VENICE-YEREVAN–I met the Italian-Armenian Marina Mavian for the first time last August in Venice at a party attended by participants of the intensive summer course in Armenian language and culture organized by the Padus-Araxes Cultural Association. The erstwhile dancer Marina, who now devotes herself to painting, had come to meet me in response to the letter I had sent her in connection with my study on Armenia’s in the field of dance. She had also wanted to give her children, young Stephanie and Nicola Pambagian, one more opportunity to be in an Armenian environment. I noticed that although Marina was speaking Italian with her children, her conversation was constantly peppered with the Armenian word “hokis” (my dear). We made an appointment for the interview the following day on the island of Lido, Marina’s summer home. Marina Mavian was born in Venice but currently she lives in Milan.
Having resided in a small dormitory room in Venice, which was lacking in flora, I found it unusual yet pleasant to be in a domestic environment, to sit in an airy room decorated with antique furniture and fine paintings, and from whose window a blue canal and subtropical vegetation were visible. In the room, one’s attention is drawn to Marina’s unfinished work ‘s a painting of bird letters of the Armenian alphabet. The facial features, the light hair and skin of this attractive lady of this house give her a totally European appearance, despite her being only one-quarter Italian. Moreover, her lithe movemen’s betray the fact that she used to be a first-class ballet dancer.
In response to her question about my interest in the art of dance, I told her that it is an old love of mine and proceeded to present her my current, as yet unpublished study called “Armenia’s on the International Dance Scene.” I also showed her my computer data bank of photographs I’ve collected of Armenian ballet dancers in various countries of the world.
Marina was pleasantly surprised and said, “I have almost never encountered Armenian surnames in ballet circles.”
Our conversation proceeded in English, with intermittent injections of Italian and Armenian.
“The Mavians are natives of Bursa,” Marina began. “My father Jirair likewise was born in Bursa but moved to Istanbul at the age of four. From there, in turn, the family fled to Bulgaria, to escape new massacres, about which a Turkish friend had warned them. My grandfather lost all his property and possessions but he built a large new house in Burgas. My father attended the Mekhitarist School of Plovdiv and the Mourad-Raphaelian School of Venice; subsequently he studied economics and business in Anvers, Belgium. My mother, Augusta Mascarin, was the daughter of a Venetian naval captain and Nevart Ischlemedjian of Izmir. There were three children in our family, with whom Grandma Nevart spoke Armenian as a matter of principle. My grandmother’s parents were saved from the conflagration that swept through Izmir in 1922 and found refuge in Venice with their daughter. Subsequently, my grandmother Nevart accidentally met my future father, then a student, on a train and invited him to her home. That’s how my parents met each other.”
One of Marina’s sisters, Linda, works in the cultural affairs office of the province of Veneto; she’s the author of a few collections of poetry in Italian. Rosanna, in turn, is a journalist and steady contributor to several Italian periodicals.
“I understand Armenian very well,” said Marina, smiling, “although I’m not accustomed to speaking it. My parents used to speak to each other in Armenian but in Italian to their children. I learned Armenian by listening to them. My husband is an Armenian born in Milan and my daughter Stephanie learned Armenian on her own in the home.”
The natural beauty of Lido, the presence of the rich Italian and Armenian cultures, and an innate love of art stimulated Marina-Anahid Mavian’s artistic talents from childhood. At the age of 7, she began to attend the Sergey Diaghilev School of Ballet in Venice.
“Watching me perform during my very first lesson, the teacher asked if I had ever danced. I hadn’t previously danced but every movement, every position came to me very easily, as I was a born ballet dancer. Two years later, the director of a famous ballet troupe with the etoile Carla Fracci came to my and chose me to participate in a production to be presented in the La Fenice Theater of Venice.
Thus, my professional career began when I was 9 years old, in our truly fantastic La Fenice Theater, whose smells will always remain a part of me. A few years later, another well-known dancer named Roberto Fascilla came from La Scala and, seeing me, said I should continue my education in Milan without fail. The results of my exams were excellent, and I was immediately put in the fourth class, instead of having to go through the three-year preparatory classes. I was already 14 years old, and it was rare for someone of that age, an outsider no less, to be accepted by the La Scala Ballet School. I studied for five years at that distinguished school, which is now a ballet academy. We were taught according to the Cecchetti-Vaganova method. We had an extremely heavy schedule; we practiced 12 hours a day, from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., and if there was a performance in the evening, we would be tied up until midnight. We didn’t see any daylight on those days. I was only free on Saturday afternoons, and those were spent learning Russian, since my goal was to perfect my technique at Moscow’s Bolshoi Theater. I’m not sorry that it didn’t work out, since I signed a contract with the Deutsche Opera am Rhein, which operates in Dusseldorf and Grand Theater of Duisburg.
I asked Marina, “Why didn’t you pursue a career at La Scala?”
Marina replied, “La Scala is a mighty center of opera but not ballet. In order to be a good ballet dancer, you have to get away from La Scala. If you stay, your efforts will not bear fruit. The administration often changed, which caused great difficulties. Now the ballet school has been removed from the theater, whereas when I was a student there, it was right in La Scala, and you could freely converse with Nureyev or Vasilev, or have a cup of coffee with Paolo Bortolucci. Rehearsals at La Scala would sometimes last a year ‘s with costumes, without costumes, onstage, offstage. Meanwhile, we prepared and gave a performance in one week’s time in Germany. Generally speaking, ballet life in Germany was better organized; first-rate ballet masters were continuously invited. All of us were equal in the group; there was no hierarchy among the performers. Incidentally, I was the only Italian and the only Armenian in the group.”
As a member of the Deutsche Opera am Rhein in the years 1979-1982, Marina Mavian performed in various ballets.
“In 1982, I received an invitation to work in Buenos Aires’ Colon Theater. I was glad for that opportunity but then the war over the Falkland Islands broke out, forcing the theater to shut down. In 1986, I got married and left dancing for them,” said Marina, smiling as she pointed to her children. For the first time, the latter were looking attentively at their mother’s ballet photos, which she hadn’t taken out of the family albums for a long time.
Closing the gates on the art of ballet, Marina opened the doors to another magical world ‘s fine art.
“I’ve always painted in my spare time, even when I was a dancer. I concentrated on Armenian spiritual art. I went to Armenia for the first time in 1996. I’ve also been to Western Armenia and seen Aghtamar, Ani;.In particular, I’ve been inspired by the ruins of Zvartnots and our khachkars (cross stones) to devote myself completely to painting. I began to depict monasteries, copy Armenian miniatures, and engage in iconography on wood. I wish to show the public that an important cultural legacy exists in Armenia. This is necessary work, to present ourselves to the world, since extremely little is known about us. Sometimes I am approached after an exhibit and asked, “So the Armenia’s are Christian, is that so?” Up until now, I’ve had two solo exhibits in Milan and one each in Yerevan and Los Angeles. The Yerevan exhibit took place in August 2006 at the Narekatsi Art Institute, where 50 works of mine, mainly paintings of Armenian monasteries, were on display. I am very inspired by Armenia. It’s true when they say that Armenia is an open-air museum.”
I said, “Isn’t Italy, and Venice in particular, like that too?”
“Venice is a city. But in Armenia you can go to the mountainous region and, along the side of the road, see a little church, an artistic masterpiece, or a khachkar resembling needlework, which is a ready-made museum specimen. Such a thing doesn’t exist in Italy.”
Marina asked about the current political situation in Armenia and expressed anxiety over the war having begun in Georgia. At the end of the conversation, she said:
“Italy loves us. There are some 500 Armenia’s in Milan and the Lombardy region. I’m now director of the Armenian House in Milan, where, despite insufficient financial means, we periodically hold concerts, lectures, exhibits, film screenings, Armenian language classes and book launchings. I shall continue to paint and I shall endeavor to present and generate interest in our culture, both in Milan and Venice.”