Ultra-nationalists Outraged by Outdoor Contemporary Dance Performance in Yerevan

CoChoLab artist (Photo: Albert Grigoryan/Instagram)

Editor’s Note: The previously published version of this article inaccurately described the communique of the ARF’s youth wing, writing that it specifically referenced the Ministry’s funding for houZANK u ZANQ.

YEREVAN—A public dance performance in central Yerevan ended in violence on Saturday as a mob chanting ultra-nationalist slogans attacked performers. According to organizers, the production entitled
houZANK u ZANQ (“Excitement and Call”) examines the role of women in revolution reinterpreted as a contemporary homage to the futurist poetry tradition of early 20th-century Armenia. The women-led living exhibit consisted of a poetry reading by Lilith Petrosyan spoken over an interpretive dance routine choreographed by Hasmik Tangyan.  

The show’s organizers, CoChoLab, had applied for and received the appropriate permits from both the Yerevan Municipality and the Metro to hold their event near the entrance of the Republic Square metro station. However, these legal endorsements did little to discourage a dozen protesters from harassing the group, shouting “shame” and accusing the dancers of introducing satanism into Armenian society. Some of the protesters reportedly burned incense while chanting prayers. In a particularly tense confrontation, a shirtless protester who identified himself as Narek Sargsyan was apprehended by police after he sprayed performers with a green-colored topical antiseptic known by its Russian name “zelyonka.” 

Zelyonka, a staple in Soviet hospitals for treating minor cuts and scrapes, is known for leaving a bright green stain on a patient’s skin. The diluted triarylmethane dye has recently gained notoriety in Ukraine and Russia as a non-lethal weapon used to shame prominent anti-government critics and their supporters. Notable targets of zelyonka attacks include prominent Russian oppositionist Alexei Navalny, blogger Ilya Varlamov and Ukrainian-Armenian politician Arsen Avakov. Saturday’s attack may be the first such instance of zelyonka use in Armenia.

In a bizarre twist to the story, a video was posted to Facebook over the weekend superimposing footage of Sargsyan’s arrest with a recording from a phone conversation where he admits to frequenting “gay parties.” The video was shared almost 500 times on the platform. The implication that the zelyonka attacker might himself be a closeted homosexual received a somber response from Armenia’s LGBT community. “No surprises here on who the most vocal homophobes really are,” tweeted Mika, who authors the Unzipped: Gay Armenia blog. Sargsyan has since admitted to attending these parties “for research purposes”.

Organizers had apparently been anticipating some sort of provocation. The dance group had been approached by two men during a rehearsal the previous evening demanding their immediate departure from the premise. These self-appointed art critics argued that their “feminist satanism” had “nothing to do with art.” One of the men’s insistence that a woman’s only role is to marry and raise children was met with audible laughter and ridicule from the crowd.    

Following the dispute, a post on CoChoLab’s Facebook page announced that the next day’s performance would go on as planned, inviting Yerevan’s creative community to attend in solidarity. “The fact that any woman who dances in public is considered a stripper or any woman who sings Hip-Hop is deemed hysterical is precisely why tomorrow’s show must go on at any cost,” read the post. 

Armenia’s Education and Culture Minister Arayik Harutyunyan (Photo: Facebook)

Protesters also singled out Education and Culture Minister Arayik Harutyunyan for his alleged support of ‘satanic behavior’ in Armenia following his ministry’s approval of a 2.7 million AMD ($5,700) grant towards CoChoLab’s artistic performance. The presence of Hasmik Khachunts, a city councilwoman from the governing My Step Alliance, at the event was also interpreted by ultraconservative elements as an official endorsement.

Groups with close ties to the former regime have attempted to capitalize on the new administration’s alleged lack of commitment to “traditional Armenian values” to stoke public opinion. They have been involved in increasingly public confrontations with the government, such as last week’s demonstration in front of the National Assembly over the Istanbul Convention.

The government’s taste for modern art was not shared by all parties at the National Assembly, however. Opposition leader Naira Zohrabyan, who incidentally chairs the Parliamentary Committee on Human Rights and Public Affairs, condemned the performance. In a Facebook post, she derided the performers’ intellectual elitism, insisting that no artist “would ever qualify yesterday’s events in front of the metro as ‘art.’” Appealing to the silent majority, she warned that contemporary art leads down a slippery slope at the bottom of which “free-thinking artists” would “perform the Kama Sutra at elementary schools.”

Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan addressed the issue head-on during a Facebook Live broadcast on Monday evening, warning that a dogmatic interpretation of Armenian culture would lead to an “inquisition” against any alternative form of artistic expression. Alluding to a comment made by one of the performers, Pashinyan noted that aside from his magnum opus “Yes Im Anoush Hayastani,” much of the work of famed poet Yeghishe Charents had been banned by Soviet censors as immoral. The Prime Minister reminded viewers that homogeneity of thought is antithetical to Armenia’s cultural and economic development.

During the broadcast, Pashinyan also touched upon another controversy surrounding Minister Harutyunyan. The Prime Minister defended the Education Ministry’s decision to merge religious studies into Armenian history as part of the official curriculum, arguing that “The history of the Armenian Apostolic Church is an integral part of Armenian history and should be taught as such.” The Education Ministry, which has seen a substantial boost to its operational budget for 2020, is also considering turning Armenian language, history and literature into elective subjects at the university level.

(Photo: Vodka House Artistry/Instagram)

The Armenian Constitution specifically establishes a judicial separation between Church and State but recognizes the unique role of the Apostolic Church in shaping Armenian identity. While the introduction of religious studies into the curriculum is only a recent development, the Ministry’s decision to scrap the course provoked the ire of social conservatives and church leaders. Some students also opposed the move, calling for walkouts. 

On Monday, the youth wing of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (ARF) in Armenia called for Harutyunyan’s immediate resignation. The communique, which was released days after the outdoor performance in Yerevan, cited his Ministry’s funding for curriculum changes, as well as financial support for a film documenting the life of transgender athlete Mel Daluzyan as evidence of the Minister’s complicity in eroding Armenian values.

Harutyunyan hit back at his accusers. “Let’s be clear, so long as I am Culture Minister, there will be no censorship,” he announced at a press conference. “One of a sovereign State’s most important commitments is to artistic freedom.”

CoChoLab organizers confronted by Armenian police (Photo: Contemporary Choreography Lab Armenia/Facebook)

 

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Raffi Elliott

Columnist & Armenia Correspondent
Raffi Elliott is a Canadian-Armenian political risk analyst and journalist based in Yerevan, Armenia. As correspondent and columnist for the Armenian Weekly, he covers socioeconomic, political, business and diplomatic issues in Armenia, with occasional thoughts on culture and urbanism.

14 Comments

  1. If the “dancers” were so genuine in their message, and “art”, why didn’t they do their “performance” at a performance hall, where the 10 people that are interested in that kind of “dance” can choose to go and see it? Why broadcast it in a busy public area? That’s how one differs “Contemporary Art”, from western propaganda machine. #WesternificationOfArmenia

    I’m going to put my name down as Yeghishe Charents, as a sign of protest, where the PM and one of the CoChoLab members were comparing their “performance” to Yeghishe Charents’s poems. I think he just turned in his grave. If it looks like propaganda, smells like propaganda and acts like propaganda …

    • Charents was a communist, liberal and possibly bisexual. If he turns in his grave it’s because of the chauvinist nationalists, which he wasn’t.

    • Yeghishe Charents who gave his life in prison for his nationalism, his love for his motherland and people, these scums who are calling their thing as art, are invoking his name to have some credibility, and the PM doesn’t know any better. As for his uncultured and uninformed Culture minister Arayik, who says as long as he is culture minister, culture should not be sensored, let him resign, because he doesn’t know any better, he doesn’t have what it takes to be education & culture minister, and is taking mindless decisions in that sector.

  2. There was a time where a behavior such as the one you witness in the video below would have been categorized as someone with mental disabilities, and sure enough they still do, but a small but well financed group of people slap the word Contemporary or Modern at the end of the word ‘Art’, and Voila, they are all of a sudden self proclaimed artists with minions who give them legitimacy, and if you don’t think so, so are old school, backwards, closed minded and something is wrong with you, or better yet the “artist” might be gay, feminist or both, so now you are homophob and sexist, which to their benefit, conveniently shuts ones mouth. Where obviously the argument is not sexist nor about the gay community, and they very well know it.

    But what this is, isn’t art, it isn’t meant to be, it is only cloaked under the pretext of art. If this was meant to be art, it would be performed at a performance hall where people can choose to go see such things. It becomes a foreign financed propaganda machine, where its main objective of the “dance performance” is to grab national headlines and attract obvious anger towards the “dancers” when it is “performed” at a busy metro station, in a nation with 8,000 years of history and culture, where almost 99% of it’s total population belong to one ethnic background. Propaganda like this is only meant to destroy and dissolve the local culture over a very long period of time, which might take generations, with slow and subtle “movements”, “art performance” or “activists” such as the one you witness in the video below.

    https://www.facebook.com/cocholab.space/videos/711303109371103/UzpfSTEwMDAwNjc3ODc0ODkzOToyNTU0ODg2NzI0NzQ3MjYx/?q=HASMIK%20TANGYAN%20&epa=SEARCH_BOX

    This is their website: On this day 2019.11.07 remains pretty much empty, no performance video, or anything. The founders … well, look them up on Facebook and see them for yourself.

    https://cocholab.space/contacts/

  3. “Inaccurately described…etc” well this does not come as a surprise.

    “Ultra nationalist” ? This performance was criticised by all sides of Armenian society. You will hardly find anyone in Armenia who would support it, except in some (limited) intellectual circles of Kentron, self proclaimed intelligentsia acting like the new nomenklatura.

    This performance and its reaction are just a fringe phenomenon of a much wider picture resulting from the actions of the government, and should have been replaced in its proper context:

    1. One of the first notable action of My Step was to invite a transgender at the parliament to raise the issues faced by this tiny and marginal community of more or less 100 persons, who are doing much better than the rest of the population since mostly engaged into prostitution, while about 50% of the rural population live in poverty. I said rural poor, but I could have said women victim of domestic violence, single mothers, homeless, Yezidis, people suffering from mental health issues. disabled etc… Those fragile segments of the Armenian society have yet to receive similar attention from the parliament/gvt.

    2. The Istanbul convention, while having good intentions, is very ambigus on the “gender issue”. It does not only fight domestic violence against women, but violence against people claiming to be women (“women gender”) to whom Armenia would have to give asylum according to its article 60. Anyone claiming to be a women could ask for asylum, whether or not truly trans (how Armenian authorities are supposed to check that?), and potentially turn Yerevan into a freak show of Iranian, Iraqi or Cheches trans…

    3. Armenian government is apparently wealthy enough to spend USD 5000 on a one time show in a the subway entrance. And that’s the real problem that the Minister intentionally allude while undertaking the role of the white knight against censure : this performance would not have spark outrage and would probably remained unnoticed if it was not a waste of public money.

    4. The financial support for this performance, combined with the reforms on mandatory Armenian language and literature teaching in Universities resulting in YSU strike (not Ultra nationalists or ARF but students and teachers), and the removal Armenian church history in schools, gives a more accurate picture of what the gvt is intentionally or not pushing for : the “Georgianisation” or more exactly the “Saakashvilisation” of Armenian society ie removing brick by brick what constitute its socle, trying to artificially create an opposition “progressivists” vs “retrogrades” etc… According to Georgian example, we will soon witness riots in our streets between both sides. Welcome in the new Armenia.

    Let me be clear, I have no firm opinion on the proposed education bill, and I wish the Armenian society to evolve at his path to finally stop marginalising people depending on their sexual orientations, however the actions of the government are potentially very dangerous since fragmenting the Armenian society, hijacking the public debate on a subject absolutely secondary for the time being, putting fire on the beehive while accusing the bees of being retrogrades…

    Meanwhile, citizens of Armenia are still waiting for a comprehensive plan on agriculture, industry, IT, infrastructures etc.

    • eh…

      1- That transgender person of whom you speak was the first person to get her gender changed by the previous Republican Administration
      2- The previous Republican administration also signed the Istanbul Convention before the Revolution – and somehow there was no outcry (ironically they’re suddenly opposed to it – go figure).
      3- Armenia’s culture ministry has a specific amount of grants available for any culture project, you just need to apply. God
      4- Most students in Armenia seem pretty happy with the reform, as evidenced by the fact that none of the “protests” have managed to gather more than 100 people so far.

      Meanwhile, citizens of Armenia are benefiting from the massive investments in infrastructure, the 2nd fastest-growing economy in the Ex-soviet space, a booming IT industry, the opening of new manufacturing centers which hire thousands of people……but yeah……..if you ignore ALL of that, sure, it’s terrible

  4. I always thought that the ARF, claiming to be a progressive political party, would always be supportive of the Human Rights of ALL Armenians in Armenia. It is a very sad day when the Youth Wing of the ARF comes out with a communique calling for the resignation of the Education Minister for various issues the ARF does not support including financing a film about a transgender Armenian.
    Reading the comments in response to this article it is very disappointing to see the attitudes by some members of our community towards other Armenians reflect a very derogatory view on our community members who are “different” from what he think the “ideal Armenian” should be.
    It is sooo easy to shout every April 24 that we as Armenians want “JUSTICE”, but forget about this concept the other 364 days of the year when it comes to accepting Armenians as our fellow Armenians, even though they might have a different view of what it means to be an Armenian in the 21st Century.
    TOLERANCE of our fellow men/women is sorely lackey in our community.

    • I fully agree with Sarkis Ghazarian’s comments. According to the article “The show’s organizers, CoChoLab, had applied for and received the appropriate permits from both the Yerevan Municipality and the Metro to hold their event near the entrance of the Republic Square metro station.” FULL STOP. Regardless of what the performance was about and if one agreed or disagreed, the fact remains that self-appointed “morality police” stepped in and engaged in violence. What is highly alarming are most of the comments by people who from the comfort of their home are justifying the violence and ignoring the legal protections provided for ALL members of society. If Armenia is to be a democracy and a nation of laws, vigilantism has to be called out and individuals engaging in it prosecuted.

    • Sarkis, Its not a community, It is a country which apparently you are very much disconnected with. Leaving in LA or SF nice and tolerant bubble, not understanding that beyond this issue, they are geopolitical games aimed at dismantling Armenian society unity by pushing for a very accelerated pro LGBT agenda, while the countries financing and supporting it have themselves just started to be tolerant towards LGBTs since a decade.
      Armenian society shall open at it own rhythm, not at a rhythm dictated by foreign interests.

  5. Why not explain what the performers did to upset so many people? A visual description of their dances is lacking from this article.

  6. Having the government spend money on a film is a wrong way of spending taxpayer money. There are other thing’s in Armenia that the money can be spent on.

  7. no one has the right to attack anyone in public because they don’t like something, this cave era mentality is not and should not be accepted as a traditional armenian or global human value, in a free society such as armenia, the county IS everyones, and everyone has the right to express themselves freely without fearing a physical assault, having said that, just to quiet the stubborn ones who would like to play word games, to answer back and write lofty, pompous, so full of themselves, self proclaimed patriots, and owners of hayastan… there are enough laws on the books, and plenty of police, if anyone comes across anyone or anything obscene in public places or otherwise, they can call the authorities and they do respond, and if the courts deem it unlawful, they will be prosecuted, and with that said let no one internal or external ordain him/herself a sheriff and the protector of traditional values or armenia and armenian society, if you want to live in denial, live in a pseudo/farce ultra conservative “unreality”…i would like to suggest, iran, saudi arabia, afghanistan, hasidic ultra orthodox neighborhoods in israel, you will fit right in and they will welcome you with open arms, bon voyage, yertharts arants veradarts

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