Text, Gesture, and Translation – The Brooklyn Rail

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Like his teacher Marcel Marceau before him, Vahram Zaryan has a calling. Just as the master of mime was constantly pushing forward the boundaries of his craft and searching for new ways to interpret movement, so too does the Paris-based founder of Compagnie Vahram Zaryan. His boundary pushing has resulted in an updated contemporary form of mime known as “Non-Mime.” In it, Zaryan integrates a broader range of media and themes than traditional pantomime, which tends to concentrate on facial expressions and gestures while merely exploring the quotidian. Zaryan has recently collaborated with a diverse group of composers, musicians, and writers to create new multidisciplinary work. These include Oblique Cycle (1 and 2), which both incorporate written text and video. It makes good sense, then, that the artist has engaged his network of collaborators to launch a far-reaching festival series.

International in scope, the Perf concept involves a touring festival of sorts whose goal it is to link cities around the world and open up the possibilities of international co-productions. The idea is to initiate a cultural dialogue between two cities in two different countries that will hopefully take root and flourish long after the festivals are gone. For its first iteration, Zaryan logically chose France and Armenia and their capital cities Paris and Yerevan, as he was born in Armenia and currently lives in the City of Light. Hence: Paris-Yerevan Perf. Choreographers and dancers, as well as artists from different disciplines, will create work that is city and site-specific and thus begin a truly global exchange of ideas. Zaryan plans to add Los Angeles the following year, and after that Sibiu in Romania and then Dakar, the capital of Senegal. “Our goal,” says Zaryan, “is to create a platform to exchange ideas and reflect on the art form, but also to help develop expository and theoretical writings related to live movement and dance, without pre-defining the works that will be created in any one particular discipline. It will draw in many different art forms.” As for the name of the festival, Zaryan comments that in addition to an abbreviation of “performance”: “Perf can also stand for ‘artistic perfusion’ given the COVID-19 pandemic or the ‘perfection’ that performers are always striving for but never attain.”

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For a festival born from an inherently nonverbal art form, its emphasis on translation is remarkable. The organizers are working with translators who specialize in theatrical and dramaturgical writing: all the works will be subtitled and any accompanying written text will be translated and printed. Thus in this year’s first iteration scheduled for November, the texts will be available in both Armenian and French.

As it has done to performers around the world, the present COVID-19 pandemic has altered Zaryan’s original plans. Not surprisingly, this first festival will be held entirely online. Performers this year will include French comedian and director Astrid Bayiha who will present Mamiwata, which brings a fantastical version of the African myth of the goddess to the world stage. Pianist Maroussia Gentet will interpret the works of contemporary composers such as Philippe Schoeller and Hèctor Parra. Contemporary mime Cécile Ghrenassia, for her part, will present IRM Party, a new work. Artists from Armenia and the Armenian diaspora present a diverse lot as well. They include director Arturo Sayan’s homage to Sergei Parajanov and Arthur Makaryan’s immersive improv show The O’Leary Theory. And the astute Los Angeles-based comedian and social critic Lory Tatoulian will present her latest stand-up routines and impersonations. Zaryan will also perform Oblique Cycle 2, a collaboration with the composer Vincent Trollet and the musicians from Ensemble Regards, based on new works by the poet Frédéric Parcheminier written specifically for this piece. In it, Zaryan tries to make visible that which is oblique and disorienting: “The body, sounds, and words come together and bifurcate in order to give birth to heretofore unknown combinations and geometries.”

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Zaryan’s decision to select Yerevan for the first Perf Festival surpasses the city’s identity as birthplace. Another reason for his decision lies in the fact that as in many ex-Soviet Republics, dance in Armenia still exists in basically two forms: folk and ballet. While the British Council has toured choreographers like Akram Khan to Armenia, modern and even neo-classical ballet still have not taken root in the nascent republic. Produced by Artistic Director Karén Hakobyan, Yerevan Perf Festival will undoubtedly bring new ideas to Armenia and engage with a young generation of performance artists and thinkers. And given the fact that Armenia is currently involved in a terrible war with its neighbors Turkey and Azerbaijan, Zaryan’s choice may be somewhat prophetic. Whether one looks at Sarajevo where Susan Sontag and others performed plays while the city was being shelled, or at American soldiers returning from Vietnam who successfully turned to painting and sculpture in order to overcome post-traumatic stress disorder, art has perennially played an important role in the lives of the oppressed or those needing succor. And as was the case with the great plague that Boccaccio recounts in the Decameron, we know that many people presently confined to their apartments have turned to television, film, and recorded performances to help them get through the sometimes lonely days of COVID-19. As the talented choreographer notes with a sigh, he will continue to perform “hoping that soon the pandemic will end and the instinct for war nurtured by Armenia’s neighbors will finally wane.”

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