Heart of Stone Mines Uyghur History for Universal Truths

The piece, which premiered in part at the 2022 Fertile Ground festival, blends dance and theater and takes inspiration from director/choreographer Alisher Khasanov's own life.

By Shannon Daehnke February 7, 2022

Julio Escarce, Leif Schmit, Richard Cohn-Lee, Irina Lavrinenko, Yulia Paradnaya, Christie Zhao, Desiree Roy, and Olga Kravtsova in Heart of Stone

Image: Jason Okamoto

After 11 days and nearly 40 new works from local creators, the 2022 Fertile Ground Festival closed out with a big finish: Heart of Stone, a movement-forward mixed-media production from director and choreographer Alisher Khasonov, producer Olga Kravtsova, and playwright Karen Polinksy.  

Heart of Stone tells the story of a young boy (Leif Schmit), in love with dance and music, who must stand up to his traditional family as he attempts to carve out his own identity. Although the piece is based on Khasonov’s life growing up as a Muslim Uyghur boy in Kazakhstan, the central character does not identify with a specific culture, religion or state, Khasonov says: “He’s just a boy. What happened in this family can happen to anyone regardless of social or religious status." (Khasanov spoke to Portland Monthly through Kravtsova, who is not a trained translator.)  

What the audience saw at Fertile Ground was a two-scene excerpt from the still in-progress Heart of StoneThe first depicts a traditional family celebration, with an immediately identifiable hierarchy: the man (Richard Cohn-Lee) as the head of the household, and the reserved, quiet and polite mother (Irina Lavrinenko). In the middle of the celebration, the boy shows up wearing a dress; everyone reacts differently, but no one is happy.  

“We see a contrast from the celebration of the boy’s family and their fake love, to the boy’s choice and a very tender love,” says Khasanov. “He stands by his personal freedom. And from that statement of freedom, we transition to the story of the nation, the story of the Uyghur people.” The scene has a corollary in Khasanov’s own life: Although he grew up in an artistic family—his mother was both a dancer and a professor—Khasanov's decision to solely pursue the arts was not taken seriously. 

The second scene brings the audience to a cave in the Gobi Desert in China, where an archaeologist has discovered murals on the walls depicting Buddha’s life, and different people and animals, which teach the boy about his culture. It’s the story of the Ughur people, translated on the walls, says Kravtsova.  “If you want to live in the present, you need to study your past,” says Khasanov. “Your roots are very important.” 

Last summer, Khasanov assembled a team of six Portland-based Russian diaspora performers to create a piece called Spirit Awake, which got him thinking about the ways theater actors move their bodies and approach dance material in a different way than most dancers do. This planted the seeds for Heart of Stone, a work that blends theater with choreography.

Kravtsova says in directing Heart of Stone, Khasanov has emphasized the importance of each actor's individual story, which she was conscious of in assembling the project's creative team. Kravtsova herself moved to the U.S. from Russia in 2013, not knowing any English, and faced many limitations regarding which roles she was and wasn’t permitted to play. 

“There’s many people like me who have struggled with the process of expressing themselves because of limitations of what they can say, or what they can do. I was looking specifically for those people,” she says. 

And both emphasize the importance of shared understanding and connection—especially now. 

"It's a difficult time in history. People are anxious. We don't understand what is going on behind the mask. We're very sensitive to touch and physical connection and it's hard, for theater especially," says Kravtsova. 

After its Fertile Ground debut, Kravtsova and Khasanov say Heart of Stone is looking for funding. The team hopes to hire more creatives, further develop the piece, and bring a full production to Portland in the near future. 

“I want every audience member to be an avatar for the boy on his journey. Find the love and trust with the boy, and go forward with it,” says Khasanov. 

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