Culture

Sayat Nova’s Journey Through Time aims to preserve Armenian culture and heritage

With its latest show, the Boston-based Armenian folk-dance ensemble, Sayat Nova, might well surprise those who think of folk dancing as grinning villagers prancing in lederhosen, the Montreal Gazette writes.

The first half of the show called Journey Through Time depicts Armenia’s 4,000-year history of early paganism, defiant Christian faith, bloody battles and indomitable survival. One tableau showing a massacre of Armenians by Turks comes with a parental advisory notice.

Company founder and chief choreographer Apo Ashjian has heavily stylized the violence, of course, to make it palatable on stage. But his decision to tackle the harshest moments of Armenia’s history shows how seriously he takes the company’s aim of “preserving and promoting Armenian culture.” Spectators will get some inkling of Armenia’s role as a cradle of Western civilization.

“Ashjian starts with a strong dance showing pagan Armenian symbols, then through important points of Armenian history, accepting Christianity, the battle of Vartanantz against the Persian empire, then to the massacres of 1915,” said Raffi Migdesyan, a Montrealer who in 1986 regularly travelled to Boston with three other local dancers to rehearse and dance with the newly formed Sayat Nova.

One number uses a love song by the 18th century troubadour, Sayat Nova, after whom the company was named.

The show’s second half is a medley of vigorous and lyrical Armenian folk dances along the lines of the entertaining show that Sayat Nova performed in Montreal in 2004. These include the highland Kochari, and the Yarkhoushda, a militant dance with clapping and stomping.

“Sayat Nova was a community dance group when we started,” recalled Migdesyan. “Now it’s much larger, younger and more professional. When I first came, three dancers were pregnant. Now their kids are dancing in the group!”

The troupe’s dancers were trained at Ashjian’s own school, Abaka, where more than 100 students age 3 to 16 are enrolled. Ashjian’s three grown children will be among those performing in Montreal.

A self-supporting troupe aided by volunteers and donors, the company produces its own brilliant array of costumes.

“Every single costume is traditional, authentic,” said Migdesyan. “If you touch the material, you’ll say it feels like a rug.”

Ashjian recorded the show’s music using bands in Armenia, again to ensure authenticity.

“You can be entertained and at the same time learn something about the history and music of one of the world’s oldest cultures,” Migdesyan said.

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