Gamavors: the legacy resumes in song and dance
Published: Wednesday June 20, 2012
Teaneck, N.J. - A new musical is taking the Armenian community by storm, judged by three rousing performances in as many states this spring.
It's the adventures of the Hye Legion volunteers --- the Gamavors --- recalling the courage of Armenian-American men who left the safety of their homes in America and returned to the genocide killing fields.
Alarming news had reached them in America. The genocide was being revived. Turks were repeatedly attacking survivors and orphans, torching villages left standing.
Facing the triple threat of a renewed genocide, World War 1 and the Russian Revolution, Gamavor legionnaires volunteered to go back and fight for their beloved Armenia.
"These brand new Americans, many of them genocide survivors themselves, returned to the homeland to face certain death at the hands of the Turkish-German armies in the Arara-Palestine War of 1918," said Hourig Papazian-Sahagian, troupe leader and playwright.
"The pages of Gamavor history are filled with international intrigue and false promises," she resumed. "The incredible sacrifice of these selfless men has lingered in archives and museums for nine decades. Their story cries out for voices raised in honor of their heroic lives and deeds. They did not question, nor did they falter."
According to Papazian-Sahagian, this segment of Armenian-American history was overlooked by many and unknown by most.
"This story must take its place in the pages of human history as a brilliant display of extraordinary courage," she pointed out.
So the 86-year-old playwright went to work on a new script, fresh off the heels of "Hello Ellis Island" which was staged with vast success throughout the Eastern Seaboard. That particular episode delineated the story of our early immigrants to America, told with pathos, light-heartedness and emotion.
"The impact has been huge," said Papazian-Sahagian. "Audiences have reacted with joyful tears and nostalgia while identifying with the show's characters. Best remembered are the dozen or more songs in every production."
Great Armenian leaders played critical roles in the Gamavor movement. General Antranig initiated the plan, joined by General John Shishmanian, an Armenian-American from Kentucky, who led the Gamavor campaigns in Historic Armenia.
A cast of 30 makes up the current team, joined by three semi-professional actors and an ensemble of four musicians. The show runs about 80 minutes with no intermission, enhanced by striking costumes and sets designed by the playwright herself.
Papazian-Sahagian prepared herself diligently for a concert career, educated at Juilliard Conservatory with degrees from New York University in education and music. She taught public school music in New York and New Jersey, before establishing herself as an Armenian educator.
Among her credits was the Jemeran College in Beirut; founding principal of the Hovnanian Day School, before serving 20 years as director of the Armenian National Education Committee (ANEC) for the Eastern Prelacy.
Her "retirement" years have been dedicated to the performing arts --- producing, directing, arranging music and playing keyboard with her band at these shows.
"The Way We Were" folk-art ensemble was established in the 1980s with her close friend Sossy Kadian. When she retired, "Deegeen Hourig as she's affectionately known, ventured on with her passion.
"At the time, we were alarmed that traditional Armenian music and dance had virtually disappeared from Armenian-American stages," she felt. "Ironically, those traditions have been transported here from Historic Armenia villages by genocide survivors. As beloved folk song faded away, Yerevan-style, Russian-flavored music flooded the entertainment scene in this country."
With her folk arts ensemble, a cast of dedicated volunteers set foot to revive the neglected traditions while providing a heritage for all Armenian-American generations. The mission has boomeranged in every direction and given neophyte performers a stage on which to stand and be noticed.
"I'm on my soap box here," she laughs. "I recognize that song is a very powerful communicator and that music is a living entity which constantly evolves. However, I also know that given a political environment, an entire culture can be obliterated and replaced with the ‘new style.' Thus, the soul of a people and its cultural history is often relegated to the dust bin of academic archives."
What prompted the writing of "Gamavor" was an insatiable quest to tell her nation's history. While researching "Ellis island," Papazian-Sahagian also delved into the Gamavor movement, a closely-related theme.
She had no Gamavors in her family but two members of her cast had a father and father-in-law in the ranks. As a young child, she remembers an imposing gentleman seated in his wheelchair on the sidewalk in front of St. Illuminator's Church in New York City.
"My father quieted my fear of him by explaining that he ate a bullet ... he is a Gamavor," Papazian-Sahagian recalled. "The selfless courage of the Gamavors --- their profound humanity and devotion to lost lands and people --- inspired me to write the play. Unfortunately, many are unaware of the movement and its heroes. "
There was help along the way from writers like Peter Balakian and his editor, Doris Varjabedian-Cross, a friend to Hourig. Once the cast was assembled, two years of rehearsals followed prior to the show's premiere April 29 at Sts. Vartanantz Church in New Jersey.