BY ARAM KOUYOUMDJIAN
Armenia was among nearly a dozen countries represented at this year’s California International Theatre Festival that ran from September 8 to 18 at the Los Angeles Theater Center. Its entries were the U.S. premieres of two abstract performance pieces – “Komitas’ 10 Commandments” and “Colors” – by MIHR Theatre.
MIHR’s aesthetic was described in the program as a synthesis of “ethno-modern dance & new-movement theatre with action-painting and history to break down barriers between genres of art, philosophy, and culture.” On stage, it manifested itself through stereotypical elements of performance art – black garb, dim lighting, gesticulations of angst – that were redolent of student-level work.
The opening piece, “Komitas’ 10 Commandments,” held considerable promise – given its premise. It was constructed around the 10 “commandments” that Komitas had devised for singers. Komitas (born Soghomon Soghomonian) was a priest, but his iconic contribution to Armenian culture came in the realm of music; he collected and notated over 3,000 folk songs that had previously existed only in the oral tradition. He survived the Genocide, but he witnessed its brutalities, and the traumatic experience wrecked his psyche, leaving him to spend his later years hospitalized in Paris until his death in 1935.
Comprised of scenic fragments, “Komitas’ 10 Commandments” provided several lovely images, such as bare skin serving as the music sheet on which notes are scribbled or Tsolak Mlke-Galstyan incorporating aspects of street dance in snippets of movement choreographed to traditional Armenian melodies. All too often, however, the show resorted to cliché, using sand, for example, to indicate the passage of time and to conjure up the desert where Armenians perished on death marches.
With its elegiac tone and glacial pace, the show was reminiscent of the Paradjanov-inspired film “Komitas” by Don Askarian, but its visual components were often eclipsed – both in terms of beauty and emotion – by the music, which included old recordings by Komitas himself.
Jolts of movement and background video projections infused some energy into “Colors,” a confused work propelled by a mish-mash of music. The piece featured faux fighting, canvas painting (because we apparently needed a reminder that “red” signifies blood and passion), and dance moves low in technical difficulty and originality. The two performers spent so much time writhing on the floor that they seemed to be simulating human mops.
Given the dearth of abstract performance by Armenian theater artists in Los Angeles, MIHR’s brief presence was welcome. One only wishes it had been more inspired – and inspiring.
Aram Kouyoumdjian is the winner of Elly Awards for both playwriting (“The Farewells”) and directing (“Three Hotels”). His latest work is “Happy Armenians.”