Ballet of Armenia gives us a glimpse of the country's soul

The Ballet of Armenia performs the world-famous Sabre Dance. — Picture courtesy of the Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra
The Ballet of Armenia performs the world-famous Sabre Dance. — Picture courtesy of the Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra

KUALA LUMPUR, Feb 14 — Last weekend’s ballet festival at the Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra provided a glimpse into the fairly unfamiliar world of Armenian ballet.

In just two excerpts of composer Aram Khachaturian’s ballet Gayane and Spartacus, performed by the Ballet of Armenia, narratives of politics, culture and ethnic identity were showcased.

Ballet lovers familiar with the more popularly performed Russian and French repertoire would have to look hard to find the tragic heroine-types found in Giselle, Swan Lake and La Bayadere.

In the week prior, the Ballet of Armenia delighted audiences with a Tchaikovsky Spectacular featuring excerpts from The Nutcracker and Swan Lake.

Russian ballet, which is known for its dramatic soulfulness, was developed by ballet teacher Agrippina Vaganova who was of Armenian descent.

‘The school and methods of Armenian and Russian ballets are the same as they were formed in the Soviet period and are based on the Vaganova method,’ said Ballet of Armenia’s co-ordinator Shmavon Grigoryan.

Today, the Vaganova method remains popular and is widely taught.

Gayane tells the story of a cotton farmer and her violent husband Giko while Spartacus is the tale of the Thracian king turned slave who leads an uprising against the corrupt Roman general Marcus Crassus.

‘The audience can feel the spirit of Armenia, which is very inspirational, as well as the country’s culture and mentality,’ said Grigoryan.

In Gayane, folk elements are peppered throughout the performance and Khachaturian’s bold score.

This was best exemplified by the famous Sabre Dance scene – the piece has been used countless times in figure skating, movies and television shows.

‘Our dancers have at least eight to 10 years of professional training and it takes a minimum of four months to learn the choreography,’ said Grigoryan.

‘Gayane and Spartacus were first staged in the 1950s and they were complex even back then but to keep up with today’s standards, the complexity we are dealing with is perfecting technical details.’

During the Soviet era, ballet was used as a means of political protest in the subtlest of forms, negotiating state censorship.

Despite the anti-authoritarian themes in Spartacus which debuted in 1956, it was awarded a Lenin Prize for its composition.

Whatever one’s politics are, it is easy to see why this ballet is well loved.

While scenes depicting the infamous Roman bacchanalia, the most powerful scene was the adagio of Spartacus and his imprisoned wife Phrygia when they celebrate their escape.

Soloists Ruben Muradyan and Syuzanna Pirumyan captivated audiences with their heartfelt and passionate routine – it was without a doubt the highlight of the evening.

Asked if ballet practitioners in Armenia and fellow post-Soviet republics find it hard to carve out a niche for themselves away from the revered Russian style, the art form is very much a lasting legacy of the former USSR.

‘Russian ballet is at an incredibly high level worldwide since the last century and we should be inspired by it, not try to break away,’ Grigoryan said.

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