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short history


Before the end of the 1940s, the field of dance in Turkey mostly consisted of traditional styles of folk dance and ritualistic practices belonging to the religious domain, except for very few Western style dance performances among the social dances, staged in urban settings such as at Republican Balls. Stating that, however, it has to be mentioned that in Istanbul the entertainment and performing arts culture of minorities constituted a noteworthy environment for social dances throughout the 19th century and onwards. They also served a considerable mission in audience-building, also including the Muslim population of the city.


Social clubs, particularly in the Galata and Pera districts, and the cultural centres of the embassies, were spaces of social gatherings. Here performances were displayed by both local artists and foreign travelling groups. Among these the Societa Operaja (Italian), Union Française (French), and Teutonia (German) were the most active institutions in organizing concerts, theatre and dance performances, conferences and balls. The balls organized for charity were also very popular among the minorities. In the beginning, the customers consisted of minorities only, especially Levantines and foreigners. Yet, after World War I, the Turkish population also started to visit them. At first the performers were mostly European ‘revue’ artists. Later Russian ballet artists became regular visitors and performed ballet pieces in these clubs. It is quite interesting to note that although, when compared to other artistic fields such as music and theatre, the establishment of systematized Western dance education emerged rather late, there was already an established social and cultural environment for dance in the city of Istanbul. Nevertheless, it should be added that the scope of this environment could not be expanded to a larger society.


The Turkish Republic was established in 1923, following World War I, and the Republican revolution in social, cultural and political spheres has taken place with great passion. One of the most encouraged features of this huge social transformation was to increase the visibility of women in public life. For folk dance, state-controlled cultural institutions such as the People’s Houses (Halk Evleri) or the state television (TRT) encouraged women’s participation, whereas informal entertainment settings such as the ‘pavyon’ or ‘gazino’ (equivalent of night clubs/cabarets in Europe) were perceived as male spaces and dancing of women in such spaces was not considered appropriate.


 *Institutionalization of the Western Classical Dance Tradition [III] *

Atatürk, the leader and the first president of the Turkish Republic, clearly defined the musical policy of the state after the foundation of the Republic. In his view, it was necessary to establish a new type of music by having the basis in Turkish folk music and applying the polyphonic techniques and methods of Western music to it. The thought of establishing a state ballet school and a company was also part of the early Republican approach, strongly connected to the mission of creating a national culture in modern Turkey. Resulting from the wish of establishing a ballet school, we know that the new directors of the opera and theatre conservatory, Paul Hindemith and Carl Ebert, seriously considered opening a ballet section in the conservatory. They even designed an educational program, consisting of three periods, in total comprising a period of ten years. In the end, however, this project was not realized. Towards the end of the 1940s, People’s Houses (Halk Evleri), an important Republican project, were closed as well.


A law was put into practice on the 16th of May 1940. The conservatory which was founded inside the Musiki Muallim Mektebi was separated to become an entity of its own. This newly established “State Conservatory” consisted of music, opera, ballet, and theatre departments. Although music, opera and theatre were there from the start, the ballet department had not been opened until 1948. Several attempts were made to set up a ballet department. It was even considered to get in touch with the Russian authorities, but without success. Metin And informs us that investigations had been made to send ballet students to Russia in 1935, it had again been reconsidered in 1936, but had never been achieved.


The idea of a Turkish state-sponsored ballet was born in the above mentioned conditions of the 1940s. The founder of English Royal Ballet, Dame Ninnette de Valois, was invited to establish the Turkish State Ballet Conservatory in 1948 in Istanbul. In 1950 this conservatory was moved to Ankara. This was also the year when Turkey saw the transition to a multi-party political system. Therefore, as the second phase of Republican nation-state, ballet institutions were situated in a more complex social context with the democratic reforms followed by a reallocation of political power. The ballet institutions were totally sponsored by the state and in the beginning employed British staff. 


As time went by, the Turkish dancers and teachers who were raised from the first institutions became important actors in the development of classical ballet and modern dance in Turkey. Yet, they were only practicing inside the state institutions. In 1965, Dame Ninette de Valois choreographed, ironically, the first “Turkish” ballet piece called Çeşmebaşı/ The Fountain. In 1968, the first Turkish born choreographer, Sait Sökmen’s, staged his Çark/ Grindstone and was followed by Duygu Aykal, Oytun Turfanda, and Geyvan McMillen’s original modern ballet choreographies giving a hint for later modern dance pieces. They were experimenting more with Turkish symbols, stories, music, and, to a lesser degree, with movement originating from the Turkish bodies rather than with a dictated western classical style.


Even though the western classical dance style was already firmly established, young choreographers were searching for a new Turkish way of moving. There was also the tension between the classical and modern styles of dancing. In fact, young Turkish dancers who had left for Europe and America – students of Merce Cunningham and followers of the technique of Martha Graham – returned back to Turkey and began to establish a Turkish modern dance scene in the late 1970s. Geyvan McMillen, Beyhan Murphy and Aydın Teker, were one generation of pioneers in modern dance, also establishing the first modern dance departments in universities and modern dance companies inside State Opera and Ballet Houses. Nowadays the only modern dance company is located in the Ankara State Opera and Ballet House, called MDT/Modern Dance Company. However, there is also an attempt to establish a Modern Dance Company in the Istanbul State Opera and Ballet House. Until the late 1980s, dance as it was practiced in the Western form of ballet and modern dance, had always been sponsored by state institutions and there was no independent dance company. Therefore the choreographers were always confined to a state institution.


 *Independent Contemporary / Modern Dance Scene [III] *

It has been a long journey from classical ballet to modern dance in Turkey, especially since there was less support for original works and for choreographers/ teachers to establish themselves, and since there was a lot of enthusiasm for foreign/western import. Maybe one of the weaknesses of the westernization ideology has been this great enthusiasm for importing western culture and caring less about creating own resources along the way. Blending native tradition and western modernism harmoniously, Turkey should have dwelled into the original sources more enthusiastically and with much less prejudices. However, following the collapse of an empire and its traditions, combined with radical changes on a societal level, introducing an evolutional ideology (after 1923; there have been many new policies concerning the religious practices, written language, clothes, state laws and regulations) did not create the ideal circumstances for less prejudices on traditional sources and their contemporary transformation into something really original.


It is not a coincidence that only after the 1980s the independent artists began to flourish in the contemporary dance field. After the last military intervention in 1980, the democratization process went hand in hand with privatization and a lessening of state control in economy-related matters. This had the expected effects on the civil life of Turkish citizens, most visibly in the cultural field. An independent cultural/artistic field began to develop with the foundation of private media and increased communicational tools in popular culture. The only independent company for classical ballet was founded by Cem Ertekin in 1972 and continues to perform until today. The first independent professional modern dance company was the Türkuaz Modern Dance Company (1989-1994) inaugurated by Aysun Aslan and İzzet Öz. Although the life of the company was short (only 5 years), it was very important in creating a younger dance audience.


The ‘80s as a period was also important to witness the establishment of modern dance clubs in two universities, namely Boğaziçi (in İstanbul) and METU/ODTU (in Ankara). Students who were involved with movement research and dance usually came from a variety of disciplines such as engineering, social sciences, literature, or architecture. They began the first choreographic experiments in the university clubs and upon graduation continued to form independent companies in the ‘90s such as Green Grapes, Kumpanya Ballet Türk, Ballet Modern Ankara and Contemporary Dance Workshop (Çağdaş Dans Topluluğu). These establishments gave way to more interdisciplinary search in 2000s. Some names that are important in this context are Aydın Teker – as one of the university professors who started to choreograph site specific works – Mustafa Kaplan and Filiz Sızanlı (Taldans), Zeynep Günsür (Movement Atelier), Handan Ergiydiren Özer (22/11 Project Ensemble), Şafak Uysal (Laboratuar- Performans Art Research and Project Laboratory-), Tuğçe Ulugün (REM Dance Company), Bare Feet Company, İlyas Odman (Undernine Dance and Movement Project), Emre Koyuncuoğlu (Emre Koyuncuoğlu Project), Talin Büyükkürkciyan (Prospero Company ), Ayrin Ersöz, İDT+, with solo works like Ziya Azazi Dance Project, Ayşe Orhon, Özlem Alkış, Sevi Algan, Aytül Hasaltun and younger dancers/choreographers like Aslı Bostancı, Esra Yurttut, Erdem Gündüz, Lerna Babikyan, Ufuk Şenel, Fırat Kuşçu, Alper Marangoz, Sezen Tonguz.