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The Last Tightrope Dancer In Armenia

The Last Tightrope Dancer in Armenia Film

Still from The Last Tightrope Dancer in Armenia

Click to watch film

[big_button url=”http://video.pbs.org/video/1607145692/”]U.S. Only[/big_button] [big_button url=”http://www.pbs.org/itvs/globalvoices/last-tightrope-dancer.html”]Outside U.S.[/big_button]

Editor’s note: The following post by Emeri Fetzer is a followup to her first mention of The Last Tightrope Dancer in Armenia. You can view the film’s trailer and read more of her writing about the Dance on Camera Film Festival here.

[dropcap]“I[/dropcap] never thought it would go to a dance festival. I was making a film about people,“ remarked director Sahakyan about her film, “The Last Tightrope Dancer in Armenia,” screened as part of Dance on Camera at Lincoln Center’s Walter Reade Theater. The film’s directors are Arman Yeritsyan and Inna Sahakyan.

Stangely, in this simple introduction to the film, Sahakyan illuminated the key characteristic of cultural dance forms. A community’s traditions, symbols, beliefs and values are often reflected in the way that community moves; the way people express their lives through communal movement. So, when a dance form is braided into the historical fabric of a culture as tightrope dancing was in Armenia, its disappearance is reason to sit up and notice. Sahakyan recalled the frequency of tightrope dancers on the streets as she was growing up, and she confirmed this with other Armenian members of Dance on Camera’s audience. As performers began to vanish on the streets, she wondered why.

[quote_right author=””]
Dance is a medium which is unmatched in its effect. Different from music, theater and visual arts, dance provides its own set of possibilities for expression, which makes it invaluable. It is essential to keep alive, in all its forms, whether they be stage based or for ritual.
[/quote_right]

The answer, presented so fully in the film, is twofold. Those who have honed a skill for tightrope dance are slowly but surely leaving the practice. Secondly, those who watched the art form and revered it in times past, no longer come to see dancers. It seems the question of the chicken or the egg. Did the collective culture lose interest first or did the art form lose its ability to draw in passionate dancers? The film follows two of tightrope dancing’s finest men, Zhora and Knyaz, now aged and unable to perform. The two, once rivals for position of top dog, now work together to keep new pupils interested. With two young boys with promise, it seems there may be hope, but as time and the film move forward, Knyaz’s pupil becomes disinterested, unable to make sufficient money. Hovsep, an orphan boy adopted by Zhora, becomes the nation’s only remaining hope to keep the art alive. However, this concern about survival seems confined to only the art’s main players, as it becomes clear the community no longer attends performances and more importantly, they don’t pay.

Sahakyan’s examination in the film begins to unfold layers. Hovsep’s decision to continue dancing is complicated by devotion to Zhora, whose life’s work and meaning lie in dancing. In older days in Armenia, the skills of men like Zhora and Knyaz were revered by audiences—they were likened to gods, their dancing to miracles. Nostalgia for these days of reverence clouds the current position the art holds. For Hovsep, the last young prodigy, passion for dance is not the driving force. Rather, his concerns are in supporting himself financially and finding pride in his work, rather than disappointment.

[quote_left author=””]
In simple terms, tightrope dancing is a case study for all kinds of specialized genres that slip through the cracks if we are not careful. Let them go, and part of our history as humans becomes inaccessible.
[/quote_left]

The divide between dance as performance and dance as community ritual has defined genres such as “concert dance” and “cultural dance.” In this case, because a cultural dance is also a commodity, in that it makes money for its participants, it loses its place. Zhora’s dancing, linked to divinity, is not the dancing Hovsep has learned. He does it only out of obligation, and not for a higher spiritual purpose. So, we see that just as dance companies in the US struggle for funding, it all comes back to financial backing. If tightrope dancing is to survive, it must be funded independantly by the community, or by the state.

Or it must reclaim its worth as a miracle.

“The Last Tightrope Dancer in Armenia” was a specific look at an issue that has broad application in the art world. What we choose to archive and preserve as part of our history, and what we demand stays relevant in our daily culture is a value statement. But how can we ever evolve if we resist the natural waves that come with development? Rooting for Hovsep to continue his training and save tightrope dancing while lucidly understanding it’s fading proves we are not yet decided.

The issue in Armenia, although specific, sits very close to home in reality. Dance is a medium which is unmatched in its effect. Different from music, theater and visual arts, dance provides its own set of possibilities for expression, which makes it invaluable. It is essential to keep alive, in all its forms, whether they be stage based or for ritual. In simple terms, tightrope dancing is a case study for all kinds of specialized genres that slip through the cracks if we are not careful. Let them go, and part of our history as humans becomes inaccessible.

Click to watch film

[big_button url=”http://video.pbs.org/video/1607145692/”]U.S. Only[/big_button] [big_button url=”http://www.pbs.org/itvs/globalvoices/last-tightrope-dancer.html”]Outside U.S.[/big_button]

More from Dance on Camera

Post by Emeri Fetzer

Emeri is Managing Editor of DancePulp.com and a full–time freelance performer. Emeri most recently danced in Punchdrunk's 'Sleep No More' NYC and in original choreography for PITH Dance. Originally from Salt Lake City, Utah, with BA’s in Dance Choreography and English from Goucher College, Emeri loves to marry writing with a strong passion for movement. She is also a regular contributor for Theater Development Fund's online magazine TDF Stages.

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