Armen Ohanian is more than a protagonist propelling the plot of Dear Armen, she is a ghost dancing, spirit reciting form evolving. Armen Ohanian is a vestibule for exploring identities; Dear Armen, the installation on her life, is where the invisible becomes visible. Ohanian represents those before her and those after her, the genderqueer voice that, until now, has been mostly silent or at least subdued.
Dear Armen, an immersive theater piece, is literally walking into spaces that are alive and moving. Based on Ohanian, writer, dancer, political activist, and survivor of twentieth-century anti-Armenian pogroms in Baku, her story is told through the character of Garo via lee williams boudakian and Kamee Abrahamian. They are the creators, the shells through which Ohanian and Garo enter.
The live installation carries the weight of both Ohanian and Garo, the second protagonist/researcher. Dear Armen is private spaces and poetry, photos and pronouns – the hatching of seedlings or birds, the birth, the re-birth. And despite it being a fragmented narrative, it is cohesive. To watch it is to watch the unraveling and the uniting of something bigger than oneself.
Dear Armen is confrontational because it advances a threatened voice; yet, the voice is threatening. It demands to be heard. Esoteric on various levels, Dear Armen motivates viewers/participants to peel away layers and value nuance. It is a space proving we are more than mere body, more than a title or a category; we are energy and so are Dear Armen and the creators.
I had the opportunity to see the installation in Yerevan, Armenia and meet both lee and Kamee. They were generous enough to answer some questions I had about the installation and their creative process.
What is your writing process like in general?
A wonderful blend of otherworldly magic and excruciating pain.
The writing process for us is a collaborative jumble featuring equal parts dream, play, talk, plan, visualize and sit clicking away. Kamee and I work together in the ideation, we plot out events and characters, talk through the ideas we are aiming towards, delve into motivations (our own and the characters), and then we divide tasks. I tend to do a lot of the clicking words onto the screen, and Kamee deals with lots of the visuals and choreography, but we feed into each other’s process and offer feedback to one another regularly. It’s a coming together, then separating to work away and then coming together again, on repeat.
If you could present “Dear Armen” anywhere, where and why?
Probably at the Tbilisi opera house in Georgia- it’s where she performed as ‘Armen Ohanian’ for the first time!
Personally, Armenia was one of the most significant places to perform the initial inceptions of Dear Armen, both the stage version and the installation. As a “cultural homeland” for all of us, including our characters and each of Kamee and myself, it has a significance that for me cannot be easily reduced to answering “why” other than: it is/has been/will be so significant to keep bringing ourselves and this work back to Armenia time and again.
Beyond Armenia, I am desperately dreaming of taking the show to Beirut, London, and I look forward to the day that visiting Allepo may be possible. For me, these places hold familial/ancestral/cultural significance, as members of my family have come from these places, and these are also places that hold significance for our characters. As well, London was the first place Armen was hired to perform after leaving South West Asia and North Africa.
How might Armen Ohanian feel about today’s society in relationship to the struggles of the past?
I can’t assume her perspective on anything, not right now, and perhaps never. She’s like a hall of mirrors… All those masks she wore, identities she crafted – not only is it difficult to fully understand who she really was, it’s also not my place to appropriate her ‘voice’. All I can speak into is what she has ignited in me as a person, an artist, a woman.
I wonder a lot about what Armen might feel or think, especially politically. Her art makes it difficult to “know her” from the “construct of her.” And for me, it has always been more interesting to know her through her own constructions and art than to search for empirical facts about her life. I am interested in the fabric of the life she authored. It is the textures and masks she created that fascinate me. And necessarily, it is the way she weaves her political perspective into this texture that remains most important for me.
Her first memoir, The Dancer of Shamakha, is the central text we use as inspiration for the show, and in that text she embeds her political positions, her critiques of herself, the communities she comes from, the politics of the lands she was born and raised on, and her critiques of the West and the Eurocentric lands she eventually takes her art to — she embeds all of this amidst poetry and description and the possible dream/hope/vision found through movement, dance, poetry and art.
I suspect she would continue in that work. I suspect she would continue to link the shifts that have happened politically and socially over the last century and embed them into her work. I suspect her socialism may still be a rooted part of her work, at the very least, a desire and commitment to speaking into and creating art against oppression and towards social justice. I suspect she would still be an incredible force, making brilliant things happen, in the face of systems that would otherwise try to shut her up. And/or perhaps all of this is projection… But when I look in the mirror that is Armen, these are the things I see reflected back at me.
Finish the following phrases.
If Armen were an animal…
She would be a cuttlefish! Always dancing, changing colours and patterns, both beautiful and ugly…
a tigress. enraged eyes. beautiful coat. gentle with her own. and fierce as fuck in the world.
If you were a something that grows…
I would be a mulberry tree!
a tree. roots stretched deep and connected to the land and the forest. branches stretched to gaze at the clouds in the sky and the moon. and a silent wisdom that speaks through the ages.
Find more info here:
DEAR ARMEN TOURS THE PACIFIC COAST – OCTOBER 2015
San Francisco (NOHspace: 2840 Mariposa St) – October 6 & 7 @ 7:30pm
Berkeley/Oakland (La Pena: 3105 Shattuck Ave) – October 8 @ 7:30pm
Los Angeles (Play Collaborative Arts: 1018 S Santa Fe Ave) – October 10 @ 7pm & 9:30pm
Portland (Performance Works NW: 4625 SE 67th Ave) – October 16 @ 8pm
Seattle (Youngstown Cultural Arts Center: 4408 Delridge Way SW) – October 17 @ 8pm
Vancouver (Roundhouse Performance Center: 181 Roundhouse Mews) – October 19 & 20 @ 8pm