Armenian Dancing at the Péniche Anako

Armenians dancing, Péniche Anako, Quai de Seine, Paris

“Teach me to dance,” says the Englishman.

“Dance?” replies Zorba. “Did you say dance? C’mon my boy!”

Or at least that’s how I remember one of the most intense moments of the film. A sinewy Anthony Quinn leads a seemingly virginal, certainly awkward Allan Bates in a beautiful Greek dance. It is also the moment when barriers break, arms and legs intertwine, and a sense of togetherness emerges. And as in all communal activity, for the duration of the dance, distinctions of class, background, education, gender, and age are neutralized, and two human beings become one in a fraternal gesture.

The Péniche Anako last night was the site of something similar, occasioned by the appearance of six dancers from the Paris-based dance troupe, Yéraz (which means dream, in Armenian.) Virginia Kerovpyan, a singer and member of Akn and Kochnak, two traditional Armenian vocal groups based here in Paris, notes the abundance of such dance groups in the French-Armenian community. “Dance is not language-base,” she notes.”It is an avenue which does not rely on the knowledge of the mother tongue. It is less language-intensive, for instance, than singing,” she adds. “A lot of young people are drawn to dance.”

The evening was a  mix of the three more stylized, meticulously costumed and executed performances of the Yéraz group and the group dances of the young and old who had gathered on the barge for an evening of fun and movement.  Kerovpyan notes that the traditional, more spontaneous dances are very much grounded in a sense of place; the group is tight; the arms are held together close to the body; and the movements of the leg are restrained and downward and sideways in pull. By contrast, the Yéraz dancers move their arms and legs more; the movements of the women’s arms are upward and delicate; their bodies often project diagonally to the more erect posture of the men. The aim is much more performative than communal, with a good doze of meticulous spectacle and “artistry.”

My preference is for the less spectacular, the more grounded, with less arms reaching into space and men looking like they are ready to do battle with  dragons.  In this participatory mode, the stress is on the group, on cohesion, and–paradoxically–on dance being a kind of grounding, a process of creating roots through motion. And while there may be moments of solo brilliance, as was the case yesterday with a red-haired young man whose body moved like a that of a swan through water, the aim is unity and ensemble. (It turned out that the young man in question was one of the dancers of Yéraz who later joined the other five in the three sets. )

From a distance, I watched the entire scene of shoortchbars (circle dances) or a nazbars (dances of flirtation and courtship) unfurl and gain in intensity as the night wore off, and for a moment there, and out of nowhere, the image of a Nijinsky-turned James Joyce-turned traditional Armenian dancer flashed through my mind.  It was an improbable idea, brought on no doubt by the kind of unbridled meandering which travel encourages, the mind and the imagination wild with possibility and dislodged of their habits and everyday contexts–thrown to the winds of fancy, as it were.  Later last night, an e-mail from a dear friend, S.M., had the following bit of news from The Writer’s Almanac:It’s the anniversary of one of the most legendary moments in modern art. On this day in 1913, The Rite of Spring had its premiere at the Théâtre des Champs- Élysées in Paris, a ballet with choreography by Vaslav Nijinsky and music by Igor Stravinsky.

Of course, this is all pure coincidence, and yet for all its intellectual atmosphere and palatial splendor, Paris is a a city of immigrants and their dances.  And more than the palaces and the museums, the cafés and the bars, the bookstores and the libraries, Paris for me has been a city of dance, this time around: I have danced to the music of the Haitian singer Beken; responded to the “invitation” of a young  artist in a text-sound-movement performance in one of the Parisian suburbs; and last night floundered along with a group young and old to the beat of traditional Armenian music.

Teach me to dance–in the spirit of spontaneity and buoyancy, my steps light, my feet and arms nimble, my heart on the palm of my hand, in solidarity with others, on the wooden floor of a barge under which the waters are dark and shifting–there, for a moment  that  passed as quickly as it came, happiness almost within reach, as though we were all anchored, not a care in the world, not a heartache to think of, not a loss to lament, here, in this–this choreography of joy.


About Taline Voskeritchian

Writing teacher at Boston University; translator (from Arabic and Armenian); prose writer; occasional editor; incurable wanderer.
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