Kazakh theatre has its roots in traditional festivities and song contests. The art of improvised declamation of poems, verses and songs was widespread both among the common people and the upper classes, and was continually cultivated and refined. The artists who entertained the people at festivals, family parties and markets with their witty performances were called kit or shanshar.
Theatre came to Kazakhstan as an independent art form along with the Russians. Drama theatres were started up in Orenburg, Omsk and Uralsk, followed later by Tatar travelling theatres. Societies of theatre lovers were established within the Kazakh intelligentsia from 1910 on, celebrating ethnographic musical evenings with performances including short satirical pieces.
The first performance of a Kazakh play is generally believed to have been the premiere of Mukhtar Auezov's Enlik-Kebek, performed in 1917 near Semipalatinsk. Auezov had scrupulously prepared the performance as a wedding gift for one of his relatives. The performance took place in two yurts, joined together and fitted out as a theatre. The first Kazakh drama theatre was established in Kyzylorda, then the capital, in the 1926. In 1929, the company moved to the new capital Almaty. In the 1930s, the first actors graduated from the newly established re school in Almaty, which had attracted graduates from Moscow and Leningrad as teachers. The actors performed Shakespeare and Gogol, and works by a growing number of Kazakh playwrights as well. Auezov played a leading role in this. The evacuation to Kazakhstan of some of the brightest lights of Soviet theatre during World War II also served to promote the development of theatre in Kazakhstan.
Wartime evacuation stimulated the development of ballet too, with the legendary Soviet ballerina Galina Ulanova one of those to dance on the stages of Almaty during the war period. Kazakhstan remains an important training ground for ballet stars who have progressed onto the world stage, among them Altynai Asylmuratova, a former leading ballerina with the Kirov Ballet. Opera also arrived with the Russians. Operas based around Kazakh legends and traditions were developed from the 1930s, including those penned by Evgeny Brusilovsky, born in Rostov on Don but who settled in Almaty in 1933. His operas include Aba; and Kyz-Zhibek.
Almost all Kazakh writers also wrote, and still write, for the theatre. All major cities in Kazakhstan have at least one theatre, in which usually one Kazakh and one Russian company perform. The best known among them are the Auezov Kazakh Drama Theatre in Almaty, in which pieces are also translated into Russian, the Lermontov Theatre in Almaty, and the Kazakh Musical Drama Theatre in Astana.
There are two grand opera houses in Kazakhstan-one in Almaty and one in Astana. Here, in addition to European opera classics, Kazakh opera and ballet are also performed. One should try to attend at least one performance of Abai, Kyz Zhibek, Birzhan y Sara, Aysulu, Yer Targyn or Alpamys.
For the visitor, the opera and ballet on offer at the Abai Opera and Ballet Theatre in Almaty and Baiseitova Opera and Ballet Theatre in Astana are among the best bargains the country has to offer: good-quality performances at a fraction of the price you would pay in western Europe or North America. The repertoires are mostly Russian and western European classics, but they sometimes show Kazakh operas and ballets too.