Dear Armen is a theatre of selves told through dance
It is obscure and difficult researching the life and work of Armen Ohanian, an Armenian performer, and of Sophia Pirboudaghian (Armen’s birth name). From doing so, I realized what an opportunity I missed after hastily leaving the venue last Friday. What was I rushing off for? Maybe it was that I felt out of place and bashful for having no real concept of Armenian history, or history of reading Armen. There were no prerequisites, of course, and not having any I’m not even sure what questions I could have asked, except, how can I find more of her?
When I enter, I lock on to the dark eyes of Haig Ashod Beylerian, our musical accompaniment plucking the score for the night. Sitting just in front of him and his electric guitar, I can feel the warmth of the stage light at my back and I’m grateful for the closeness that Performance Works Northwest corrects in us. Our timid nature to set ourselves apart at first from each other is too commonplace in public, but never here. It’s a natural setting for this communal hour.
Abruptly we are chastised by charactered Kamee Abrahamian for not removing our shoes, for the pictures in our laps that we so nosily “collected” from around her home; Haig for his dirty face. It’s a light and comical start that vibrates through a wavering anxiety in this heavy piece. Through it, we are half-mothered into better understanding the mask of perfection we all know. It’s a mask of appearances and it illustrates the sacrifice in upholding traditional values simply because we won’t let ourselves experience anything different. It’s a sad refusal to begin understanding what we don’t already comprehend by nature. It creates unnecessary distance between people; generations.
In contrast we come to know Garo (Lee Williams Boudakian), our genderqueer narrator, student and writer who through research begins to link her own life and struggle with genderless identity with that of Armen Ohanian. Through interactions with a family member she begins to open up conversation about the dismissal of Armenian women’s experiences through their own silence; an ingrained refusal to share that which is foreign to our Garo. Garo brings to life the contradiction between what is little known about Armen and what conclusions we might draw from rare documented historical facts about her life; her memoirs.
This is easily translatable to the memoricide that we experience too often in ancestry and what Garo contends with in her own family. How similar are our struggles to those in our lineage, really? What was left out of our own heritage and are there struggles that we are repeating? This speaks to the masks that we all wear and pass down. Ripples span out to future generations based only on the struggle we choose to include.
Born Sophia Pirboudaghian, she doesn’t reveal herself as Armen Ohanian until she begins her dancing career in her early twenties and only after a brief marriage to Armenian-Iranian doctor, Haik Ter-Ohanian. Despite her marriage, Armen was rumored to have many relationships with well known women of her time but you won’t find that in history books. Actually, you won’t find much about her at all; as Garo explains, we learn about her through her memoirs.
Denouncing her given name Sophia, she takes on the masculine “Armen” and relinquishes shackles binding her self-expression. Armen is born again in her own challenging and dually changing definition. In this piece Armen plays the vessel that transverses Garo through her own exile and search for understanding. We understand the judgment that lies within opposing tradition. We relate with both on the constant reframing of identity. Armen is the artist, author, dancer, survivor. Armen, the undefined.
One of the most interesting pieces director Anoushka Ratnarajah works in, is a scene where literal identity is fleeting within each few seconds. Lee and Kamee are pitted against one another snaking back and forth in the same consciousness until Garo is possessed with all characters. Here Garo flirts seamlessly between three generations. It made my head spin trying to hang onto it. She is unending versions of herself, defying but not excluding her ancestry. Garo is Garo, she is her lineage, she is not she, she is Armen, she is not.
Now I have questions I didn’t know to ask on Friday, dug up by further thought on the performance and Armen. Is it in the build of some to remain always in the shadow; never laying the light of patriotism to just one of the many countries of ourselves? What within us decides a peeling of a layer; the shifting of masks?