“DO YOU HAVE A LOVE FOR DANCE?”
This was the first question asked in my interview with Noemi Araxi of Arax Dance, and it was one my subject asked of me. I stumbled through an explanation that I don’t entirely understand myself—yes, I do have a love for dance, but not as a dancer or as a critic. I am less interested in technique or athleticism than I am in the ideas that drive the dance and the culture that produced it. Dance can convey stories and ideas using its own language, one beyond words. Do I have a love for dance? Yes, because curiosity and passion are the only preconditions for loving dance.
I think my answer was acceptable, not only because Noemi agreed to continue our interview, but because an important aspect of her own journey—from principal dancer in the Armenian National Ballet to the artistic director of a contemporary Armenian dance company in the Bay Area—is her ability to find the enthusiasm in her dancers’ hearts and build her choreography from their personal passions.
Noemi was born and raised in Armenia during the Soviet era, where children with an aptitude for dance were placed on an intensive training track from an early age. “You had to be a physically perfect dancer—if you didn’t have the right arch in your foot, you wouldn’t become a dancer,” she tells me. As a dancer, Noemi thrived, eventually training with some of the best teachers in the Soviet Union, including Konstantin Sergeyev and Natalia Dudinskaya. After immigrating to the United States, she began teaching at ballet schools throughout the Bay Area and providing training for professional figure skaters. One day a sick colleague asked Noemi to cover for her in an adult beginner class.
“In the Soviet Union there was no such thing as an adult beginner class—the people who danced and took classes had been dancing since they were children. And there in class was this 60-something year old lady at the barre struggling with first position.
“After class she explained that when she was younger, she wanted to be a dancer, but her family didn’t have money. Then she had a family, and there wasn’t the time. Now she had the time and the money, and she wanted to live her dream. She wanted to be in the ballet studio.
“I thought that was beautiful, and it taught me about dance in this country.”
As she adapted to this country’s dance culture, Noemi began to incorporate Armenian movement into some of her ballet classes. This led to her teaching Armenian dances to some of her students—who were attracted to her style despite not being Armenian themselves—and occasionally taking them to Armenian festivals to perform. Noemi tells me that one of these students was a nine-year old girl named Annat Koren, who “stole my heart—I had to begin creating choreography for this beautiful little dancer.” 20 years later, Noemi is still working with Annat, who is a core member of Arax Dance.
Eventually, an Armenian church organization lost a dance teacher and asked Noemi to step in for six months. She showed up on the first day to find, “a bunch of kids standing around a church and I didn’t know what I was going to do. They didn’t have the discipline that ballet gives you. The first thing I decided was to not to teach in the church. The floor was not right, there was no mirror. So we brought these kids to a ballet studio.”
After six months Noemi returned to her other teaching obligations, and many of the kids left, but one student, Lena Dakessian, was ready to come with her. Lena tells me that the discipline and dedication that was demanded of her in Noemi’s classes “was, and still is to some degree, uncommon in the Armenian community when it comes to dance.”
After a few years, the Armenian church organization asked Noemi to work with them again. “I said no at first because the kids had no discipline,” Noemi says, “but I was nostalgic for my country’s music and wanted to do something for my country. That’s how I started Arax.”
It was 2004 when Noemi began with a group of about 20 kids—mostly 12-16 years old. “Slowly I began remaking them my way.” Lena explained that “the once a week commitment became a several times-a-week commitment and classes always went over, and [as a result] the kids who weren’t as committed were weeded out.” The dancers who remained are now in their 20s and make up the core of the ensemble.
For Lena, it was a personal triumph after years of being the kid in the corner. “It was kind of a ‘Karate Kid’ moment, because [Noemi] had spent all this time teaching me these things, and I didn’t know when or how I was going to use them, and then all of a sudden I was allowed to release my knowledge through movement.”
For Noemi, working with these students was about discovering ways to create choreography for dancers, including those without intensive technical training.
“These kids haven’t been dancing since they were 4 years old. The challenge is to create a movement unique to that dancer,” she explains, “and that’s rewarding for me.”
Lena is quick to point out that this doesn’t mean the Armenian dance performed by the company is a collection of staid or repetitive folk dances. “That’s not what we do. Those who aren’t familiar with Armenian dance expect to see folk dancing. In Armenia, the art of dance has evolved tremendously and incorporates a lot of ballet and contemporary movement.”
Noemi agrees and credits the influence of Vanoush Khanamerian, director of the Armenian Dance Ensemble in the 1960s and 70s, for the development of Armenian dance. “He brought the fundamentals of ballet to Armenian dance and changed the face of ethnic dance in Armenia. He brought jumps, energy, new movements, and his impact can still be felt.”
Many of the young people who have grown up in Arax Dance, and are now dancing as adults, will be performing at San Francisco’s City Hall on November 1, beginning with a piece based on the Armenian legend of Ara the Beautiful—a tragic love triangle. Also included in the program will be Day and Night, a piece that Noemi created based on the personalities of two of her dancers. This is the way she creates choreography.
“When they come to me I find what makes them unique. I see their talent. I pick some quality, some aspect of character, and create movements around their capabilities. That’s what makes it so beautiful.” I ask Noemi for an example, and she tells me about a piece that was constructed from a dancer’s personal history.
“About three years ago one of my students asked me to choreograph a dance to a piece of music, and I told her that it was too complex and I didn’t think we could pull it off. A year later she came back and asked again, but this time she told me her story.
“When she was a little kid she was picked on in school, until the other kids started picking on a new girl. My student admitted that she joined the kids in bullying the new girl, because she was so happy to not be bullied herself.”
“But the new girl took piano lessons with my student’s aunt, and at some point she witnessed the girl playing this piece of music in concert. It was in that moment she realized how talented the girl was.”
Noemi’s student had discovered that the girl was now, as an adult, fighting bone cancer and wanted to use that same music she remembered so fondly to create a performance piece for the girl as an apology. “As she told me this story, we both cried, and I knew I had to choreograph a piece to this music.” Noemi used the music and the dancer’s emotional history with it to create an original contemporary work. This is the kind of emotional connection that propels Noemi’s choreography.
Lena tells me that in class Noemi “always used to say that you can have your leg extended up above your head, but if you can’t capture an audience through your emotion, they’ll tire and lose interest.”
Noemi agrees: “Next to you there could be a girl doing nothing, but the audience is watching her because she has the ability to express emotion publicly and be sincere on stage.”
Arax Dance will perform at the Rotunda Dance Series at SF City Hall on Fri, Nov 1 at Noon.