Promoting the Future of Dance in Armenia

Arsen Mehrabyan, “Forceful Feelings”
Stockholm, Sweden
September 2015

by Ilona Landgraf
Copyright © 2015 by Ilona Landgraf

1. Arsen Mehrabyan, photo Carl Thorborg“Forceful Feelings” is a small ballet troupe created by five Armenian dancers, who, though dancing with various Western companies, are welded together by a determination to foster dance, especially ballet, in their home country. Touring internationally they are also introducing foreign audiences to Armenian culture. All five were born in the capital Yerevan, their families by chance being closely connected to each other; all studied at Yerevan’s National Ballet School where they were classmates, and all left Armenia to dance abroad.
Tigran Mikayelyan is principal dancer with the Bavarian State Ballet, Artur Babajanyan joined the Joffrey Ballet, Arman Grigoryan is solo dancer with the State Ballet Berlin, Vahe Martirosyan and Arsen Mehrabyan dance with the Royal Swedish Ballet, Martirosyan as first soloist, Mehrabyan as principal. Mehrabyan is the troupe’s artistic director and choreographer. I met him in Stockholm’s Royal Opera House in early September to talk about his career, professional dance in Armenia and the intentions of “Forceful Feelings”.

Dance is at the heart of Mehrabyan’s family. His father, Norair Mehrabyan, is a renowned teacher of folk dance and ballet, heading his own folk dance company, the Barekamutyun State Dance Ensemble. His mother also teaches dance. Being attracted to dance seems to have come naturally to Mehrabyan; he loved to move and jump around backstage during performances of his father’s troupe. Consequently he started to take ballet classes at Yerevan’s National Ballet School around the age of six. There his father was one of his most important teachers. In 1998, aged fifteen, Mehrabyan participated 2. A.Mehrabyan and D.Zhu, Toccata by J.Bubenicek, photo M.Divisekin the Prix de Lausanne Competition. “The modern classes were new for me, but I was lucky to meet a friend at the competition, Tigran [Mikayelyan]. Tigran studied at the Ballet School of the Zurich Opera and was competing for the second time. He already knew how it worked and helped me a lot. We were in the finals together. It was great!” Being offered a scholarship for the School of the Hamburg Ballet, Mehrabyan continued his training there.
Two years later after graduation, he joined Hamburg Ballet’s company. During the 3. C.Cangialosi, J.Salenko and A.Mehrabyan, Toccata by J.Bubenicek, photo M.Divisekfollowing years he was entrusted with a variety of roles. He danced, for example, Günther in Neumeier’s “Nutcracker”, the sensual Golden Slave and the Faun in “Nijinsky”, and Tadzio in “Death in Venice”. Natalia Makarova cast him as the Bronze Idol and Solor when staging “La Bayadère” with Neumeier’s company in 2002. In Hamburg, Mehrabyan also got to know the Bubeníček brothers, Otto and Jiří. The three became close friends. In 2002 Otto trained Mehrabyan for the Varna International Ballet Competition, which earned him the Grand Prix. “Forceful Feelings” was established in 2006. In the following season, the Bubeníčeks guested with the troupe in Yerevan. Mehrabyan also appears in Jíři’s works at Les Ballets Bubeníček, or, recently, with Dortmund Ballet where he danced the leading character, George Baines, in “The Piano”. His grippingly intense interpretation prompted a nomination as “Dancer of the Year” in the German magazine “tanz”.

4. J.Baby and A.Mehrabyan, The Piano by J.Bubenicek, photo S.BalloneComing back to his time in Hamburg, Mehrabyan relates that in 2009, after many years as soloist, he felt the need for a change. It was proving difficult to organize projects for “Forceful Feelings” as his Armenian colleagues and friends were dancing elsewhere. Time windows for rehearsals and performances were rare. But there were quite a few Armenians in Heinz Spoerli’s company in Zurich. Spoerli had already asked Mehrabyan several times to join the company and in 2009 he finally did. During the following two years with Zurich Ballet, Mehrabyan had the opportunity to develop in two directions. On the one hand Spoerli created several roles on him, promoting him as a dancer; on the other hand Mehrabyan pushed ahead with “Forceful Feelings”. From its foundation the troupe had performed once almost every year, but after 2014 the frequency of performances rose. Shows were presented in Munich and Italy but most of all in Yerevan.

Two years later, in 2011, Mehrabyan looked for new challenges as a dancer. The State Ballet Munich and the Vienna State Ballet attracted him. He also considered joining the Norwegian National Ballet. But it happened that none of these companies could offer him a contract at that time. Megrabyan already had been thinking about taking a year off when he got a call from Stockholm. Johannes Öhman who had just taken over as head of the Royal Swedish Ballet was looking for new dancers. Mehrabyan accepted the invitation and moved from Lake Zurich to the Stockholm archipelago. Last year he was promoted to principal dancer.

5. Don Quixote, Royal Swedish Ballet, photo H.NilssonHis repertory is diverse ranging from the Prince in the “Nutcracker” to Onegin, Albert in Makarova’s “Giselle”, Basil in Nureyev’s “Don Quixote”, and the androgynous Carabosse in Marcia Haydée’s “Sleeping Beauty”. Working with interesting choreographers – currently with Mats Ek on “Swan Lake” – Mehrabyan feels comfortable in Stockholm. Yet his mind and his heart are in Armenia.

Before “Forceful Feelings” was established, Mehrabyan missed his country, but since he has started the project he feels more and more connected to home. Usually he travels to Yerevan three or four times a year, sometimes only for a few days, sometimes for a couple of weeks, but not simply to relax. Instead he is always engaged in promoting dance, be it at the National Ballet School, preparing a show or sharing information with people related to dance. “They are very interested in getting to know about the training methods in Europe, how we work in general. Not only the new generation of dancers but also the older ones in the dance scene.”

6. A.Mehrabyan and S.J.Brodbeck, Unreachable Places by J.Bubenicek, photo V.StepanyanWhen “Forceful Feelings” performs in Yerevan the opera house is sold out to the last seat. Mehrabyan describes his choreographic style as neoclassical mixed with folk elements. All of his pieces are in some way related to Armenia, touching the country’s history, its music, involving a typical instrument or presenting a certain dance. “People love to see us. I feel greatly supported by this audience. When we began in 2006 the response was so overwhelming, as if a wave of new optimism was surging. Back then my father said we would stir up dance in Armenia like the Ballets Russes did in Paris.”
The country’s ballet company, the National Ballet of Armenia, is medium-sized. Vilen Galstyan holds the post of artistic director. Roudolf Kharatian, the former artistic director, became resident choreographer. Yet the conditions budding dancers face in Armenia are scarcely beneficial for artistic growth and thriving. Armenia has only one ballet school, the National Ballet School in Yerevan, whose building urgently needs a thorough renovation. Photos of the school can be seen on the website of “Forceful Feelings”. They were taken in 2011 but leave one puzzled. Could this ramshackle building with its outdated, 7. A.Mehrabyan, Made on Earth by J.Bubenicekdesolate equipment be the National Ballet School? If fine dancers like Mehrabyan and his colleagues were raised in such an unconducive environment, what kind of artists could be brought up under better conditions?

In 2011 two studios were renovated thanks to a donation by a Swiss who had seen a performance of “Forceful Feelings” in Munich and afterwards visited Yerevan and the school. “But actually much more has to be done; the building has to be reconditioned. Officially renovation work is under way, but in reality things have been dragging on for years. First because the money rarely arrives for the purpose it is destined for, second because of the mentality of the people. They love dance but they are not proactive. It is the same when I teach a class, for example. Usually the studio is packed with students. They are hungry to learn something new. I feel my work appreciated and I’m told the doors would always be open for further projects.” But no one is making a real job of it. For some inexplicable reason it remains for Mehrabyan to take the initiative.
“Indeed there is a new generation of artists and intellectuals ambitious to get changes under way and make the art sector flourish. But still things are complicated and laborious.” Mehrabyan supports the school, supplying dance and pointe shoes. Through regular performances with his troupe, he hopes to demonstrate what can be achieved artistically if one works on a professional level.

8. A.Mehrabyan and ensemble, Arshile Gorky by A.Mehrabyan, photo Y.SimonAnother major obstacle for a successful dance career in Armenia is inherent in the political system. Every young male aged eighteen has to serve in the military, regardless of status or training and qualification.
That was also the main reason why Mehrabyan and his friends left the country. Until they passed the age limit, coming home for a visit and being allowed to leave afterwards was only possible if they rendered services to the country through voluntary performances such as on the occasion of political jubilees. Mehrabyan danced a lot in Yerevan and hence could regularly come home, nevertheless each entry was always accompanied by a lot of paper work. Others had to stay away from home for many years.

9. A.Mehrabyan, V.Martirosyan and T.Mikayelyan, Arshile Gorky by A.Mehrabyan, photo Y.SimonThere are plans to install a folk dance group in the military as some sort of compensation for young dancers, but that doesn’t gloss over the fact that the chance for a professional career is lost when one is not allowed to leave the army before the age of twenty-seven. Can one expect a young boy to begin dance training given such bleak prospects? “Well, there are many and some of them are talented enough to make it.” says Mehrabyan. The only advice one could give them is to aim at leaving the country in time. The system is absolutely absurd; on the one hand Armenia is proud of its culture, on the other hand political authorities undermine the culture’s foundation. If they are really interested in fostering the arts, there must be a radical change of thinking. The state of affairs upsets Mehrabyan yet he would never waiver in his support nor give up his projects.

The last of these was “Arshile Gorky”, a ballet Mehrabyan created earlier this year in memory of the Armenian genocide one-hundred years ago. Years ago he had already choreographed a small pas de deux which is now at the heart of the full 10. Arsen Mehrabyan, Arshile Gorky by A.Mehrabyan, photo Y.Simonpiece which lasts around fifty minutes. In addition to the dancers of “Forceful Feelings” Mehrabyan recruited dancers from the Bavarian State Ballet, the Ballet du Grand Théȃtre de Gèneve, the Armenian National Ballet and his father’s company to complement the ensemble. Otto Bubeníček was commissioned with the stage design and the costumes. Mehrabyan himself danced the leading character. “Arshile Gorky” was performed twice in Yerevan, paired in a double bill with a folk dance piece by his father’s troupe. Mehrabyan plans to tour it in combination with one of his other own works.

Gorky (1904 – 1948) was an Armenian painter, who fled from the genocide in 1915 together with his mother and three sisters. They sought refuge in Yerevan where Gorky’s mother died of starvation a few years later. Young Gorky emigrated to the United States, where he had a remarkable international career. His drawings and paintings hang in every major museum. Mehrabyan has always been interested in Gorky, but I’m not sure he noticed some parallels between his and Gorky’s biography. Both had to leave the country at a young age, albeit for totally different 11. Arsen Mehrabyan and Angela Lee Rebelo, Arshile Gorky by A.Mehrabyan, photo Y.Simonreasons. Both became noteworthy artists. Both have inspired future generations. In a report about a retrospective for Gorky in the Tate Modern in 2010 Richard Dorment wrote in the Daily Telegraph “He lit the way for two generations of American artists.” Isn’t Mehrabyan doing exactly the same for Armenian dancers?

As a former finalist Mehrabyan was invited to dance at this year’s gala of the Prix de Lausanne. There he showed a short version of “Serenity”, choreographed in 2011, with dancers from “Forceful Feelings”. The piece’s music includes playing the duduk, an ancient Armenian flute made of apricot wood. The staff of the Royal Ballet School liked the powerful choreography and invited Mehrabyan to teach it to their students for their annual school performance. In contrast to their Armenian colleagues it seems natural for the Londoners to take action.

(The interview has been edited for clarity.)

13. Ensemble of Forceful Feelings, photo E.Miedaner

Links: Arsen Mehrabyan’s Homepage
Homepage of Forceful Feelings
 Photos:  1. Arsen Mehrabyan © Carl Thorborg, Royal Swedish Opera 2015
 2. Arsen Mehrabyan and Duosi Zhu, “Toccata” by Jiří Bubeníček, Les Ballets Bubeníček © Martin Divíšek 2015
 3. Claudio Cangialosi, Iana Salenko and Arsen Mehrabyan, “Toccata” by Jiří Bubeníček, Les Ballets Bubeníček © Martin Divíšek 2015
 4. Jaqueline Báby (Ada McGrath) and Arsen Mehrabyan (George Baines), “The Piano” by Jiří Bubeníček, Les Ballets Bubeníček © Silvano Ballone 2015
 5. Sarah-Jane Medley, Marianna Barabas, Arsen Mehrabyan (Basil), Yolanda Correa (Kitri) and ensemble, “Don Quixote” by Rudolf Nureyev, Royal Swedish Ballet © Hans Nilsson 2015
 6. Arsen Mehrabyan and Sarah-Jane Brodbeck, “Unreachable Places” by Jiří Bubeníček, Forceful Feelings © Vahan Stepanyan 2015
 7. Arsen Mehrabyan, “Made on Earth” by Jiří Bubeníček, Forceful Feelings © Arsen Mehrabyan 2015
8. Arsen Mehrabyan (Arshile Gorky) and ensemble, “Arshile Gorky” by Arsen Mehrabyan, Forceful Feelings © Yana Simon 2015
9. Vahe Martirosyan, Tigran Mikayelyan and Arsen Mehrabyan (Arshile Gorky), “Arshile Gorky” by Arsen Mehrabyan, Forceful Feelings © Yana Simon 2015
10. Arsen Mehrabyan (Arshile Gorky), “Arshile Gorky” by Arsen Mehrabyan, Forceful Feelings © Yana Simon 2015
11. Arsen Mehrabyan (Arshile Gorky) and Angela Lee Rebelo, “Arshile Gorky” by Arsen Mehrabyan, Forceful Feelings © Yana Simon 2015
12. Arman Grigoryan, Artur Babajanyan, Vahe Martirosyan, Tigran Mikayelyan and Arsen Mehrabyan, Forceful Feelings © Eke Miedaner 2015
Editing: Laurence Smelser
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So great to have a lot s of talented dancers in group. i hope you will go on and on to create more beautiful choreographs. i m proud of you.. thank you Arthur..