Apo Ashjian, SNDC Director
Apo Ashjian has been active in Armenian dance for more than 40 years and has performed extensively with Armenian dance ensembles as well as with the internationally renowned Mandala Folk Ensemble. In 1982, Ashjian directed his first production, "Tribute to Armenian Heritage," in Medford, MA.
He has been a director of the Erebouni Dance Ensemble of the Boston Chapter of Hamazkain (1980) and the Daron Dance Ensemble of the Greater Boston Chapter of the Armenian General Benevolent Union (1981-1985). He founded the Sayat Nova Dance Company in January 1986 and directed its premiere performance in November to an enthusiastic sold-out audience.
In October 1987, Ashjian traveled and studied with various dance ensembles in Armenia. At the invitation of the Committee for Cultural Relations with Armenians Abroad, he returned to Armenia in January 1990 and September 1992, to continue his training. He studied extensively with renowned choreographer and expert ethnographer Artousha Karapetian, mastering the art of dance. In 1994, he received his certification as an Armenian dance Director and Choreographer from the Dance Department of the Khatchadour Apovian School for the Performing Arts.
Ashjian once again journeyed to Armenia in August 1995 with the entire Sayat Nova Dance Company upon the official invitation of the Cultural Administration of Armenia - a rare and high honor for a diasporan dance troupe. In 2006, under his direction, the Group returned to Armenia once again to celebrate its 20th anniversary.
Ashjian is also the founder of the Abaka Armenian School for the Performing Arts, where he teaches Armenian dance to those between the ages of 3-16.
Born in Syria and raised in Lebanon, Ashjian immigrated to the United States in 1970. After graduating from the Cambridge Public School System, he majored in Physical Education at Northeastern University in Boston, MA.
Ashjian, his wife and three children live in Belmont, MA.
Webmaster (WM): Thanks for sitting down
with me. Are you ready for some Q&A?
Apo Ashjian (AA): Thanks, ready when you are.
WM: OK, let's start at the beginning. What
inspired you to dance? Where did the love of dance come from?
AA: Well, ever since my family immigrated to the United States in 1970, my parents' first priority was to make sure that their children stayed in touch with their heritage and culture and not lose their sense of identity. They immediately got us involved in Armenian Saturday schools, church youth groups and other cultural activities. My father, being an accomplished actor, always got us involved in his plays because that was another way for us to stay in touch with our Armenian culture.
A friend of mine got me involved in the Tekeyan Cultural Association, which had a dance group at the time. Now, I had never danced before and the thought never crossed my mind. All I had was some stage experience being in plays with my dad. So I started going to dance rehearsals faithfully for a whole year but would just sit and watch, never having the courage to stand up and dance with everyone. Believe it or not it was because, as a teenager, I was too shy to hold hands with girls in a dance. I would go home and try the steps that they were learning and would do them perfectly. After about a year of this back and forth business, I started dancing. Within a year I became one of the instructors of the group and at age 18 I was handed over the group to direct.
Slowly, but surely, I began choreographing my own dances as I started studying the history of my people. I think that was the turning point in my dance career. I learned of our nation’s past history and the many accomplishments and contributions of Armenians to society; I also learned of the many tragedies that fell on my people and their struggle for survival especially during the Armenian Genocide. Suddenly, dance had a different meaning for me. Now I felt I had to dance, and teach dance, to be able to tell the world about my heritage and my history. It became a duty to teach dance and promote my culture to Armenians and especially non-Armenians. So my love for dance and my career in dance started at a very young age.
WM: What inspired you to form the SNDC?
What did you hope to accomplish?
AA: Before the founding of the Sayat Nova Dance Company of Boston (SNDC), I successfully directed the A.G.B.U. Daron Dance Ensemble and the Hamazkain Erepouni dance group, both of Boston. I also danced in groups such as the A.G.B.U. Antranig dance group of New York and the internationally-renowned Mandala folk dance ensemble of Boston. What I found in Armenian organizations was the difficulty to freely promote our dance culture to all. What got in the way of my freedom to create was politics, budgets, membership and so forth, some of which I understood, and some I absolutely did not. I was limited as far as what I could do creatively. So, after many years of dealing with all this, I came to the conclusion that if I wanted to show what could be done and accomplished in Armenian dance, I had to do it on my own, without being affiliated with any organization. We started the Sayat Nova Dance Company in 1986 and look at us now. We are one of the most accomplished and successful dance groups in the Diaspora and are still going strong with a 20+ year history behind us and 120 more to go. Bravo to all past and current members of the Sayat Nova family.
WM: You've been to Armenia several times,
sometimes to study dance and sometimes just as a tourist. How did being
in your homeland influence your creative choreography?
AA: Well, the first time I was in Armenia was in 1987 and even then it was a little bit of tourism and some dance work. Since then I've been to Armenia over 25 times and, at one point, I had to get a new passport because there was no more room in my passport for the customs agents to stamp! Being a choreographer and a dancer, you cannot help but be energized and have your creative juices flow in this artistic atmosphere. Just look around you. There’s the Opera Ballet, the State Dance Ensemble, Sayat Nova Choreographic School, Maratouk Ethnographic Song and Dance Ensemble, and the Agounk Ethnographic Song and Dance Ensemble, just to name a few. How can you not be more inspired to create? They say to be better at whatever you do, whether it’s sports, dance, music, or theater, you must surround yourself with people who share your passion. You will automatically become better at what you do because you are being challenged. I love going to Armenia and I love being among my friends who are professional dancers. It makes me come back more energized and with a more creative mind. It’s sort of like recharging my batteries.
WM: Did it make you more vigilant in your
mission to showcase the Armenian Culture to everybody?
AA: Absolutely. I love my culture and my people. If you take my Armenianism away from me, you might as well close the book on my life. Nothing moves me more than performing to a non-Armenian audience, sharing our unique and rich culture with people, and have them understand why we are so proud of who we are. This is what I try to get across to each and every member of the Sayat Nova Dance Company - to be proud that they belong to a unique culture and a strong people who know how to survive and live again. The words of the famous Armenian-American writer William Saroyan fits here the best; “For when two of them meet anywhere in the world, see if they will not create a new Armenia”. God bless those words because that is what we are doing right now - creating a little corner of Armenia in the Diaspora.
WM: Do you have any favorite or special
moments that you can reflect on?
AA: There have been countless favorite moments and memories during the past years that I can reflect on. However, I can honestly say that the most meaningful moments for me are when young adults choose to join our Group, meet each other in this setting and form lasting bonds, friendships and even marriages. I am very proud to say that some of their sons and daughters dance with the Company today. That whole scenario makes me realize that what we are doing is very unique and we'll keep on doing it for as long as we can. Those are the moments that are most special to me.
WM: SNDC has now been to Armenia twice
and even performed at the Opera House in Yerevan. What kind of an impact
has that accomplishment had on the Company and its membership?
AA: I think the first trip to Armenia, in 1995, gave us the unique experience of living with one another for two weeks, being able to share our feelings and emotions with one another during a difficult period in our country's history. We laughed together, cried on each others’ shoulders, bowed our heads together and stood proud as one unit. We felt the struggles of our people while at the same time appreciated the honest hospitality of every village or city which opened its doors and shared with us what little they had. Despite the hardships, the Group was able to tour and perform in 8 different cities and villages, leaving lasting impressions on members and audiences alike.
The trip in 2006, to celebrate the Company's 20th Anniversary, filled our hearts and minds with pride. Members, along with a very supportive community, had worked very hard to make this trip a reality. This journey gave us the unique opportunity to visit and perform in many cities and villages, including Stepanakert, the capital city of Karabagh. Coming in close contact with our people and history left lasting memories and completely changed the perspective of our members with respect to their homeland. Having met and come in direct contact with our very own people, made us feel proud of our identity and heritage – more so than we had ever felt before. The trip culminated in a sold-out, grand finale performance at the Opera House in Yerevan, the most prestigious stage in Armenia.
WM: The Dance Company has many members
from many age groups and from all walks of life. What brings them to SNDC?
AA: They see, through our eyes during rehearsals and especially during our performances, how much fun we are having: laughing, singing and dancing with one another. They want to be a part of that as well. Two of my non-Armenian clients were at one of our shows and their comments were, and I quote “We could not believe the energy and the fiery spirit that was coming from that stage. It looked like you guys were having so much fun dancing that it took our attention away from the dancing for a moment. To watch your faces filled with pride and big smiles was so much more entertaining”. This is why people want to be a part of Sayat Nova and we are proud to have them with us.
WM: Since SNDC was founded in 1986 it has
had a strong supporting cast working behind the scenes. Tell me a little
bit about them.
I feel I must start by mentioning my very capable and supportive assistant directors, Shaghig Palanjian and Hagop Ashjian. They have been with me since the beginning and have been an invaluable asset to me, personally, and to the Dance Company as a whole.
In addition, the Company has been blessed to have the support of a unique group of volunteers who work tirelessly behind the scenes to help make the Company a symbol of pride and accomplishment in our communities. Buying a ticket and seeing a wonderful performance is only half the story. What one must see and appreciate is the hard work that goes on backstage. The performers receive the applause but the real applause should go to those who never take a bow. The tireless efforts of a hard working stage crew, production crew, parents and seamstresses, alumni and supporters, as well as a dedicated Executive Committee, all come together to put on spectacular performances on many stages worldwide. It is no small feat and without the efforts of these dedicated groups of people, SNDC would not be what it is today. My hat's off to each and every one of them.
WM: SNDC has grown considerably since it
was founded. Where do you see the Company going from here?
AA: I hope the Company will continue to attract the youth of our community and grow to new heights. Their participation in this unique aspect of our culture is the very essence of what this Company is all about. I would like to see the group expand its reach into the non-Armenian communities, staying true to our mission to preserve and promote the Armenian culture. We will continue to collaborate with other groups to share our unique culture and heritage with audiences everywhere.
WM: Thanks for your time. I really enjoyed
speaking with you!
AA: Thank you for the opportunity, as well.