Michel Hallet Eghayan at work

Michel Hallet Eghayan: ‘The Rhythm of My Dances Is the Rhythm of Charents’ Poetry’

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By Artsvi Bakhchinyan

Special to the Mirror-Spectator

YEREVAN — On July 24, ballet fans here had the great opportunity to enjoy one of the best contemporary ballet companies of France, named after its founding director, Michel Hallet Eghayan. Six dancers presented the new piece of Hallet Eghayan, named “Hurrah!”

Before that they performed it in Gavar and Sevan – towns, where ballet is totally absent.

Hallet Eghayan was born in 1946 in Lyon, to an Armenian mother and a French father. In 1973, in New York, he studied with eminent ballet teachers Margaret Craske and Merce Cunningham. Back in his hometown in 1976, he founded his eponymous company at the same time as the school. He is also the co-founder of the Maison de la Danse of Lyon. Since then, he has created about 100 performances (“Back Forward,” “Orlando Furioso,” “The Creek Island,” “Tribute to Kandinsky,” etc.).

I conducted this interview with Michel after watching the general rehearsal of “Hurrah!”

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Michel, barev, lav es? (Hi Michel, are you fine?).

Parev, lav em… (Hi, I am fine).

You were in Armenia 23 years ago.

That’s right, we came here, and you remember that, in spring 1996, you saw our piece named “Hommage a Kandinsky.” It was extremely impressive for us to perform that piece at that time at that opera. And we came again in December 2018 with a special mission in Gegharkunik province, where we ran workshops for children in Gavar and Sevan, organized by the municipalities of Grenoble and Lyon. The current trip was also organized by politicians in France, who are involved in culture and who link relations with Armenia, and especially the department of art of the city of Grenoble. They approached me through the beautiful museum Saint-Antoine-l’Abbaye, which has a huge, gorgeous convent with a wonderful museum led by Geraldine Mocelin, who fell in love with the work of our dance company.

She saw my production based on Armenia, “Le chante de Karastan” (The Song of Stoneland, i. e. Armenia), was absolutely impressed and asked me for a new piece, so I staged this new performance and now we are here in Armenia to be linked to its art and maybe heart.

And Tigran Hamasyan’s music was the most suitable piece for your performance?

I just fell in love with his music. He is a musical genius. When I first met his music, he was only 29, and I said to myself: wow, he is so young and where he is going? If he is going too high, his music might be in danger. He came to my studio in Lyon and said: ‘OK, Michel, go ahead with the performance.’ It is a pity he was not here, but with his wife Ellen in Los Angeles, I guess, they are happy and continue making beautiful music and a lot of other beautiful things.

Going back to Kandinsky, I could see some similarities between it and “Hurrah!” particularly, in both productions we see the dancing in silence.

I would love to do that, but you know, that is not something new. Isadora Duncan, Martha Graham, Doris Humfrey, Merce Cunningham did that same. For me it is a source of happiness, because the rhythm of dance you get is pure, absolutely direct and wonderful.

For me Kandinsky’s final was the best part with its flashing movements of lights and shadows.

Listen, listen, listen, you have a wonderful memory. It was Maurice Ravel’s music, named The Mourning Song of Kaddish or Two Hebrew Melodies. I am happy you remember the final, because it means that hopefully the dance was a bit of the level of the music.

And “Hurrah”’s final was also very impressive, as it was unexpected. Generally, in big contemporary choreographic productions with no dramaturgy involved, I think it is always a challenge how to end it.

You speak about the theatrical, literal or philosophical dramaturgy, but in dancing, for me the dramaturgy can be also inside of the soul. The dramaturgy is the necessity of what the soul needs. But in art we have to fail so many times, I have not succeeded so many times, I was sad so many times, so I always tried to find the right solution, and often what you did find is not right, but hopefully the final of Kandinsky was right. I hope for “Hurrah!” it was right too.

Performing a choreography by Michel Hallet Eghayan

It was absolutely right for both cases… You always say dancing is a facet of thinking. Every choreographer has his own facet of thinking. What is your characteristic facet?

It is so hard to say. I thought you were a good guy, but you are not! I cannot answer such a question (laughing). The right point at the right time depends on what we are living now. We cannot decide like that, as it is not an intellectual process, but a mental process. The mental is the point when the breath of you goes ahead with the breath of God. It happens sometimes once or twice in life. When it happens once or twice in our life, we have a beautiful life.

Great answer. And now please tell me about your influences and inspirations.

You know, just now I have an influence from you, as I am very glad to meet in Yerevan such a kind man with a glance so deep and serious…

Michel, please! I am not going to write about myself.

Actually whatever you write you write also about yourself. Aragon’s wonderful book on Henri Matisse is not only about Matisse, but also on Aragon himself.

Well, but what about your inspirations as a choreographer? You studied in United States, and in some parts of your current productions I could see the principles of George Balanchine, who used to illustrate the music with dance movements…

Very clever, very clever, very clever! This guy is clever! You know, my teacher Merce Cunningham loved Balanchine’s works. He loved to speak with me (sometimes in French) and he was saying: you know, Michel, each time when Balanchine was making a new piece, I go. It is very impressive, as Balanchine was extremely strict regarding the relationship with music, but Merce’s choreography was absolutely independent in relationship with music. But the guy who created pure independence between dance and music loves the guy who is the cleverest in interrelations between dance and music. This means something very important – we just love each other, that’s the point! In art there is not “this one” or “this one,” there is “this one” and “this one.” And in France there is always this tendency to create a new style. I don’t like when they say “this is old fashioned” or not. There is just good work and bad work.

Many contemporary French choreographers have begun with your company. Yesterday at our Opera and Ballet Theater I attended your practice with the dancers and was amazed the way you run it – balanced, always in a positive mood, with humor. You are the first choreographer and dance teacher whom I saw working without yelling. How you will explain this phenomenon?

I am a dance teacher; I shape dancers, so how can you train them without loving them? You know, I was very lucky in my dancing life to have had two great teachers – Margaret Craske and Merce Cunningham. British choreographer and dance teacher Craske was a one-time star of Ballet Russe de Serge Diagileff, known as Margareta Krasova at that time, who trained her students with the Cechetti method, getting them to be prepared for training not only physically, but also mentally and spiritually. And she was also a Buddhist, she had a Baba in India, a great man, who convinced Margaret upon the beginning of World War II to leave England and move to India. For almost five years she lived in India and after coming back she trained almost all the stars of that time, including Margot Fonteyn. I took classes with her, when she was 83; she was so wise, deep and knowledgeable. She was in the truth of dancing, so how can you shout at your students? I myself am not so calm at all; I am half Armenian, but when I teach dancing, I am also in the truth of dancing. When you are in the truth of prayer or loving, are you nervous? And don’t ask me what is the truth, because I will never answer! (laughing).

Instead I will ask you to tell about the roots of your Armenian family.

I don’t know about my grandfather Kirkor Yeghiayan’s side. My grandmother Takuhi comes from Izmit. They married in Constantinople and went to Smyrna, just before of the fire of Smyrna. They escaped to Samos. My grandmother remembered how the city was burning and they were crying. Then they moved to Thessaloniki. My grandmother was telling me: “Michel, at that time the Greeks had nothing to eat, but they gave us food to eat.” Then they went to Bulgaria, but this country was also poor. There they heard that France needs workers, as after the devastations of the World War I more than one million Frenchmen had died. So my grandparents left for France and eventually settled in Lyon. Here my mother Elizabeth Yeghiayan was born. The family name was transcribed in French as Eghayan. By the way, my company first was called “Companie Michel Hallet,” but when I saw it I felt that something remained empty. So I added my mother’s surname, and since it is “Companie Michel Hallet Eghayan.”

And how did you become a dancer?

Ask God! I don’t know. If you grow in an immigrant family, you should not be an artist, but a part of the society, becoming a doctor, an engineer, a lawyer… I started as an amateur dancer when I was 20, but I decided to devote myself to dance when I saw the movie “Westside Story.” When I told Takuhi I want to be a dancer, she shouted, yelled, cried so much that I stopped dancing for years, from age 20 to 27. I understood that dancing for my grandmother was frightening. For her being a dancer was associated with the Ottoman times, when beautiful girls were taken to harems and forced to dance. I studied psychology, economics, kinesiologic therapy… but when I saw Merce Cunningham’s performance “Un jour ou deux (A Day or Two)” at Paris Opera, at 27, my further life as a dancer and choreographer was determined!

What do you have so far Armenian in your productions? Music, movements, spirit?

I would love to show “Le chante de Karastan” in Armenia. It is one of most important pieces that I have ever made. I used the music of Arno Babajanyan, then arrangements of a French composer of Armenian music. In this regard let me tell you something. In 1994 the first dance biennial took place in Lyon. The director asked me to make a new piece, and I staged “Retour en Avant” (Return to Ahead) with Johan Sebastian Bach’s music. It was a huge success, which we repeated for many times always with packed audience. After the premiere, ministers and many other people came to congratulate me, and at the end a man approached me and presented himself as the bishop of the Armenians in Lyon, Monsignor Norvan Zakarian. He is one of the hugest people I met in my life. After congratulating me he told me something absolutely fundamental, while putting his palms in a certain way on the air: “Mr. Eghayan, if I put my hands like this, then the feet and legs will have Armenian movements.” It was very rough time for the Armenians: hard political situation, war, Karabakh… and this guy after such successful evening is telling me something like that! I hated what he said!

Six months later a friend of mine, a beautiful lady, invited me to a lecture about the poetry of [Yeghishe] Charents. I did not know the poet, so I went there with two of my good dancers, and we heard Charents’ beautiful poems in Armenian and French translation. And just all of a sudden I was rather terrified; my two dancers turned to me and we were watching to each other, as the rhythm of poetry was the rhythm of my dances! Can you believe that? It was impossible! And my dancers, who do not speak Armenian, also said that the rhythm of the poems is identical to that of our dances! In my body I had a feeling of dancing, which means: over the language there are energy and rhythms, which are mathematical patterns that go through the memory and bodies. The rhythm is a physical, not cultural or any national other issue. We, Armenians, have various cultures, but there is civilization, which is first the civilization of a cross and the civilization of special rhythms, which is being analyzed mathematically and physically, and which compose the Armenian understanding of the world. Thus, since that time it was a revelation for me that we all are kids of vibrations, that belong to mathematics and physics and which structure us and Armenia as a special kind.

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