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Articles / Zara Chatinian




Zara Chatinian

Armenia in Step: National ensemble keeps dance traditions alive



      With grace and a feel for history, the State Dance Ensemble of Armenia has been delighting audiences at home and abroad for 44 years.

      The steps and moves of the dancers trace their origins to ancient pagan traditions, expressing national rites, thundering battles, and the sorrow and rejoicing of the Armenian people.

      The dance ensemble is composed of 40 men and women, in equal numbers, plus costume and stage designers, choreographer and ballet master. With musicians and administrators, the group numbers 65 in total.

      The ensemble practices four hours a day, six days a week at Yerevan’s Opera House in a room without water or air conditioning. In summer, conditions become very uncomfortable, but the dancers carry on regardless.

       Like many other artistic enterprises here, such dedication is not reflected in the financial rewards they receive. Salaries for dancers can be as low as 9,000 Drams a month ($17).

       The ensemble receives 12 million Drams ($21,053) in annual support from the Government – less than $325 per staff member per year.

       Income from performances does little to supplement the budget – tickets for concerts, which are held once or twice a month, typically cost about 1,000 Drams (under $2).

       Suren Chanchurian (pictured below), artistic director for the last 10 years, says dance is an art that one pursues from devotion without consideration of financial reward.

       The State ensemble was established in 1958 by Merited Artist George Asaturian and People’s Artist of Armenia Edward Manukian, together with award winning ballet masters, artists and composers.

       Its performance season in Armenia lasted only three months in Soviet times, with the rest of the year spent touring throughout the Soviet Union and internationally to countries such as Cyprus, Egypt, France, and the United States.

       “Now it is very hard to get invitations. Often, they require that the group covers half of the travel costs, which we cannot afford to do,” says Chanchurian.

       “The difficult economic situation in the country makes it difficult to travel to other parts of Armenia now, particularly when there are not really any decent theaters in which we can stage our performances. So we mostly stay in Yerevan.”

       Although its travels don’t compare to the glory days of the past, the ensemble still manages to send groups of up to 35 people abroad twice a year typically. Earlier this year, for example, they performed in Cyprus.

       Srbuhi Babayan (pictured right), 50, has been a soloist with the ensemble for 32 years. She also has responsibility for preparing her fellow dancers for new concerts and programs.

       Babayan says it takes anywhere from three days to three months to prepare everyone to the necessary standard, depending on the complexity of the program.

        Her enthusiasm and devotion to her craft through her long career are apparent to all who watch her dance.

       “Every time I go on stage I think of it as my last concert,” she says.

       Each year, experts from the ensemble visit schools to invite talented dancers to audition as new recruits. The training is tough – those who cannot make the grade are asked to leave.

       The age range of the dancers is from 17 to 50. They have to pass a rigorous dance education, display a high degree of ability, and be at least 170cm tall. Plus, says Chanchurian, they need an expressive face.

       The ensemble also runs its own dance academy for children aged 10 and older. The youngsters pay 2,000 Drams a month ($3.50) for classes – the best of them may be invited to audition for the full ensemble when they are older.

       Chanchurian says the ensemble has struggled in recent years to attract talented young men to be dancers. They simply don’t regard the salary as attractive.

       The company has also lost around 20 dancers through emigration to the United States in recent years, many of whom have set up their own ensembles and dance schools in their new home.






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