When a new performance opens at the Mongolian State Academic Theater for Opera and Ballet, the hall sells out quickly. The country, which, according to some estimates, possesses as much as $1 trillion-worth of mineral reserves, can afford it.
Some of those already reaping economic benefits from the anticipated mining-sector bonanza are fast becoming patrons of the arts. Louis Vuitton handbags and accessories, Burburry clothing and other geegaws of capitalism stand out when set against the fading pink, neoclassical opera and ballet hall on Ulaanbaatar’s posh Sukhbaatar Square. The theater first opened with a performance of Pyotr Tchaikovsky's Evgenii Onegin in the spring of 1963, coming up on a half-century ago. Over the years, the in-house troupe has performed 49 ballets including classics like Swan Lake, The Nutcracker, Sleeping Beauty and Don Quixote. During the 1950s and ‘60s, Moscow promoted the classical arts among its Communist allies as part of its self-proclaimed “civilization” mission. Hundreds of musicians, poets, writers, composers and dancers from Mongolia were sent to Russia to train at the country’s finest theaters and conservatories. Many returned home, establishing a lively Western classical movement in Mongolia with government subsidies. The embrace of Western classical culture, especially ballet, counts among “the greatest achievements Mongolia made in the 20th century," says Bold Sergelen, director of the State Academic Theater. A former ballerina trained at the Perm State Ballet Academy in Russia, Sergelen believes ballet has enjoyed wider popularity than other Western classical arts like opera in Mongolia: "Ballet is a visual art and all about anatomical beauty—Mongolian people love beauty and come to see beautiful movement." For Baljinnyam Jamyandagva, Mongolia's first ballet master, the strong heritage and discipline inherited from Russian academic training is why the tradition continues in Mongolia. Jamyandagva was among the first group of dancers sent to the Russian Institute of Theater Arts in Moscow, in 1957, where he trained under Leonid Lavrovsky, a celebrated Russian choreographer. In 1962, Jamyandagva returned to Mongolia to help set up the State Academic Theater and promote ballet. By 1980, the theater had 80 dancers. For his efforts, he was awarded the titles Hero of Socialist Labor and People's Artist by the communist government. "It was the golden age of our ballet history,” Jamyandagva recalls. “We were counted as number one in Asia.” Every other year, Ulaanbaatar sent about a dozen 10-year-olds to Russia to train in the best ballet schools. In 1964, a ballet faculty was added to the National Music and Dance College, which continues training children today. "Ballet would not have been developed here without government support," said Jamyandagva. When government funding dried up at the end of the communist period, the arts suffered. "Many artists left the theater to become small-time traders,” says Jamyandagva. “It was a hard time.” In the early 1990s, the 500-seat opera and ballet theater remained mostly empty: tickets were unaffordable for most Mongolians. The situation improved in the last decade with rising middle-class incomes and the resumption of government funding. About 40 dancers and 60 musicians comprise the company today. After years of lobbying, the State Academic Theater also regained government support, sending 12 students to Perm in 2009. Many Mongolians still romanticize ballet, says Tuguldur Badral, who started Ulaanbaatar's first private ballet school – The Royal Ballet Academy – in 2006. Demand is so great that the school has opened four branches, offering lessons to students of all ages. "So many people dream of being ballet dancers. We help them experience this dream,” she said. Rigorous training in the respected Russian tradition has opened doors abroad for Mongolian dancers; lured by better income and international exposure, dozens have made it to stages in America and Europe. A chance to experiment with modern dance is also why dancers like Odsuren Davga, with Germany's Gera Ballet Company, moved to the West. "I've always told myself there is much more than this [Mongolian stage] in the world and I wanted to try different styles," Davga said in an email interview of his decision to go abroad. Theater director Sergelen says she is happy for the recognition brought to Mongolia by dancers who perform internationally, but counts each departure as a loss. "I hope one day we can afford to keep all our best artists,” she says. “Saving classical art is expensive business."
Pearly Jacob is a freelance journalist based in Ulaanbaatar.