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Armenia: dance with an ancient heritage.

Construction cranes dot the landscape in contemporary Yerevan, a symbol of rebirth in a country that has seen more ups and downs than it cares to remember. Aided by wealthy diasporan Armenians, Yerevan has been transformed into a bustling Western city, with high-end shops, fascinating museums, gourmet restaurants, and an attractive night life. Known as the city' in pink, after the tuffa stone of which many of its buildings are constructed, Yerevan is the 12th capital in Armenia's 3000-year history.

The story of dance in Armenia is equally as ancient. It can be traced back to the temples of pagan deities Anahid and Mher, whose priestesses tended to the sick with therapeutic circle dances as well as medicinal potions. Over the centuries, these dances evolved into the hundreds of ethnic or folk dances that exist today, each one specific to its region of origin. Two excellent companies continue this folk tradition in present-day Yerevan: the State Dance Ensemble of Armenia (Bedakan Bari Ensemble), under the direction of former National Ballet star Vanoush Khanamirian; and the Song and Dance Ensemble (Yerki Bari Ensemble), founded and directed by renowned choreographer Tatul Altunian until his death in 1973.

Having survived the Armenian Genocide of 1915 by the Ottoman Turks and a failed First Republic between 1918-1920, Armenia was forcibly Sovietized. Freedom's loss was ballet's gain, as a healthy and successful ballet tradition developed during that period. Yerevan's ballet was considered by many to be one of the best in the Soviet Union after those in Leningrad and Moscow. But when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, Armenia was plunged into war with neighboring Azerbaijan, and the ballet suffered, along with the other arts. In spite of such hard times and deplorable studio conditions, Armenia continues to produce world-class ballet dancers like Arsene Mehrabyan, winner of the 2002 Varna International Ballet Competition Jubilee Prize, and Armen Grigorian, winner of the 2004 Varna First Prize.

Located on Yerevan's Opera Square, the National Ballet operates from an imposing circular building. The company, a local favorite, continues to perform classical repertoire (from Swan Lake and Giselle to Spartacus).

Former National Ballet member Roudolf Kharatian founded his own company, the ARKA Ballet, in 1999 in Washington, D.C. The troupe continues to include Armenian-themed works in its repertoire. Kharatian returns each summer to Armenia, bringing innovative choreography and ideas to Yerevan--Armenians never forget their roots.

Contemporary dance as we know it in America is a rarity in Armenia. There was no exposure to Martha Graham or Judson Dance Theater in the former Soviet Union. Armenians today are free to travel, and the Internet provides volumes of information on modern dance. Foreign theater companies and performance artists like England's Akram Khan and Russell Maliphant are increasingly visiting the country, and a young audience with a contemporary sensibility is growing. The homegrown Nane Ballet, which merges modern with folk and jazz, stands out as the most experimental company in Yerevan, while the Druzhba Dance Ensemble under the direction of Norair Mehrabyan, a former soloist with the Armenian National Ballet, updates classical and Armenian dance idioms.

Although Yerevan may not yet compare to Paris or New York, its cultural scene is developing quickly. The new generation of young dancers is growing up with the benefit of Soviet-style ballet rigor, as well as with an interest in contemporary and jazz idioms. One looks forward to exciting, new choreographic developments.
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Title Annotation:ancient dance history
Author:Atamian, Christopher
Publication:Dance Magazine
Geographic Code:4EXAR
Date:Jan 1, 2006
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