Gypsy culture in Russia

26/08/2005 14:23

MOSCOW. (RIA Novosti political commentator Anatoly Korolev). -- A special course for gifted young gypsies is to start at the Shchukin Theater School in Moscow in September.

The man behind the project is actor, producer and singer Nikolai Slichenko, art director of the world's only national gypsy theater, the Romen Theater.

Slichenko set up the course for a number of reasons: firstly, the theater, which opened in 1931, will soon mark its centenary; secondly, the theatre troupe desperately needs new recruits; and thirdly, there are concerns about the general state of gypsy culture in Russia today.

No one knows exactly when gypsies first came to Russia. However, it is known that the Russians received the nomadic people with warmth and curiosity. The passionate gypsy temperament melted the wintry Russian soul. Count Orlov-Chesmensky, a music lover, was the first to halt the nomads' eternal roaming when 227 years ago he set up a gypsy serf chorus, headed by a russified gypsy, Ivan Sokolov. The chorus's repertoire consisted mainly of folk songs, but they sang with such passion and emotion that they quickly became popular in Russia.

Alexander Pushkin was the first to popularize gypsy culture among the educated public. His poem The Gypsies instilled the spirit of gypsy freedom in the Russian mind, and made gypsy culture an integral part of Russia.

The greatness of gypsy culture lies in their interpretation of various art forms.

No one in Turkey performs the belly dance better than gypsies. No one in Spain dances flamenco better than the gypsies and no one sings the Russian brutal romance (a popular genre of Russian song) better than the gypsies.

In fact, gypsy songs are based on traditional Russian melodies. Even if romances are sung in the gypsy (Romani) language, they use the compositions of Alyabyev, Varlamov and Gurilev, and the lyrics of Derzhavin, Fet, Koltsov, Apukhtin and Pushkin. Pushkin's famous Black Shawl is a particularly striking example.

At the same time, the extremely dramatic style of performance made the traditional Russian melodies part of the gypsy world. This is the world of an ancient nomadic nation of magicians and horsemen. Unfortunately, gypsy traditions are largely oral, as strictly speaking they do not have their own written language. Gypsies mostly use the written languages of the peoples in whose midst they live. Their equivalent of the Bible has not been written so far, unless you count the magnificent collection of gypsy fairytales.

One of the few successful decisions made by the Soviet government was the decision to set up an Indo-Roman Theater Studio. An order to this effect was issued in January 1931. This was conceived as a purely political step, but had an unexpected outcome: the aristocrats of the Russian theater, and the leading actors and directors of the Moscow Art Theater - Vasily Kachalov, Ivan Moskvin, Alla Tarasova - took "the barbarians" under their wing, while Stalin's favorite, Alexei Khmelev, married the great gypsy actress Lyalya Chornaya. However, Mikhail Yanshin, an outstanding actor of the Moscow Art Theater and pupil of Stanislavsky, was particularly instrumental in promoting gypsy culture. He staged The Blood Wedding and The Shoemaker's Wonderful Wife by Federico Garcia Lorca at the Romen Theater.

Something quite remarkable happened: the gypsies took to the Stanislavsky System (method of acting). They were quick to learn his method of representation and emotional recall and demonstrated the organic nature of their scenic life. In this way, a unique theater with its own artistic identity appeared in one of the theater capitals of the world.

The Romen Theatre is now in a critical state. It is no longer fashionable, and needs "fresh blood."

At a press-conference, Slichenko bitterly recalled a recent incident when one of his leading actors told him he would be unable to attend a dress rehearsal because he could not afford to buy a subway ticket.

The theater has, however, made its first steps toward revival. The first twenty students have been admitted to the studio. These steps reflect general changes in the life of Russian gypsies. The Foundation for the Support and Development of Gypsy Culture under the Russian President was set up a number of years ago. The 2002 census showed that there were 180,000 gypsies in Russia, although according to the Federal National-Cultural Autonomy of the Russian Roma (FNCA), there are more than a million of them. Polls conducted by the VTsIOM public opinion research center show that Russians' attitudes to gypsies are four times better than their attitudes to Chechens. To a certain extent gypsies are still shunned and subject to prejudice in Russia. There are still a lot of people who do not like the semi-nomadic people's colorful, bold and passionate way of life.

The gypsies have finally got their own flag: it consists of two equal horizontal bands - blue and green. In the center, there is a red wheel with eight spokes, which is both a symbol of roaming and a Hinduist chakra sign - the symbol of the Sun.

Finland is setting an example for all countries where gypsies live. Under Finnish law, if at least two or three gypsy children attend one school, several classes a week must be conducted in their native language.

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