Sayat Nova dancers keeping pace with Apo Ashjian
Published: Wednesday May 09, 2012
Boston - One would think that directing a dance company through a rigorous stage production and appearing in most every sequence would take the life out of a choreographer.
Not Apo Ashjian. He seems enamored by it.
The folk dance dynamo is into his 26th year as director of the charismatic Sayat Nova Dance Company and appears as consistent as a pendulum on a clock, except for one thing. He defies the gravities of time with boundless energy and enthusiasm.
Since 1985 when a small group of individuals gathered in a tiny Watertown hall to determine their fate, some 400 dancers have sifted through the ranks, sharing the pride and indomitable spirit of the Armenian people.
If nothing else, Ashjian has created a veritable dynasty with his dancing troubadours, giving some 400 performances over this time while creating a reputation for excellence. The current adult troupe numbers 65 dancers. Moreover, a junior group called Abaka Armenian School for the Performing Arts remains a buoyant look toward tomorrow. Translated literally, Abaka means "future."
"I feel an urge to start training kids from an early age to act as a feeder system for Sayat Nova," he says. "The concept has been a blessing. Children as young as 4 are in a unique dance program, listen and react to beautiful Armenian music, and feel the glamour of a stage with their beautiful costumes."
The dividends have paid off in other ways. Through Sayat Nova, more than seven dance groups have been created in different communities, all students and disciples of Ashjian. His talent creates other talent.
Watching him perform, usually front row center, keeps the cadence in step. Other visuals like lighting, props and costumes enhance the moment. No better performance was there ever than those two trips he made to Armenia with his group in 1995 and 2006 for its 20th anniversary celebration.
It's hard to believe that at the age of 18, when most teens his age were just graduating high school, he took over the reins of Sayat Nova after involving himself with the Tekeyan Cultural Association. He began choreographing his own dances while studying the history of his people.
As a teenager, he was too shy to hold hands with a girl in a dance. He would go home and try the steps they were learning until he got it right.
"I learned of the many tragedies that befell my people and their struggle for survival and suddenly, dance had a special meaning for me," he recalls. "It became a duty to teach dance and promote my culture to both Armenians and non-Armenians."
A recent program in North Andover by the Armenian Genocide Commemorative Committee of Merrimack Valley drew fervent applause from the audience. The repertoire included a moving tribute to the minstrel Sayat Nova, and an eclectic number dedicated to Khor Virab. The performance opened with a "Journey Through Time --- Pre-Christian Era," marked by ritualistic movements incorporating Armenia's pagan celebrations.
A 100-year-old survivor seated in the front row was more than pleased with the show, recalling how she had danced in her younger days. She was happy to know the culture was being perpetuated in good hands.
When the final curtain call took place, Ashjian extended his hand to where the woman was seated and passed off any esteem that may have come his way.
"She deserves the applause for being here," he had said later.
It's become a family affair from the onset. Wife Arlet was a beautiful dancer and a soloist for 12 years. She's now taken charge of costuming.
Both daughters (Alina and Garineh) are Abaka graduates and have been part of the core cast of Sayat Nova for nine years. Son Vrej is right behind them.
"I always joke around and tell people that when it comes to Armenian dancing, my family doesn't have a choice," said Ashjian. "It's been a way of life for us."
Sister Sona is a member of the executive committee, maintains membership and the day-to-day operation. Brother Hagop also dances and instructs while his wife Arpie was a dancer, joined by their two children, Araz and Sarine, who are on the verge.
Apo's parents hardly took a back seat. His dad was a well-known actor in Syria and Beirut, Lebanon, and helped Sayat Nova with various production roles while his mom was a seamstress during the early years. Several other family members also have ties, including stage hands and photography.
Hagop instills strong energy and dance perfection while instructing the men. Shaghig Palanjian acts as assistant director and works with the women. His two children (Sevag and Talar) are also Abaka graduates.
"I look at the dancers and see the smiles on their radiant faces," says Ashjian. "They're covered with sweat and sometimes moved to emotional tears. I feel blessed that I'm able to use God's given talent to keep the Armenian pride intact. This is where I get my energy."
This same energy has transgressed itself into other areas of mobility. As a workout routine, Ashjian runs marathons. He's done Boston 13 times. And he's a serious cyclist, having studied physical education at Northeastern University, and works out regularly in the gym.
He smiles in thought. "Between Abaka and Sayat Nova, I get all the exercise I really need," he admits.
If perchance Ashjian crossed paths with Sayat Nova (1712-1795) in a time machine, how would he enjoy the interlude?
"I would die from excitement and go to heaven very satisfied with life on earth," he says with a chuckle. "Then I'd ask him if he were free to play at my kids' weddings."
Kidding aside, Ashjian would stage a special performance for the wandering minstrel, even invite him to partake.
"If Sayat Nova ever saw our ensemble, be would be both flattered and amazed at what we've created," Ashjian feels. "He would be in tears at how well we've depicted his music and his life. Most of his songs are about the beauty of women and so romantically written. We describe them to our dancers and to audience members. Unless the lyrics are explained, those choreographed dances become meaningless movements."
The artist has imbued every facet of Ashjian's life --- from his songs to his instruments. Ashjian grew familiar with the kamanche.
"Sayat Nova wanted to be the best in his art and he exemplified that by playing in Georgian palaces and for the king's guests," Ashjian explained.
Those who come under Ashjian's wing call him a "perfectionist" and a "taskmaster." Half-heartedness is not an option. It's total immersion or nothing. Dancers arrange their work schedules, studies and family obligations to make every rehearsal and performance.
"The more I demand perfection, the harder they work," Ashjian points out. "When we take the stage, I'm confident that all our dancers have done everything possible to ensure a flawless presentation."
Take it from alumni like Josh Tevekelian. He spent 16 years with the ensemble and saw what it did for him. He's still dancing his way through life with a happy shuffle and holds special gratitude for the likes of Apo, Hagop and Shaghig.
"The company re-energized me in the community," says Tevekelian. "I walked into that first rehearsal and was greeted by people who found importance in the upkeep of our heritage. We danced not only for ourselves, an audience, but for a nation --- our martyrs and those who survived the genocide. The dancing was important. But the passion and the friendships are what build nations."
Every day offers a new beginning with Ashjian. Rehearsals. Appearances. Coming attractions. No doubt, something very special will be prepared for the genocide centennial in 2015.
There's the Peabody International Festival in September where Sayat Nova dancers have performed the past 20 years. Worcester is on the agenda for early October, followed by a return visit to Montreal later that month. The "Journey Through Time" show is also being given some thought for a return engagement in Boston.
"When I look at all the friendships that have been created, even marriages, I begin to realize what a unique mission we're taking," he says. "In our own world, we're creating a little corner of Armenia in the Diaspora."