures

The fairy tale experience was partly reflected during your open improvisation within the Kazan book festival in the Centre of Contemporary Culture Smena. Yet it was less about the characters, but more about general characteristics of the folklores – Tatar and Finnish – interlaced. So let’s get back to the Tatar folklore in general. What is, in your opinion, the general characteristic/vibe of the Tatar folklore as you would formulate for those who haven’t yet read the Tatar fairy tales? 

I would try, however it isn’t easy since I haven’t thoroughly studied fairy tales of the other nations (I know, of course, Russian fairy tales). Yet indeed, one doesn’t need to go deep to notice that there is Ivan-the-Fool character in Russian fairy tales. I have found an interesting explanation to that (not sure if I ever came across it in some book or discovered it myself). So, in Russian fairy tales the hero is a fool, a lazybones, and there is a possession of passive energy in that. I know it sounds funny…

There is a theory that being passive is the most active resistance to capitalism, for example…

Yes, but in Tatar fairy tales the emphasis is on the very active state of being. The main trait of a hero, as it commonly turns out to be, is outstanding physical power. And he is also outstandingly hard-working. If one speaks seriously about ”national traits”, then perhaps these would be the ones…

The sun rises very early in Kazan. We live by Moscow time, but it feels it could have been a little bit more Eastern. In Summer the sun rises at 3AM, so we all wake up quite early – in comparison to my Saint-Petersburg friends, for example: they just wake up when we’ve reached half of the working day and have done a lot. We like to rise earlier and manage more. Maybe we should think about the passive energy after all! 

I created a performance about it – one of my first solo works, exploring the national martial art – a form of wrestling called kurash. The performance was called Utukhan, which is a toponym referring to the territory which is close to what is now China. There was the place where the First Turkic Khaganate (also referred to as the First Turkic Empire) was established in the year 552. Internal strife began there with time, and China took a part of the territory and one of the sons of the Khagan (emperor). This seemed obviously a loss, a defeat. But in some time this son returns back to his motherland, conquering it, but with the special knowledge of the fighting nomads… In this performance I was trying to explore how what today seems to be defeat might in time turn out to be positive. Maybe… 

One tends to seek positivity. Constant discourse of us getting extinct, dying out, seems no longer possible. That is something I tried to search for in that performance. I also explored passive energy through the body. The fairy tales imply the national character and the national martial arts. This wrestling is quite poor for a martial art, having just three techniques. It’s very archaic and not at all spectacular. One who is not aware of kurash isn’t likely to understand it at all!

Pure power without entertaining elements?

Something like that. For example, there are no such tricks as foot trips. No legs involved, no wrestling on the ground. As soon as the rival falls, the other just has to take the position again. That said, it is a fantastically complicated martial art, if we compare it, let’s say, to judo or any other martial arts. It is physically hard, the physical strain on the musculoskeletal system is very high. I tried to understand how come. There is a spirit in this wrestling that matches the characters of Tatar national folklore. I am afraid that sometimes we seek something more complicated… 

It’s curious that Ivan-the-Fool of Russian folklore is basically exporting the passivity, including to the active Div of Tatar folklore… Is he jealous of being active?

Maybe, only God knows… If we take Russian culture and things happening in Russia, maybe there is a conflict. The archaic culture meets the modern world agenda. Perhaps the connection is what is missing… The connection to the roots and the contemporary as well. 

If the modern collective Ivan-the-Fool was more passive, maybe everybody would benefit…

Maybe… 

You mentioned that you were ”discoursing through the body”. Your father was an outstanding Tatar public figure, a notable writer who would actively protect the Tatar language. Did you have a feeling that you refer to the language of the body because it is maybe more powerful than that of words – which seems to be more vulnerable? And do you think – as an artist and father yourself – if our children will seek some other language, even harder to be silenced? 

Originally, when I chose the language – and the path – of the body (it happened quite early, when I was eleven I entered the ballet academy), I didn’t put much thought into it. That’s definitely what you don’t do when you’re just eleven. It’s rather the intuition and the flow. Of course, my dad played a big role in that, kindly guiding me towards the body.

Do you think he tried to protect you by this as he himself faced persecution for his activism from the authorities? 

Maybe… Also, perhaps, there was an idea of developing a more universal language, so that I could communicate outside Russia as well… If you become an artist specialising in words, it strongly narrows your audience and limits the dialogue within this connection. I would presume he was expecting classical dance though, dedicated to the Tatar cultural agenda, maybe he saw me choreographing some classical ballets… Anyways, however, I think he assumed that dance would give me more freedom than words – geographically and politically. I guess he indeed had it in mind. 

And of course, our idol was Rudolph Nuriev (a Soviet ballet dancer who gained political asylum in Paris in 1961 – TaikaTalk). He changed the male ballet by bringing massive innovation to the role of a man in the ballet. The fandom was called back in the days ”Rudimania” and it was converted to a motivation to dance. There was a desire to study – although it’s a lot about routine and boredom and hardship. Dad was using such motivational instruments to support me. 

In modern days, however, the dance performances dedicated to Nuriev have been cancelled, their creators persecuted…  Although many think that it is so much harder to silence the body language than the one of words. How do you feel about the now? Do you feel you are free to express yourself fully or do you feel certain limits?

Self expression is currently not the main goal of my life. I used to be interested in self expression a lot previously. Nowadays I am more interested in the legacy of Jerzy Grotowski (the Polish theatrical director and innovative theorist, exploring the immersiveness and psychotherapeutic trait in the rehearsing and performing contexts – TaikaTalk). He has this idea of an actor as a channeling guide. An actor or a performer after certain training becomes a channel between the world of ideas and the audience. To put it in other words, at a certain moment he becomes more than the person expressing oneself. He becomes more than he actually is. 

The other reason I resonate with Grotowski is that he was seeking and exploring the energies and power through connecting to one’s own roots. Of course, he was going through a lot of polemics. But he took it from the political paradigm towards the spiritual one. Quite a curious way to go…

You’ve been talking about connection with the audience, and your performances have been dealing a lot with energies and emotional connection to those who witness them. How did you manage to restore the feeling of connection after the era of Corona-related lockdowns? How hard was it for you to lose that connection and how did you compensate? Did technology play its part in the process?

It was a very hard time for me, the lockdown time. Now it’s a little easier, but during the first wave in March 2020 we all were staying at home for at least three months, and it turned out to be a very big and unexpected challenge. I had thought I had quite a strong psyche, and it turned out to be not that simple (smiles). The limitation of freedom is obviously hard. To be honest, I had to address the specialists and work with a psychologist. We came to a conclusion that since I was eleven I got used to channeling my energies – both positive and negative, any, – outside through the body, through shouting out. And suddenly I had lost this instrument which had been my basic one throughout  the years. I went through a big spiritual stress. 

And it’s a good moment to refer to our previous question and answer: what seems bad to us right now after years might be read completely differently. Thanks to the lockdown, when we were finally allowed to rehearse, even without the audience yet, we were lucky to give birth to a new, very expressive performance, ”SakSok” – also based on the Tatar folklore. Turning back after two years I realise that if not for the lockdown and the inner crisis it had triggered, there would have been no performance. 

Can you give a hint of the essence of SakSok? It seems to have resonated with the audience and the artistic community. 

We were performing with Marat Kazikhanov (also one of the leading participants in #RememberingFutures – TaikaTalk). Together we made a performance alongside two female vocal artists and two percussionists and some electronic music. This is a bait, an ancient poetic folklore art piece transmitted from generation to generation. This is a story about two brothers who quarrelled over the arrowhead and the mother cursed them, to put it briefly. The two brothers – who were also the twins – turned into the birds, Sak and Sok. The mother, after having realized her curse, had no power to cancel the magic. So this is quite a tragic story about the two brothers who can never get back together. 

Sounds sad.

Indeed. It is a powerful archetype. This book seems to be remembered by all, with its scary illustrations. When we started digging deeper into this matter, it turned out there is a deeper version of this myth. The brothers had a father. And some evil forces built a wall which blocked the sun, and the father sent his sons to find a magical arrow that could break the wall, and that’s how they ended up arguing about who would be the first to present the arrow to the father. He was too anxious to wait for their arrival back and went to ruin the wall with his bare hands. He ruined the wall and saved all the living, but burnt himself to death. That is why the mother cursed the children. But the higher god Tengri – this is all pre-Islam folklore – felt sorry witnessing his heroism, and allowed him to come back to life once every half a year. So the father hero returns as a raven every Spring and every Autumn comes back to the world of the dead. That is the reason everything in nature hibernates and the Winter comes and the sun goes away. This archetype is also classical for the Ancient Greek myths. 

So in the performance we made a ritual out of that, the rite of passage. We don’t exactly illustrate this story, because many know it well here, we made our own rite of passage on the basis of this storyline.

Nurbak and Marat Kazikhanov in SakSok

There seemed to be a lot of rite of passage topic in “Alif”, where you performed on sand covering the stage, the performance that won you the most prestigious theatrical prize (and nationwide recognition) in Russia – the Golden Mask. 

Yes, it was more pure there. ”SakSok” was more expressional, full of splashes of emotional paint, of bright colours. ”Alif” was more meditative.   

How did you come up with the image of the sand? There’s so much in it – its flow, rapid flow, and the roots lacking, and the soil being dry, and the loneliness of the desert or purity of the seashore, and the time flowing away in the sandglass – a lot of stuff out there! And then you chose “Alif” as the name of your art collective. How did it come to affecting your artistic path in such a big way?

“Alif” was indeed the first common work of our team. We got a director Tufan Imamutdinov, choreographer Marsel Nuriev who was with us in ”Remembering Futures”… The idea came to Tufan. He suggested that we ”write with a body” Arabian letters on the sand. We, the Tatars, used Arab script over a thousand years – until 1927, so relatively until recent times in the historical context… It is a serious stress for the culture – such a dramatic change of the lettering, the font typeface. 

The Arab script implies writing from right to left, one letter flowing into another in a rounded, non-cornery way gives one perception of the text and the whole world. The other thing is writing from left to right. It seemed to be somewhat of the ”Eastern” perception rapidly turning into ”European” perception without notice, in regards to texts.

And if we just put all what could seem esoteric stuff away, it is all at least about a huge amount of work being left un-decoded, the connection was sharply broken. 

Now is a situation when there is not much sense to translate those texts as certain fields of science died, and at the same time it is not possible to NOT translate them because otherwise our culture has allegedly started just some tens of years ago instead of hundreds and thousands… 

Your father translated the Koran from Turkish to Tatar, and that’s huge..

I’d say it was more of an interpretation than translation… And yes, it was huge… Usually something like that is done by a team of scientists. In this case there was just one man… He also found the flaws in other translations. They could have been done by very qualified people in terms of the religion and science of religions, but not too qualified in terms of the Tatar language. 

Bad translations, as we know, contribute much to islamophobia. 

Yes, perhaps. I must say that my father’s translation stayed many years a bestseller and people kept looking for it – it was understandable. The undeniably qualified smart people translated the Koran interpretations into something Tarabarian – a non-understandable language not meant to be perceived… 

They were qualified and reputed from the point of view of the Soviet authorities. Didn’t go in line with reality so many times… 

The idea of ALIF came in the late 2010s, and the performance came to life ahead of the Summer when the authorities passed a law about national education where all the languages of the national minorities, all the national languages were transferred from compulsory to vocational. 

De-facto it means that people got very few chances to actually learn their native language…

Yes, the new context emerged… There was a tension in the society. Many people cried during the “Alif” performance… 

Do you think the technology the contemporary artists are experimenting with has the potential to let people who deal with the language of the body and of the words understand there is a salvation against the censorship in it? And how did you personally feel while experimenting with such a bundle of technology within #RememberingFutures?

I was at first very frightened. I was quite skeptical in the beginning. Can you really do anything with another Skype or Zoom analogue, I thought. I didn’t really believe in it. It is also some kind of a phobia – techno- and mediaphobia… It reduced dramatically along the project! This is our common success. It drives me to have a closer look into technologies. I used to deny them… I thought I was making a conscious decision. Now I know it was driven by fear of them and in general – the admitting that they are here to stay. I still feel quite incompetent in this, I trusted fully to Tanja and John (TaikaBox cofounders – dance artist Tanja Råman and visual artist John Collingswood – TaikTalk).

Nurbak and Tanja improvised duet in the connected studio

Do you have a dream project and a dream picture of the Tatar culture within the mosaic of international one? In other words, what are the futures you would want to remember?

I keep studying Grotowski. It seems to me he managed to come up with something of a social ritual and the sources of energy, and his legacy involves a rich luggage carried by interesting directors of theatre and cinema. It started to boil in a cultural kettle, and the passionarist vibes came out (passionarism is the term suggested by Russian philosopher and historian Lev Gumilyov, offering an image of the wish to change things with inaction to do so – TaikaTalk). I guess this approach went in line with the polemics of the Soviet authorities. I hope for such boiling, for the positive passionare impulses to emerge within the context. That would be digging deeper than in the last eight decades… 

The problem now is that they try to force us to believe that the Tatar culture is eighty years old. You can ask anyone in Tatarstan – of Russian or Tatar origin – who is the most famous poet, and they would answer: Gabdulla Tuqay. He died in 1913. Or if you ask what’s the main food, they would answer Çäkçäk. It is the postcard attitude to culture, isn’t it. It doesn’t give away the energy. It rather triggers low self-esteem and an inferiority complex. That starts the feeling of oneself as the one belonging to cripple culture. That I am at least a little pushed, not having proper poets, and proper history, and my ancestors are all somewhat like Div… And then one wouldn’t want to think about that at all… Nobody remembers Saif Sarai, the medieval 14th century poet and scientist who discovered facts about the solar system hundreds of years ahead of Nikolas Copernicus – he was the one telling that the Earth goes around the sun, not vice-versa. And this is just one of many examples…

More of the white privilege prevailing historical education…

Yes. And when a person has this inferiority complex, it becomes dangerous. And that is the big danger! When one is self-sufficient, knowing one’s virtues and drawbacks, then one is at peace, living, working on oneself and accepting oneself and others. Many are afraid of separatism and such. But things are likely to be the other way around. We were in fact forbidden to learn the Tatar language as if the ban prevents separatism. I think it is actually more dangerous to have this ban. The suppressed energy, as any psychologist would confirm, is dangerous. (I am not a psychologist, of course…)

But these are the humanitarian basics…

Coming mostly out of literature… Things seeming obvious turning out to be out there paradoxically… It is obvious that the priority of funding is into education and medicine. For some reason it doesn’t work. It seems also obvious that one should be interested in one another, and sustain the dialogue of cultures. Yet it seems so different in the reality. 

The combination of ancient truths and myths with something very new like cutting-edge technology and building horizontal connections – especially in the field of arts – is that out of desperation or is it more about a healthy potential? Could there be futures to remember with any of those? 

I don’t know. I can’t be either optimistic or pessimistic. If we come back to fairy tales, there’s often the image of a mirror. Maybe that corresponds to our modern technology? Like now I am looking through one and seeing you, although we are thousands of kilometres apart. But does that solve basic questions? The one of happiness? The one of the relationship with your ego? I’m not sure. 

Maybe our children will have the solution?

Maybe…  

performance of Remembering Futures at SMENA, Kazan.

Nurbak Batulla was talking with Lölä Vlasenko

Remembering Futures was made possible by support from the Finnish Ministry of Education and Culture and Dance Info Finland.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.