Mariam Karapetyan as Cleopatra

Mariam Karapetyan, Prima Ballerina of Egyptian Ballet

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CAIRO — During my trip to Egypt last November, I had a pleasant meeting with ballet dancer Mariam Karapetyan, who is the Prima Ballerina of the Cairo Opera Ballet Company. Born in Gyumri, Mariam graduated from the Yerevan State College of Dance in 2009. Since 2011, she has been performing leading roles in the Egyptian ballet (“Don Quixote,” “Sleeping Beauty,” “Swan Lake,” “Carmina Burana,” “Spartacus,” “Zorba,” “Bolero,” “Walpurgis Night,” “Fountain of Bakhchisarai,” “Coppelia,” “Prince Igor,” etc.).

Mariam has worked with eminent ballet masters Abdel Moneim Kamel, Jose Perez, René de Cárdenas, Valentin Bartes and others, and performed in ballets of internationally known ballet masters Renato Greco, Thierry Malandain, Lorka Massine. Since 2004, she has taught character dance at the Cairo Contemporary Dance Center for a while. Mariam performed with the Cairo Opera Ballet Company in different countries; in 2017 she participated in the gala of the South African International Ballet with duets.

From Gyumri to Cairo. How did this come about?

In 1991, the year of my birth, our family moved from Gyumri to Russia, then we returned to Armenia, as my mother did not want my sister and me attend school in Russia. In Yerevan, my father, Arshaluys (Ashik) Karapetyan, went to work at a choreographic school as a designer and maker of dance shoes. We are extremely grateful to the late director of the school, the legendary Tereza Grigoryan, because thanks to her, our family got out of the crisis of the ’90s, and it was she who accepted me to the ballet department. Everyone at school knew about my dad’s “Ashik’s workshop,” and they called me “Ashik’s boy” because I used to get into a lot of fights (laughs). I always fondly remember my late teacher, Lola Gyurjyan, with whom I studied until the seventh grade. Then I finished the class of Elvira Mnatsakanyan, one of our ballet stars. I fell in love with dance; after graduating from school I entered our opera theater, where I stayed for a while. Then I taught for two years at Maluntsyan Art School. During that time, I was depressed because I could not dance, so I started practicing with ballet teacher Hayk Avagyan. At the end of November 2010, I was going to apply for a job in the Tel Aviv ballet company for next January. I was with my sister in the Yerevan Grishko shop for dance clothes and shoes, when a large group of foreigners entered. It turned out they were dancers from Egypt. We did not know there is ballet in Egypt. My sister, being very sociable, asked one of the guys if they dance the Tanoura [the Sufi whirling dance]. The guy said, offended: “No, I am a ballet artist!” My sister proudly said that her sister is a ballerina. The Egyptian said they need girls and offered to apply for a job in their group. Three days later, one of the dancers, who is now my life partner and who had noticed me in the shop, accompanied me to my studio and filmed my dance. Then he showed the clip to their director, Erminia Kamel, who wanted to meet me. I auditioned in the gym of Ani Hotel, and she immediately offered me a contract for next January. But when we were leaving the hall, Erminia Kamel turned and asked: “Are you free now?” Having received a positive answer, she asked: “Can you join us now?” I agreed, but I had no idea that this “now” was to happen in six days. It was most difficult for my parents. They sent the contract in two days, and my ticket on the third day. That’s how I ended up in Egypt.

Mariam Karapetyan as Juliet

And are you happy?

Yes! There are no ideal places. But there is something that always keeps me going here. I am grateful to this country, to this theater for many things, especially for the repertoire: my experience here also had taught me many things as a person.

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What is special about today’s Egyptian ballet?

It is a difficult question. In Egypt, the school teaches by the Vaganova method, so the basis is Russian. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, many ballet artists and choreographers came to work here. They elevated the ballet company, making it one of the leading ones for a period. Thanks to that era, many Egyptian dancers became stars and artistic directors in various European theaters. Our ballet method is a mixture of all ballet schools, which makes it interesting. When I first arrived, we practiced the Russian method on the first day, the Cuban method on the second day, and the French method on the third day. Personally, I am a fan of the French school. Many choreographers come from Europe, which provides opportunity to learn new things, develop and open your worldview. Our theater preserves the classic repertoire in its “pure” form, which, as we know, is gradually disappearing in the world as innovative interventions are being made everywhere. Of course, it should be developed, but the classical heritage should also be kept in its native form.

Which version of “The Nutcracker” do you present, the one by Petipa-Ivanov?

Basically, yes, but some scenes are from [Rudolf] Nureyev’s production. The third and fourth acts of “Swan Lake” are unchanged, as always. “La Bayadere” was staged with a modern approach, but the shadow scene has not been touched. So, the classical remains the basis on which we rely and being developed. We have a lack of modern, new classical contemporary performances, which I am not so fond of, being mostly into classical dance, but it is definitely necessary to have too.

Have you counted how many plays you have participated in?

I was a soloist dancer, now I am the official prima ballerina. My first big performance as a principal soloist was in the ballet “Osiris,” where I acted as Isis from ancient Egyptian mythology, directed by Abdel Moneim Kamel. The music, in the impressionist style, was very hard for the ears, people usually left in the middle because they got a headache. It was also hard for the dancers and orchestra, but the work itself was interesting. I danced Giselle, Gamzatti in “La Bayadère,” Gulnara in “Corsair,” Masha/Clara in “The Nutcracker,” Juliet in “Romeo and Juliet,” Manuela in “Carmen Suites.”

Well, why not “Carmen?”

“Carmen” was staged when I was not prima. It is not in my nature to ask – I am a proud native of Gyumri – that is why I was satisfied with the role of gypsy Manuela. At the end of the first season, Jose Perez, the choreographer of “Carmen Suites,” staged “Cleopatra.” When I was offered the role of Cleopatra, I was very happy. Well, who wouldn’t want to dance the role of a legendary queen? Later Erminia Kamel added some scenes, making the production even more luxurious, like Cleopatra’s entry into Rome on a huge sphinx statue, in gilded dresses, as well as the scene of death, when she falls into the arms of the girls, they lift her up and place her on a golden throne, after which the golden color cloth descends on the stage. It was very beautiful and impressive.

Is your Egyptian partner also your stage partner?

No. Dancing together with your life partner is difficult, there are many conflicts. It seems that you should feel each other, especially in acting scenes, and cooperate better, but couples, working in the theater, refuse dancing together. If someone who is not so close to you does something wrong, you say it more nicely: you know, it is not convenient like this, but with your life partner you want everything to be perfect, you are more demanding towards him or her. With my boyfriend I danced only once, in “Dances qu’on croises,” where I had two roles, and I messed up the order during the rehearsal. My friend started yelling at me, and the poor tutor stood and watched our quarreling. When we calmed down, she said: “Is it over, can we continue now?” (laughs).

In what language do you communicate in the theater?

My first ballet tutor, Alla Georgievna Shevelyova, a legendary person, now deceased, whom I will always be grateful for her contribution in my artistic development, was Ukrainian. By the way, Alla Georgievna was Victor Smirnov-Golovanov’s assistant in the “Masquerade” ballet staged in Yerevan. Since most of the dancers and tutors were Ukrainians and Russians, a significant part of the Egyptian dancers began to learn and speak Russian. The main language of communication is English, although I also know a little Arabic.

Have other Armenians worked at the ballet company of Cairo Opera Theater?

My teacher Hayk Avagyan, a very talented person, was invited to work as a tutor for a year. In the 1970s, Vilen Galstyan staged Aram Khachaturyan’s “Gayane” here, with famous Egyptian-Armenian ballerina Sonia Sarkees in the main role. And in 2004, excerpts from “Gayane” were staged here. Famous Belarusian ballet master Elizarov also staged Khachaturyan’s “Spartak” in Cairo, which we still have in our repertoire; I acted there first as a courtesan and then as Phrygia. Many years ago, Mark Mnatsakanyan staged “Lorciana” in Cairo, which is still performed every two years. It is a popular performance, always with full halls.

Do you have any connection with the cultural community of Cairo Armenian community?

Since 2014 I have been the artistic director of the “Sardarabad” dance group of the Houssaper Armenian Cultural Association in Cairo. When I was offered that position, I said that I am not a folk dancer, I cannot teach children Armenian dances, but they hired me anyway. Naturally, the dances I stage are different. Being a classical music fan, I use the works of great Armenian composers. Despite the difficulties, I like working in our Armenian club, that way I feel close to Armenian culture and Armenia. And if at least one Armenian child returns to his roots thanks to dancing, it will make me very proud.

We have not seen you on stage in Yerevan yet.

I would very much like it myself. And since I am the prima ballerina of the Egyptian State Theater, I would like my performance in Armenia to be organized at the high level of our countries. I think what I said does not sound arrogant. It will be a great honor for me somehow to bring the cultures of the two countries closer together. To be a leading dancer in a foreign country makes me proud as an Armenian.

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