Ara Asatryan on stage

Ara Asaturyan: ‘I Believe Our Art and Culture Will Save Us’

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YEREVAN — One of my few polymath friends in Yerevan is Ara Asaturyan, whom we used to call Arik. A specialist in English, who worked as a translator, he is also a professional pianist, who left aside those two professions and followed his true vocation – dance, choreography and performing.

Asaturyan was born in 1976 in Yerevan, studied at the Yerevan Brusov State Linguistic University, Yerevan Komitas State Conservatory and Yerevan State Institute of Cinematography and Theater. In 2011, he took a postgraduate course at the Choreography Department of the St. Petersburg Conservatory.

Since 2005, he has been active in the Yerevan dance scene, staging a number of big and small performances: “Beyond the Virtual World” (Best Performance award of Gisaneh Youth Theater Festival), “Charents” (music by Grigor Hakhinyan), “Dreams about the Homeland” (inspired by folk songs performed acapella by Parik Nazarian), “Know That I’m Still Alive” (choreographic phantasy to the music of Michael Nyman and poems by Petros Duryan), “Hayrenner” (choreographic phantasy to the music of France-based Armenian composer Lilit Daniyelyan and poems by great Nahapet Kuchak), “Death and the Maiden” (music by Ludovico Einaudi), “Where, O Death, Is Your Victory?” (co-produced with stage director Grigor Khachatryan), “Hours of Vision” (produced in cooperation with three other Armenian choreographers), “Five Letters” (a ballet made for the Yerevan National Opera and Ballet Theatre).

Ara Asaturyan has staged dances for operas, including “Artsvaberd” (Eagles’ Fortress) by Andrey Babaev and “Ring of Fire” by Avet Terteryan (both performed in open air in Shushi), “Carmen” by Georges Bizet as well as for Astor Piazzolla’s “Maria de Buenos Aires” tango operetta.

Together with Grigor Khachatryan and Arman Julhakyan, he co-produced a number of ballets – “Hokis” (My Soul), “Amen,” “We Promise” (based on Terry George’s “The Promise”), “The Dance of Sassoun” and “#44 / Genetic Amnesia.”

Ara Asaturyan also cooperated with stage directors, like Armen Meliksetyan (“The Blind” rock opera, “Maria de Buenos Aires” tango operetta, the musical “Mother Courage and Her Children”); Grigor Khachatryan (Euripides’s “Medea” (Artavazd national award as the best youth performance of the year), Pierre Beaumarchais’s “The Marriage of Figaro,” William Shakespeare’s “Othello,” Rodion Beletsky’s “Poison” and Euripides’ “The Bacchae”); Nora Grigoryan (Nikolai Erdman’s “The Suicide,” Alexander Pushkin’s “Eugene Onegin” (Artavazd national award as the best youth performance of the year) and Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s “I Only Came to Use the Phone”).

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Ara Asaturyan made choreographies for major dance companies in Armenia, like Yerevan National Opera and Ballet Theatre, Barekamutyun Armenian State Dance Ensemble, Yerevan State Choreographic College, Nor Nork Youth Center, Artsakh State Dance Ensemble and A Dream Ballade for Dance Academy Sofia.

Arik, it seems to be inevitable for you to be engaged in the magic world of stage dance, being born in the family of two outstanding representatives of Armenian ballet, even if they were against your becoming a dancer.

Yes, both my mom and my dad were in ballet. My mom, Elvira Mnatsakanyan, was the Prima Ballerina at the Yerevan National Opera and Ballet Theater for over 30 years and is the People’s Artist of the Republic of Armenia, and my dad, Ashot Asaturyan, was one of the greatest choreographers of his time. I was in dance since I remember myself. I literally grew up in the theater, watching rehearsals in the hall during the day and performances from my own, personal wing in the evening. And after every rehearsal, it was my minute of glory: I would go to the middle of the hall and start dancing what I had just seen. No matter was it Giselle, Basilio or one of the little swans, I danced it all. Sometimes (of course, it was for a joke only) some dancers or even coaches would ask me to remind them of some movements or even episodes, and those were the happiest moments to me – to be able to dance and to share what I knew with others. My future was clear to me, but my parents turned out to have a different plan. They set extremely high standards in evaluating my abilities as a dancer, and one day they told me: “If you had really outstanding qualities, we would send you to study in St. Petersburg, but the fact is that you are much better in music and languages, so, we don’t want to sacrifice your genuine talents for the dubious future of a corps de ballet dancer.” They were both right and wrong. They were right because even though I haven’t become an outstanding musician or a high-class interpreter, I have learned and experienced much more as a personality than I would have learned were I in dance only. But they were also wrong because you can’t escape your destiny — sooner or later you will go back to your path. In my case, that happened a bit late, but I don’t mind. While I was a child, I was really angry with my parents for what they did to me, but now I am grateful because after so many years I am in dance again but with much bigger knowledge and experience — something one really needs to be a good choreographer.

Do your previous professions help you in choreography – if so, then how?

Of course, they do. The years in the Yerevan Conservatory did not make me a brilliant pianist but they gave me profound knowledge of music. It was my father’s dream to see me playing the piano on a big stage. When he was a child, his family was too poor to have a piano, so, he had to draw keys on the table to be able to practice at home after his piano classes. One of the six children of a shoemaker in Tbilisi, my father grew up into a graduate of the Choreography Department of the St. Petersburg Conservatory and one of the most intelligent and competent persons I have ever known. He could easily read music scores and was extremely musical in both work and life. His example could not but inspire me. I tried hard to justify his expectations as a musician, and even though I failed to make his dream come true, now I have all I need as a choreographer. My profound knowledge of music helps me a lot. Unfortunately, my father passed away before I decided to become a choreographer, but I do hope that he would be proud of me and of my choice of a dream.

As far as languages are concerned, I think they are essential for every globally thinking artist today.

I have seen the video of your first one-act performance, “Dreams about the Homeland” based on the Armenian folk songs, performed by wonderful American-Armenian singer Parik Nazarian. The innovative interpretations of Armenian rural dances seemed to be a fresh approach in our stage dance, but you did not continue that kind of experiments.

Yes, it was one of my first ballets and it was something of a eureka to me. Armenian dance was not my priority during my first years as a choreographer, but when I first heard the voice of Parik Nazarian, a United State-based Armenian folk singer, I was enchanted. It was like her voice got into me and took me to my own soul. And I had a lot of visions. Perhaps, she broke my genetic codes or something, but I didn’t mind. I think every artist at some point of his life needs such visions about his homeland, his roots and ancestors, his own identity. Yes, later I delved into contemporary dance and some other experiments and moved away from Armenian folk dance, but who knows, maybe some day I will hear some new voice and will have some new visions.

Now the advanced synthetic theatrical direction with choreographic elements seems active in Yerevan scene, and you are one of its few representatives. How do you evaluate the field?

I have been actively cooperating with actors and stage directors for many years. I have had a lot of joint projects with one of my best friends and one of the best stage directors in Armenia, Grigor Khachatryan. Our first experiment was Euripides’ Medea. And it was the right point from which to start: ancient Greek theater was the cradle of synthetic art, so, all present-day experiments to synthetize arts are just ambitious attempts to reinvent a wheel. The Greeks did it all over two thousand years ago and today we are just doing the same in our own “innovative” ways. I like working with actors, sometimes, even more than with dancers. They are like clay – flexible in mind and soul – and also like sponges – eager to learn and hungrily absorbing all you give to them. I also like working with stage directors, helping them to visualize their ideas. And you learn a lot from them. For many years, I have taught stage movement to young actors at the Yerevan State Institute of Cinematography and Theater and have learned a lot. Theatrical techniques have greatly enriched my style and my perception of choreography. Today I feel like I am standing on the crossroads of theater and dance, but I don’t have to choose. It’s great to be part of these two fantastic worlds and to try to merge them together using your own fantasy.

Where is a dance movement born – in the mind, in the body, in the heart?

This question must have been given to all choreographers. Now it’s my turn to answer it. And I will say… that I have no answer. Now I think with my body, then I move with my heart or feel with my mind. Everything is interwoven and has long become unconscious and instinctive. Sometimes, you have something in mind for years, sometimes, you have an inspiration or an impression, sometimes, you just need to do it. But to me the key is probably music. Music gives all the answers. It opens your mind and your heart and it makes your body move and that’s all you need to have something born. But this, of course, is not enough. Once your child is born, you need to raise it and to let it go and live its own life – on stage, on video or in somebody’s memory or heart.

They say there is nothing new under the sun, but still can one “invent” new dance movements?

I don’t think that movement is the point here. You can invent a word, but it will have no sense until you put it into a context and make it alive. The same is for a movement. Sometimes, it comes spontaneously from nowhere, sometimes, it requires a lot of pain and effort, sometimes, you put plenty of sense and philosophy in it, and sometimes it has no sense at all. But it must be felt in all cases – only then it has enough energy to move a heart. I don’t think you need to understand dance. Just feel it and you will comprehend something much bigger and deeper. Yes, just one simple movement can move the universe, and it doesn’t need to be new; it needs to be true.

You seem to be inspired by Armenian literary figures – Nahapet Kuchak, Petros Duryan, Yeghishe Charents…

Yes, and not only Armenian. I am a poetic soul and I like poets. They are so powerful and so fragile at one and the same time. Poetry is very much like dance to me. It has its own rhythm and its own melody, its own logic feeding on metaphors, allusions, implications, deep flows and inner worlds. I like inventing own stories for my ballets, and poets with their strange and mystic lives offer plenty of fertile soil to my imagination. Usually, I take one interesting detail from a poet’s life as the core, with the rest left to the atmosphere of his or her poetry. Among my heroes were Nahapet Kuchak with his sweet and charming sonnets in Hayrenner, Petros Duryan with his elegiac poems in Know that I am Still Alive!, Yeghishe Charents with his mind-blowing revolutionary odes in Charents, Marina Tsvetayeva and Boris Pasternak with their poetic love dialogue in A Fish Flying in the Dark Corner of a Stage. And probably there are many more interesting stories to come.

Ara Asatryan

By the way, you were actively involved in poetry translation, making translations from and into Armenian, English and Russian. I read some of your translations from Armenian classical poetry into English, published in GeghArm magazine of Stepanakert. Don’t you intend to publish your translations in a volume?

I hate routine. For many years, I worked for a news agency translating uninteresting copybook news. It was like a prison for my mind and soul. So, I found an escape – poetic translation. I’ve already said that poetry is like dance to me and translating a poem is like creating a dance. You feel the rhythm, you hear the melody, you perceive the essence of what is said, sense the elusive odor of the unsaid and there you are – on some unknown planet dancing with myriads of words and meanings. I have translated lots of authors – from Armenian and Russian into English, from Armenian and English into Russian, from English and Russian into Armenian. I have quite a big file. My friends keep persuading me into publishing it. I am not sure yet. To me it’s more like a hobby, a kind of an outlet, a glass of good red wine on a sad rainy day. I think that in our virtually material world of web and rap there is no more room for poetry. People perceive the world very materially – they take magic for granted, they feel music just skin deep, they don’t read into what they read. So, I wonder: “Does anybody need my poetic translations? Or will it be just some vain self-satisfaction of having a nicely designed volume on a bookstore shelf?”

I sometimes ask that question before publishing my books. Arik, another aspect of your talent was revealed in mono-performances – “The Funny Old Man” by Różewicz and “The Diary of a Madman” by Gogol. Are you going to expand your involvement in drama theater?

It’s also something like a hobby. I am not a professional actor, but after so many years of interaction with stage directors and actors, I have seen acting from inside and I liked what I saw. Playing a role, embodying somebody else or creating someone new is a very interesting process. The funny thing about it is that my first four characters were either old or mad men – aging actor in Chekhov’s “Swan Song,” a hapless funny old maniac in Różewicz’s “The Funny Old Man,” a hopelessly love-struck, crazy clerk in Gogol’s “The Diary of a Madman,” a sadistic psychiatrist in Piazzolla’s “Maria de Buenos Aires.” It was like a bad spell. I didn’t want to play crazy old men anymore. And I decided to make a mono-performance of my own. My last show was “The Winter Road,” a story about Franz Schubert, a show where I act, dance and sing and also tell people how hard it was and is to be a devotee of pure art in the everlasting times of showbiz. And the spell was broken! My last role was a charming, enterprising and adventurous cook in a musical version of Brecht’s “Mother Courage and Her Children.” I very much like the genre of musical and I am always happy to be part of such a project. I have already produced or co-produced a number of musicals and my dream is to stage a really big and beautiful show one day. And, of course, it will have to be good.

A couple of years ago you participated in the foundation of “Practicum-laboratoria” aiming to prepare a synthetic-type universal actor with mastery of both plastic and dramatic theater. At what stage is it now?

Yes, we called that project Soma. I and two more choreographers, Aida Simon and Rima Pipoyan, were given carte blanche to create something that would inspire actors and dancers to cooperate and would serve as a basis for a synthetic-type theater in future. In Armenia, we still have no theaters of modern dance, musical or experimental art. Some companies do some experiments, but there are lots of dancing actors and acting dancers who would love to have some platform for new interesting theatrical and chorographical discoveries. Well, each of us created his own work. The premiere was a success. We received lots of compliments and promises, but COVID-19 and the 44-day war put our project on hold. Today, Armenia is experiencing hard times and art and culture are not among the priorities. We will do our job in any case and hopefully, some day it will yield fruits.

You have participated in many international dance and theater festivals representing Armenia. Did you have the chance to work also with our compatriots worldwide?

Yes, in 2019, we had a great project in Paris. It was the initiative of an Armenian actress now living in Paris, Armine Gabrielyan, to make a show involving Armenian artists from different countries. One of her and my good friends, the very talented stage director, Khoren Chakhalyan, who is now conquering theatrical stages in Moscow and St. Petersburg, suggested making a synthetic show about the great Armenian composer Komitas. He was the director; I was the choreographer. The divine music of Komitas was performed by an outstanding Armenian piano player from Germany, Lusine Khachatryan (she is the sister of world renowned violinist Sergey Khachatryan), and fantastic Tamar Eskenian from Switzerland, who plays flute, shvi, duduk and dozens of other wind instruments. So, it was a team of talented Armenians from France, Switzerland, Germany, Russia and Armenia. And all of us spoke, acted, danced, sung, played and had a great time on stage. It was a very beautiful project. The audience in Paris was stunned. Sadly, the lockdown prevented us from taking the show to other places and sharing our emotions with audiences in Germany, Switzerland and elsewhere. I love communicating with Armenians worldwide. Wherever I danced, I met compatriots – Russia, Poland, Moldova, Bulgaria, Mexico. They seem to be very different, some of them don’t speak Armenian well, but they are all brothers and sisters. We are a family, no matter where we live. And we must use every opportunity to be together. For the first time I had this feeling some 10 years ago, when I attended the Padus-Araxes Summer Course in Venice due to you, my good friend Artsvi! It was one of the happiest months in my life – and not only because I was in Venice but because I was welcomed into a family of wonderful people from all over the world. It was a big surprise to me to see so many non-Armenians in that family. Those people had been attending that course for many years and some of them are still visiting Venice each year. I never expected that so many men and women from very different cultures love Armenia and want to speak Armenian. That sincere love and devotion changed a lot in my own attitude towards my fatherland and my mother tongue.

 

As you said, now times are not good for high art, especially in Armenia, but, anyway, what are your current works?I never stop working. This is the only thing I can professionally do for my own self and my country. I am far from politics, fake news and all that hatred in social media. I have this whole world of art and culture with me and I feel comfortable there. I very much want to see our society back in that world one day and I am doing all I can to make this possible.

In the beginning of May, I was impressed very much by your last performance, #44 / Genetic Amnesia, co-directed with Arman Julhakyan. The subject of 44-day war expressed in newly Armenian dance and music raises important issues not only for current hard period but generally for diagnosing our national identity. This show is worthy to be presented all around world not only as a strong anti-war message, but also for better self-recognition. Please tell us how this idea came out and who helped in its implementation?

The disastrous 44-day war has left deep, unhealable wounds in our hearts and has opened our eyes in the light of a new reality. As representatives of the Armenian nation and art, we – more specifically, the selfsame Grigor Khachatryan as director and Arman Julhakyan and me as choreographers – could not help expressing our personal feelings and attitude concerning that tragedy. As a result, we created a modern ballet entitled #44 / Genetic Amnesia as a tribute to our heroes and our past and as a message to the generations to come. Some episodes of the ballet were choreographed during last days of the war and in the following months that concept brought together a creative team of devotees, namely, our friends and supporters, Patrick Malakian (film director, the son of world renowned filmmaker Henri Verneuil) and Jan Franceschi from France, and Vardan Ghukasyan and Artur Barkhudaryan from Armenia, who spared no time and effort to make this project true. As a result, on May 6 we made public a 44-minute work that reflected our common pain and sorrow and expressed our common protest and hopes. The show was broadcast live and is available on youtube (see Hashtag44 Facebook page). Every Armenian or non-Armenian can watch our ballet and if he or she likes it, can make a donation to help us to show it in Artsakh or even abroad. Our dancers are extremely talented teens (15-18 years old) from the Holy Echmiadzin-AGBU Nork Youth Center’s Narek Dance Ensemble. Those kids danced in many of our shows. They danced different stories. Some of them were very tragic. Some of them were about the Armenian Genocide. They tried their best to express what we wanted them to express and they did it perfectly, but it was something they could just imagine. “ #44” is a different story: those kids were our co-authors – for, unfortunately, they saw everything with their own eyes, and it was no longer just a story but their own life. So, they were very true, sincere and dedicated throughout the project and heartbreakingly emotional and convincing on the stage.

I wish we’ll never create such ballets anymore and I really hope that our kids will never experience such things again but will live and dance only happy stories in a happy peaceful country.

I do believe that our beautiful art and fantastic culture will save us and that a gem like Armenia will not be lost but will shine brightly all over the world.

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