International Puppet Theatre Festival in Baku, Azerbaijan |  Photo courtesy of Day.AZ, Trend
International Puppet Theatre Festival in Baku, Azerbaijan | Photo courtesy of Day.AZ, Trend

GPS | BAKU, AZERBAIJAN |  On November 9, the second international puppet theater festival opened in Baku. Reports I heard say the opening ceremony was rather solemn, with journalists and photographers perched at various locations at the festival’s main venue: the Azerbaijan State Puppet Theater named after Abdullah Shaig.

(Other festival venues are the Azerbaijan State Russian Drama Theater named after Samad Vurgun, and the State Theater of Young Spectator.)

The festival is co-organized by Azerbaijan`s Ministry of Culture and Tourism, International Puppet Theaters Association (UNIMA). Predictably the Deputy Minister of Culture and Tourism Adalat Valiyev spoke. He affirmed that the festival was organized under “The Azerbaijani Theater in 2009-2019” State Program. Jacques Trudeau, UNIMA’s Secretary General, spoke briefly about his association representing some 87 countries.

Azerbaijan sits in Eurasia. Its main city, Baku, rests in the Europe, but about half of it is in Asia. Many consider Azerbaijan culturally European though, because of the secular lifestyle and education system that is similar to Eastern European countries.

Although it is a transcontinental city, I think of Azerbaijan as mostly Asian, because its citizens are mostly Muslim and much of the country’s geography sits in Asia. Azerbaijan does compete in the Eurovision contest, so what do I know? In any case, the country seems to aspire to become the Dubai of the Caucasus, perhaps not in its capitalist ambition but certainly in its facade of opulence.

In November 2011, when the first international puppet theater festival was inaugurated in Baku, the Azerbaijan State Puppet Theater turned 80 years old. It is a venerable institution. The 2011 festival was the first time such a large-scale international festival was organized in the history of Azerbaijani theater. Which perhaps explains the solemnity of the opening ceremony this year.

The second Baku festival, as the organizers deem it, is special: It is so much more than just a theater festival. It is, as the critic Aydin Talibzadeh states in his insightful review in Critical Stages (you can read it here), “an event directed towards the future of the country’s theater culture.”

That’s a pretty tall order. In any case, this year’s festival, which runs until November 16, invited theaters from the United Kingdom, Japan, Italy, Bulgaria, Croatia, Switzerland, Hungary, and Tatarstan for a total of some 12 performances.

Azerbaijan will host a congress of the International Theater Institute under UNESCO in 2014. So if you ever want to visit this fascinating Eurasian country as it dramatically transitions from its dusty, desert roots into the cusp of a flamboyant regeneration, you better start saving money now. — rg

Azerbaijani puppet show “Shangulum - Shungulum,” a favorite among children
Azerbaijani puppet show “Shangulum – Shungulum,” a favorite among children
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