Ramzan Akhmadov, dancer of Grozny
• LE MONDE | 04.03.02
The director of a children’s dance ensemble that was born under the bombing of Chechnya, has been invited to bring the children to perform in France.
For over twenty years, Ramzan Akhmadov was a star of the Chechen National Ballet, a brilliant performer of the ancient, acrobatic dances of the Caucasus region.
Past master of the arts of somersaults and knife-throwing, he won fame with a star turn where he danced between forty flashing blades. When Russia launched its offensive from 1994-96, bringing massive bombardment and a catalogue of war crimes denounced by international human rights organizations, Ramzan put his knives into the service of peace. Together with his wife, herself a dancer, he founded an ensemble of children in Grozny aged from 8 to 15.
“Children are sensitive and perceptive. Though all they have known since birth is war, I want to show them that other human values exist than destruction, violence and aggression.” In early 1999, Ramzan converted a disused building into a dance hall. Relatives and friends helped him clear the floor of rubble and put exercise bars on the walls. A local firm provided the dancers with the mirrors they needed. “An enormous pillar in the middle of the room was an obstruction. I asked the Chechen Minister of Culture to help us remove it, but then the war began and it was the entire building that was destroyed,” recalls the dancer.
In a short documentary, the French film-maker Mylène Sauloy, one of the few people still to risk filming in Chechnya, shows us the dance hall a few months into this second war: a rocket has carried away a wall and the roof; the façades are pockmarked with bullet holes; the remains of the ceiling are charred by fire. Today, his ensemble Daimohk (‘ancestral land’ in Chechen) rehearses at Grozny’s School no.14 in the Hippodrome area of the city, where gas and electricity have been restored, but not running water. In France, a network of artists – the actors and directors Alain Françon, François Tanguy, Jane Birkin, Ariane Mnouchkine and the choreographers Mathilde Monnier, Maguy Marin… – has organized a tour in France, in order “to give a face to a forgotten people”.
Ramzan Akhmadov, unlike the schoolchildren of Daimohk, had a peaceful childhood.
He only left his village at the age of 18, when he was posted to Leipzig on military service. “It was the first time I ever met people of other nationalities. I was shocked at the way people freely insulted each other, which is forbidden in our society.” Chechens have to weigh their words and maintain discretion, he says. It is through dance and music that emotions are expressed: “dancing, we explode, let ourselves go.”
Following his return, Ramzan was noticed by a well-known choreographer. He had all the qualities prized in Caucasus dancers, being tall and musical, with distinctive Chechen features: strong nose and high eyebrows. When the choreographer offered him a place in his professional company, Ramzan referred the request to his family. “I was given the go-ahead, because all my relatives thought it was just a phase I was going through. Later, I spoke man-to-man with my elder brother, who encouraged me to study economics.”
After this diversion, the artist joined the Chechen National Ballet. The 1994-96 war split the troupe apart. “Two of my best friends were killed, and the director left as a refugee to Moscow.” Ramzan took over the running of the ballet and then decided to found the children’s ensemble. When he announced that Daimohk was recruiting young dancers, over 200 Grozny children came to audition. “I accepted them all. They were already so demoralized that I couldn’t turn them down. I expected that the less motivated children would leave of their own accord when they realized the demands of training.” About 60 children stayed on, committing themselves to the intensive rehearsal regime demanded by these acrobatic dances.
CULTURAL AFFIRMATION IS A DEFENCE
When war broke out again in 1999, only six months after the ensemble was formed, the young dancers’ families went to ground in basement shelters or fled the city. The choreographer left with his family to neighbouring Ingushetia. On returning to Grozny, he found his appartment and Daimohk’s dance hall destroyed. He began to look for the children, and found them in Grozny and the republics of Ingushetia and Kabardino-Balkaria. The national ballet regrouped in exile, but Ramzan decided to stay in Grozny: “I didn’t feel I had the right to abandon these children, even if working with adults is more interesting from the creative point of view.”
The year 2000 began with a quest to secure food and accommodation, in order to rehearse a new programme. Thanks to the support of a British humanitarian organization, the choreographer was able to take the children away for a month to the safety of Kabardino-Balkaria. They were invited to take part in a festival in Turkey, then to Germany on the initiative of the organization Mothers for Peace. This summer, the children returned to their refuge and rehearsal base to prepare the programme that is currently showing in France. In Grozny, in spite of the continuing war, they still gather several times a week at School no.14.
On stage, the children display astonishing energy. “The ensemble gives them moral and psychological support. Their parents are behind us, because there are no other activities for the children in Grozny today.” In the war with Russia, cultural affirmation is a defence. Staying alive, staying in one piece is a struggle in its own right. Ramzan the dancer also teaches the children how to avoid the antipersonnel mines that the Russian army has laid all around the city.