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YEREVAN / TEMPE, Az. — Maral Yessayan, PhD, has an impressive academic background: She was a visiting professor at Dartmouth College; an Andrew Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow at Dartmouth (2012-14) and a fellow at the Gender Research Institute at Dartmouth (2013-15). She also received a Mellon Dance Studies Fellowship at Brown University in 2013.
Her research interests center on dance, corporeality, and embodiment and draw on performance theory and ethnographic methods applied to cultural, social, and nation-branding practices. She has written Lingering in Girlhood: Dancing with Patriarchy in Jordan (2015), Monarchical Nation branding: Queen Rania’s Performance of Modernity” on YouTube (2015), and “Performing Jordan in an Era of Transformative Globalization: The Emergence of Alternative Labor Markets and the New Working Female Dancer” (PhD diss., University of California, Riverside).
Yessayan was born in Jordan. From the age of seven she studied ballet, modern dance, jazz, improvisational techniques, Jordanian national and Latin American dances (salsa, meringue). At Amman Performing Arts Center she studied under choreographer Rania Kamhawi. In 1999 she graduated from the program of the Royal Academy of Dance, after which she studied Russian ballet with Alexander Petukhov, a one-time artist of the Bolshoi Theater in Moscow, and French ballet with François Perrin. In 2003, she graduated from the University of Jordan, majoring in economics. She led workshops for the Jordanian national state dance ensemble and performed as a solo dancer and actress in the Syrian “Enana” dance group, in the performing arts centers of the “Nur al-Hussein” foundation. She led the dance education program at “Haya” cultural centers and was commissioned to choreograph the opening for the Children’s Dance Festival led under the auspices of Jordan’s Ministry of Culture. She actively participated in Jordanian and international dance festivals, performed in Mexico, Turkey, Syria, and USA.
Moving to the US, Yessayan completed her master’s degree in dance in 2005. She studied American ballet with Erica Helm at Shenandoah University (Virginia), and modern and contemporary dance techniques under Ting-Yu Chen and Keith Thompson to name just a couple, and movement improvisational methods under Susan Rose and Wendy Rogers. In 2007, Maral Yessayan starred in Rosie Trump’s short dance film that was featured Dance Camera West Film Festival, Los Angeles CA, 2008. She also started as a lead dancer in Now. Here. This. with the Casebolt and Smith Dance Company 2008.
Her interests grew to explore dance beyond “just” a medium of entertainment, so she pursued and competed her PhD at University of California, Riverside in Critical Performance Studies (2010). Her research took a comprehensive approach to showcase how dance does not exist apart from ideologies and identity markers that govern cultural patterning and social structure. She received the mentorship of scholars such as Priya Srinivasan and Lila Abu-Lughod (Columbia University). Her dissertation focused on the politics of Jordanian national dance with particular attention to the female body and the lives of dancing women navigating Islamic and tribal prospective views about dance. Her work sheds light on the much ignored experiences of dancing women’s lives in the Arab and Muslim world.
After her PhD, Yessayan was offered a fellowship by the Andrew Mellon foundation to further her research and artistic interests through a post-doctorate degree. Because of her interdisciplinary work, Yessayan became the pivot between the Women’s and Gender Studies, Theater, and Middle East Studies departments at Dartmouth. Her academic and artistic accomplishments led her to be recognized by a dozen scholarships, awards, and invitations to speak and lead workshops at universities, conventions, and conferences both nationally and internationally.
After many years of email communication, we met last August in Yerevan, after which this conversation was born through email.
Maral, you seemed to have studied and practiced all types of dances, from classical to modern and folk. What have you learned from each of them?
Our bodies are wondrous in what they can do. When we are conscious of our body, we have two choices: we either focus on its limitations or its potential. I always chose to focus on what my body can do, instead of what it cannot do. At a young age, I explored moving in different ways, styles, and genres and pushed the boundaries of what my body can do. I fell in love! Ballet for its pristine form. Modern dance for its abstract expression. Jordanian dance for its raw earthiness. Salsa for its sensuality. Experimental movement for its simplicity. I discovered that each dance form is unique above all the others. So, I would say my journey with different dances has been driven by my own curiosity to move my body to its full potential. It’s an unfolding process. I’ve also been blessed to have learned under the best teachers. For that, I am grateful.
You have studied the dances of Jordan for your undergraduate thesis and your doctoral dissertation at the University of California, analyzing the Jordanian version of the dabke (dabqah) dance. Was Jordanian dance studied well enough before you?
It was quite the challenge to find scholastic writing on the Jordanian dabkah as a dance form. At the time, I was able to find ethnomusicological material on the musical traditions of Jordanian dances but the existing material on the dance itself was small, shallow and sparse. I realized that in order to get a full grasp on Jordanian dances, my research had to be both ethnographic and “auto-ethnographic” in method. So I travelled to villages to see the dances in their rural form but also drew on my own knowledge of the dance in its staged form. I interviewed key personalities, government officials, Islamic clergy, cultural guardians, elders, choreographers and dance practitioners. Jordan’s Minister of Culture Jeryes Samawi (God rest his Soul in Peace), endorsed my research, furnished me with new contacts, and facilitated the process of data collection from national archives. Without all these people, my thesis and dissertation would not have been possible. To them I am always indebted.
Dabke is thought to have its origins in ancient Phoenician dances. The Armenians in Lebanon also have a version of dabke that is sometimes performed in Armenia.
Dabkah (Dabkeh, Dabke etc) is traditionally associated with the practices of the folk or peasant communities residing in the region historically known as Greater Syria, which today includes Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, the Palestinian occupied territories, and Israel. It is not surprising that Lebanese Armenians have adopted the form and brought it to Armenia. The adoption of dances and their circulation globally is not new or unique to this case. Historically, dances have been adopted from one practicing community to another. In the process of a dance’s transmission, its meanings also change. So for Lebanese Armenians dabkah takes a whole new meaning. Through movement, Lebanese Armenians nostalgically celebrate their past and connection to Lebanon, the land they left behind, and to have a sense of community on new soil in Armenia. At the same time, they demarcate their difference from other Armenian settling communities as well as local Armenians. At once Dabkah becomes a way for Lebanese Armenians in Armenia to mark their belonging and separation.
In your dance performance “Here and There” you examine intercultural dialogue through improvisational art. How is this dialogue possible?
“Here and There” is an attempt to East-West fusion approaches to dancing making. Some scholars would call this “hybridity,” others would call it “fusion art.” Despite the nomenclature, the idea is to mix things together to create something new. So my goal in creating this work was to bring together different forms of movement that have different histories and geographically different origins and meanings and trace them through my body. Sometimes, I moved between different dance genres distinctively but mostly my interest was to blur the lines between the forms. The intent was to showcase how our bodies are multilingual, multicultural, and multifunctional, in an increasingly demanding and interconnected globalized world where at once we can be “here” and “there.”
You created your special choreographic tribute to the memory of the victims and survivors of the Armenian Genocide.
My performance “Hearing the Dead” is a tribute to and commemoration of the countless victims and survivors of the genocide. I created this piece while residing in Los Angeles in 2007 to raise awareness about the Armenian Genocide. It’s a multi-media performance that combines movement, speech, and the screen. The piece explores the connection between corporeal memory and oral history and shines light on the suffering of the ‘remembering’ body. One of the things I wanted to accomplish through this piece is the often unspoken and understudied effects the Armenian genocide inflicted on it survivors. Grief, PTSD, anxiety and depression are all expressed and embodied forms of survival lived out and performed through this piece.
Among Middle East Armenian communities, the Jordanian one seems less known. How was the community life in Jordan and how it is now?
Growing up in the 1980s, most Armenians in Jordan were centered in the old part of the city of Amman. The Armenian community was vibrant and alive. The Armenian community’s activities and social life revolved around the Armenian Orthodox Church, The Yuzbashian Gulbenkian Armenian Orthodox School, and the two Armenian Party clubs (Tashnag and Ramgavar) — all of which were all adjacent to one another on a hillside street in Ashrafiyyeh. In the 1990s, Silva Hairabedian was advocating for Armenian drama and the arts. She directed, produced, and wrote a beautiful play in which I starred. By the 2010s, the compounding effect of students studying abroad and the exceeding number of families leaving Jordan thinned out the Armenian community in Jordan. The small number of students and low funding with the added stress of the pandemic resulted in the unfortunate shut down of the one and only Armenian school in 2020.
How did your family end up in Jordan?
My grandfather Iskandar was 3 years old in 1915 with a twin brother. His family lived in Dortyol, a city in southern Turkey today. When the deportation plan of Ottoman Armenians was set into motion, they were forcefully aborted from their home, deported into the wilderness and driven further south on a march to face an almost certain death. The men were separated from the women and children on these death marches – with the men leading at the front and the women and children at the back. Weeks of walking went by with no water, no food, just marching south across the Syrian desert.
My great grandmother, Serpouhi, had an eight-month old infant, three-year old twins in her arms, a six and an eight-year-old daughter and son between her skirts. She was hungry, thirsty, and could no longer carry the weight of her three youngest children. She had to make a choice. In agony and tears, and arguably the hardest decision of her life, she placed one of the twins under a shaded rock and left him behind. It was not my grandfather. Their story unfolds unexpectedly. My great-grandfather Tatios was a smart man who had just lost all his fortune — except one. He carried a cane made out of carved wood for support. The cane was not just any cane. It was filled with gold coins. When my great-grandfather Tatios heard what Serpouhi had done, he gave up all his coins to an Ottoman soldier in exchange for his horse and rode four hours up north to find the child. Call it a miracle, Misag was untouched and still alive. The twin brothers were united and the family survived its way to Jordan where Bedouins provided them safety, shelter and protection.
A touching story, indeed! Maral, now you live in Arizona. Are there any Middle Eastern or Armenian activities?
Unlike cities like Glendale, which holds the greatest concentration of Armenians who make up a demographic majority of the city, the Armenian community in Arizona is relatively small and spread out. There is the St. Apkar Armenian Apostolic Church where we carried out my daughter’s dedication service. The church is the main institution that serves families with Armenian heritage to preserve the language, culture and traditions. I see much potential for growth and togetherness for the Armenian community in post-pandemic Arizona.
Here in Arizona, my priority has been my family. I’ve been raising my daughter who attends a ballet school and has much of myself in her. I exercise and practice Yoga and continue to cultivate my body into a higher level of physique.
After a long sabbatical and now that my daughter is older, I’ve been considering getting more involved in the arts scene in Phoenix, or maybe even travel as a guest speaker, or pivot into acting. I have not taken up a new project yet but the sky is the limit as they say, so wish me luck!
Good luck, Maral! And welcome back to Armenia again!
2 thoughts on “Maral Yessayan’s Dance Journey – The Armenian Mirror-Spectator”
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