BY PAUL CHADERJIAN
On the edge of this multicultural metropolis, miles shy of the suburban promises of Americana in Orange County, thousands of cars have come to a halt on a massive multilaned interstate in Buena Park. Cars, new and old, foreign and domestic, weave an incomprehensible tale of multicultural harmony in our globalized 21st century.
Inside the inner sanctum of isolated metal boxes on rubber wheels, radios blare the latest sensational headlines. A young Chechen is charged with heinous crimes that morning. The son of a dictator is threatening to make war in the Korean peninsula. Anonymous is shutting down the Internet in protest of unconstitutional reversals of privacy laws.
A Bruno Mars mix sounds from the woofers of a fancy black SUV driven by a young lawyer. A cancer surgeon listens to the Oprah network on Sirius XM broadcasting Dr. Phil’s talk on marginalization and belonging. Meanwhile a traffic reporter in a chopper above tells his TV audience about the Babylonian congestion tying up the southbound lanes.
One of the drivers making his way to an evening dance class keeps checking the digital clock in his Ford Windstar. The 20-year-old is on his weekly journey from North Hollywood to the Forty Martyrs Church complex in Santa Ana, where 40 dance students giddily anticipate their weekly rehearsal.
Donning fashionable, black sunglasses, a tight black t-shirt and black jeans, the young dancer and dance coach is weaving through the pastiche of tongues and histories, languages and ethnicities, tastes and journeys toward an untraditional career for the son of a traditionally conservative people.
Artur Aleksanyan is a professional dancer, a rising star in the Armenian world with recognition for his talents from the Israeli, Russian, ballet and modern dance communities.
He’s danced since he learned to walk, performing with Hamazkayin’s renowned Ani Dance Company and in dozens of mainstream American productions like “The Nutcracker,” “Snow White” and “Peter Pan” across the US and abroad over the past 15 years.
This is how the dancer is bringing his dance, his passion and skills to the kids and teens gathered as part of the Orange County Hamazkayin’s Yeraz dance group, which has inspired its small but tight-knit community for the past ten years.
Artur is teaching back-to-back classes with dancers between the ages of four and 19 as the group prepares for its June 2nd recital featuring various production numbers interwoven through a narrative.
“The story is of a boy who falls asleep after a long day at school and dreams of traveling to Armenia,” explains Artur. “He gets lost along the way and encounters several foreign cultures.”
The main character in the upcoming production heeds the advice of a few friendly gypsy boys, who point him in the right direction.
“The boy spends the remainder of his dream marveling in awe of the stories that the music and movement tell,” says Artur. “This is the first show that I am fully directing, and I am excited and anxious to see the final product.”
A month earlier, soccer moms have brought their most precious cargo to the Harut Barsamian Armenian Center in extremely large but safe SUVs. It’s midway through Lent, and volunteers are preparing vegan dishes for the “Meechink” meal two days later.
On a card table in the entrance to the hall, Lebanese-Armenian grandmothers on a break from kitchen duty distress exercising their math skills with a game of cards. While they keep track of their cards, they also keep an eye on the young souls milling around and socializing ahead of their class.
Artur is coaching 13-year-old Sofia Sakzlyan as she gracefully moves her hands and fingers over her head to melody titled “Deer of Karabakh.” She’s beckoning the past from a faraway place and recreating the golden age of her ancestors’ culture in a new land, a new stretch of diaspora.
Community organizer and head of the Hamazkayin Siamanto chapter, Shoushig Arslanian, says when the first instructor of the dance group moved to Boston, she “knocked on Ani Dance group’s door, and they were nice enough to send us one of their lead dancers.”
That’s how Artur began his relationship with the Orange County community last September, accepting the challenge of weekly 2-hour roundtrip drives every Monday night and marathon four-hour coaching gig, broken down into 60-minute sessions, individualized by gender and age groups.
“The best part of the experience is seeing the progress,” says Artur. “I do it because it’s a new challenge. I try to not only teach dance but to also teach our culture to our students through the one thing I’m able to communicate best with – dance.”
Passing The Torch
Khachaturian’s Sabre Dance plays loud from speakers connected to Artur’s iPhone. Young boys move to the rapid succession of notes, mimicking a choreography passed down from generation to generation in rooms like this all over the Armenian Diaspora.
8-year-old Armen Andekian moves rapidly across the floor with a sword in his hand. Artur instructs Armen and the other boys to watch one another and keep the proper distance as they move across Ghazarian Hall.
“Seeing the development of mental and physical strength, seeing the smiles after class,” are what Artur says motivate him. “I love to see them push through struggle. “
Artur says while he pushes his students to reach their best potential, he also realizes “not everyone’s born a dancer.” He says he doesn’t expect his students to pursue careers in dance but gains great satisfaction watching them improve artistically, physically and collectively over the previous week’s class.
Choreographing A Future
“I can’t say I was the one to discover a desire to dance,” explains Artur. “That’s a credit I must give to my folks. They signed me up for my first dance class at the age of 3. I guess it was a good parenting move I will forever be grateful for.”
It’s well past nine on another Monday night, and Artur is back in his Windstar on an hour-long drive back to the San Fernando Valley. It’s been an exhausting but gratifying night. He has belted out instructions, made the kids sweat, laugh and celebrate their ancestor’s arts.
He is teaching the kids lessons he’s learned and the disciplines he has acquired along the way, inspiring younger dancers the way the Ani Dance Company has inspired him since 2008.
“I love being part of a group where passion and devotion are eminent,” he says. “My directors, Yeghia Hasholian and Suzy Barseghian-Tarpinian, have been dedicated to keeping a fire lit for the Armenian culture through dance for close to 40 years.”
Artur says for dancers, it’s incredibly gratifying to have the opportunity to be on stage with a company like Ani.
“We don’t just dance,” he says, “we tell stories. We wear the costumes, we step to the rhythm, and we embrace the culture. Representing not just our culture, but our heritage.”
On a freeway that can lead one to any direction that can be punched up on a navigator, to any neighborhood, subculture or no culture at all, Artur has got his route planned.
“I’d like to better myself and improve my craft with further study, he says. “Possibly on the East Coast or overseas. Europe? Perhaps even in my homeland?”
Whichever direction his career takes him, Artur says he intends “to make the absolute best of it.”
And three apples fell from heaven: one for the storyteller, one for him who made him tell it, and one for you the reader.
Paul Chaderjian is a television news producer at the ABC station serving the Hawaiian Islands. He began his career at Horizon Armenian Television and has worked at ABC News in New York as a writer-producer for “World News Now” and as a reporter in Fresno. He served as the Arts & Culture and West Coast Editor of the Armenian Reporter, anchored English-language news at Armenia TV and has hosted the annual Armenia Fund Telethon. He may be reached via firstname.lastname@example.org