The Republic of Belarus (Belarusian: Рэспубліка Беларусь; Russian: Республика Беларусь), a landlocked country in Eastern Europe with Minsk as it capital, is bordered by Russia to the north-east, Ukraine to the south, Poland to the west, and Lithuania and Latvia to the north-west. Until the 20th century, the lands of modern-day Belarus belonged to several countries; it later became a founding constituent republic of the Soviet Union and was renamed the Byelorussian Soviet Socialist Republic (Byelorussian SSR). During the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Belarus declared independence on 25 August 1991.
The first evidence of travelling puppeteers in Belarus can be found as far back as the 15th century. Some traces of the shows given by Zachary and Ossip Yakubovsky in Vitebsk in the 17th century exist. Later, in the 18th and 19th centuries various European troupes traversed the countryside, presenting different types of puppets and shows both mechanical and manual.
Origins: The Batleyka
Batleyka (derived from the Polish Betleem, Bethlehem) is a characteristic form of popular theatre in Belarus, the oldest evidence of its presence dating from the end of the 16th century. Batleyka (sometimes also known as zhlob or yaselka) emanates from the European Mystery plays which the Jesuits exported to Belarus via Poland. It was a Nativity play, related to the Polish szopka and the Ukrainian vertep (see Nativity Scenes). It was staged in a wooden cabinet or box in the form of a church or a two-storeyed house. Small rod puppets, sometimes covered in rabbit skin to deaden the noise of friction against the wood, were moved through slots pierced in the lower part of the staging. Inside, the cabinet was lined with pictures of the saints. The performing space was composed of a central section where the action took place, with two archways for the entries and exits of the little figures. The show was divided into two parts. The first part combined the mystery of Jesus’ Nativity and the death of King Herod.
Initially, when the batleyka was an exclusively ritual practice, only this part was shown. But from the 17th century, the religious part started to lose its superior function to the greater profit of a second part both secular and profane which consisted of humorous and often obscene sketches with comic dialogue, slapstick jokes and puns. The principal character of many of these sketches was a Belarusian peasant, a blundering, cunning mischief-maker answering to the name of Matey. He kept company with various other character types of various nationalities and different occupations (the Doctor, the Dandy, the Gypsy, the Jew, the Cossack, etc.). The number and order of the scenes depended on the skill of the solo performer who animated and provided the voice for up to forty puppets. The batleyka was accompanied by music (very often on the violin and tambourine).
When the Church realized that what had been a sacred custom was now pure entertainment, they objected. Ironically, their disapproval seemed to serve the spread and the popularity of the batleyka which was to be seen everywhere – in homes, taverns, streets, town and village squares – the tradition handed down from one generation of showmen to the next. At the end of the 19th century, at a time when popular traditions were losing their dynamism, an attempt was made to write down the scripts and the shows of the puppeteers. The batleyka is mentioned in records as late as the 1920s. It played a decisive role in the development and staging of the Belarusian theatre. Its themes, intrigues and ideas have fed the revivals of many theatre directors. Since the 1980s, theatre companies have also been inspired by its two-tier stage structure, as well as the fusion of the sacred and profane in the one show.
The Soviet Era
In the 1930s, the art of puppetry took its inspiration from Russian and Ukrainian models. Public enthusiasm and the financial support of the State brought the establishment of specialized training which resulted in a number of companies, amateur and professional. The first national theatre, the Belorusskyi gosudarstvennyi teatr kukol (Belarusian: Белорусский государственный театр кукол; Belarusian State Puppet Theatre), was set up in Gomel in 1938. During World War II, the group made productions for the army. They subsequently took up a permanent residency in Minsk in 1950. The most glorious period of their history is forever linked with the names of Anatoly Lelyavsky (1923-1995), director, and Leonid Bykov (b.1927), chief designer who co-directed the company to the end of the 1950s. They brought with them a vogue for heroics, for Romanesque intrigues and for unpredictable artistic solutions. They contributed to the enrichment of the Belarusian stage with a wide variety of puppets and expanded the register of stage techniques.
Since the 1960s, the vast territory occupied by the Republic of Belarus was peppered with puppet theatres. They were usually created by performers and theatre companies, and later on became independent units. This pattern of growth lasted until the end of the 20th century.
At the beginning of the 21st century, every town in Belarus enjoyed its own State puppet theatre, an extraordinary state of affairs for such a small country: there was Gomel (est. 1963), Brest (est. 1968), Mogilev (est. 1976), Grodno (est. 1981), Vitebsk (est. 1985), Maladzyechna (or Molodechno; est. 1990, the Minsk Regional Puppet Theatre).
In 1996, a national UNIMA Centre was formed with its headquarters in the rooms of the Brest Puppet Theatre, directed by Mikhail Shavel who was also appointed President of the Centre.
From an aesthetic point of view, Belarusian puppetry is the fruit of national theatre traditions and also the rich heritage of certain of its neighbouring countries: Poland, Lithuania, Russia and Ukraine.
The local productions are distinguished by a balanced mix of experiment and accessibility. They vary as to genre, scale and technique (from the traditional Batleyka to popular musical revues). Since the 1990s, the puppetry of Belarus, having won the same rights as those enjoyed by the actors’ theatre, has flourished alongside plays, musicals, pop music and the visual arts. Here, puppetry is considered an art form both respected and extremely popular. The various companies, in spite of their distance apart, are in constant communication with each other, happily collaborating with other partners all over the world.
The leading directors (Mikalay Andreyev, Alexey Lelyavsky, Oleg Zhyughda, among others) work with different companies, at home or abroad. The importance they attach to world classics (The Miracle of Saint Anthony and The Blue Bird by Maurice Maeterlinck; The Star Child by Oscar Wilde; The Chairs by Eugene Ionesco; William Shakespeare’s The Tempest and Macbeth; The Suicide by Nicolai Erdman; The King and Strip-tease by Słavomir Mrożek) does not stop them from immersing themselves in the national repertoire and enriching the work by collaborations with contemporary writers.
Belarusian puppeteers are highly regarded throughout the world, and the country regularly hosts international festivals: in Minsk (since 1990), and in Brest (since 1996). The Belaya Vezha (Белая Вежа; White Tower), an annual festival founded in part by the Brest puppet theatre, is distinguished by the richness of its programming.
Since 1975, the Belarusian State Academy of Arts (Belorusskaja Gosudarstvennaja Akademija Iskusstv; Белорусская государственная академия искусств) in Minsk has been training professional performers, directors and designers for puppet theatre. In 2005, the courses were headed by Alexey Lelyavsky.