Dancing to the same tune?

A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of attending a performance by the Sayat Nova Dance Company of Boston in Worcester.  Having spent a good portion of my high school years in Turkey learning and performing folk dances from all corners of Anatolia, and having watched several performances by Turkish folk dance groups on many occasions, I had decided that attending a performance by this reputable Armenian dance group was long overdue.  And so, thanks to a few Armenian friends of mine, the arrangements were made and here we were driving from Watertown to Worcester with what I would call a marvelous mixture of mixed company.  Let me set the scene for you: in the back of the car, I am sitting in between two starkly different generations.  To my left sits 26-year-old Ümit Kurt. He is from Gaziantep, Turkey, currently a doctoral student at Clark University and already a published academic. He tells me his mother is Kurdish and assumes his father is Turkish…but then again we both agree that with a background so rich in multi-ethnicity during the Ottoman times one can never be sure of one’s roots in Anatolia…Anyway, Ümit, quite the bright young man, has taught himself the Armenian alphabet and is currently enrolled in Armenian language classes in Watertown, Massachusetts. And to my right sits Siranoush Kassabian, a 92-year-old born in Evereg (renamed Develi in present-day Turkey), raised in Lebanon and living in the United States since 1976. I must point out that Siranoush is sharper than many a twenty-something that I have known and she doesn’t miss a beat.  Not only does she keep abreast of what is happening inside the car, keeping an eye on her daughter Hripsime and the GPS device she is following, but she switches from Turkish to Armenian to English with comfort and ease and puts me to shame since my Armenian is pathetically limited to “hello” and “how are you.”

As I mentioned our driver is Siranoush’s daughter Hripsime (they call her Hrip for short) Parsekian, a former nurse and bilingual language teacher from Watertown. Next to Hrip sits her cousin Ardemis Yepremian (Arda for short) who is visiting from Cranston,Rhode Island. It’s the first time I’ve ever met Arda so we don’t get to exchange too many words beyond the usual questions about where we live and where we come from and the like. After a slow walk up to the theatre with Ümit helping Siranoush up the steps, the show starts.  They barely start the second dance number and I immediately feel like I’ve been here before…the steps, the pacing, the rhythm, they are all so familiar to me. I am seated next to Ümit on one side and Arda on the other.  I glance over at Siranoush and as I suspected, she’s not missing a beat, no senior moment or snoozing halfway through a show in her case!  Overall, the performance is delightful [1] not only because the overall rhythm of the dances are quite familiar to me, but I also find the tracing of the history and traditions of the Armenian nation and culture through different sections of the performance to be well designed, informative and entertaining. It’s not the first time I have heard of the famous troubadour Sayat Nova or the composer Gomidas Vartabed but it is especially resonant to see/hear these names associated with the art of dance.

That said, one of my favorite moments comes about halfway through one of the dance numbers when I feel that Arda, sitting next to me, is starting to move and bounce in her seat, at the very same time that I am! It becomes delightfully obvious to me right then and there; Arda and I are clearly dancing to the same tune. Towards the end of the performance, she leans towards me and asks: “Have you ever seen anything like this?” and I respond, “In fact yes, many of the performances by my Turkish folk dancing friends have been quite similar really.”

And so I ask myself:  if Arda and I can well shimmy to the same tune, when will the rest of the Turkish and Armenian communities in Boston and beyond follow?

[1] Except for the artistic rendering of a horrific scene of murder and carnage of young Armenian women during the Genocide.  As a Turkish speaking person, this was exceedingly disturbing to me since the “dance” (more like a visual representation of Ottoman-Turkish soldiers summararily massacring young Armenian women) was accompanied by a Turkish tune (Bir dalda iki kiraz, biri al, biri beyaz) clearly associated with joy and happiness!  I guess we all have our “red line” when it comes to artistic license. Mine hits that line at dark and disturbing use of dance choreography.


Relax, it’s only TV! Or is it?

There was a phrase I had quickly learned when I first started working in television and that was: “it’s only TV.”  That usually meant that everybody (those making as well as watching TV) should go on the assumption that what we were engaged in, was usually more “entertainment” than “enlightenment,” and that, compared to the “serious” world of academia or the hard sciences, what we spent our hard work and time on was just that: “only TV.”  At the expense of revealing my (no longer a spring chicken) age, I fondly remember those early eighties where not only did we not have use of the internet, but the arrival of the first fax machine into our WCVB offices was quite the event! Skip a few decades and here we are, where an incendiary piece of video, supported by those who like to instigate all kinds of hatred (be it religious, ethnic, racial or something else) led the world to reconsider and speak out about the free speech rights of themselves versus others.  And so I ask: Is it only TV? Obviously not!  Do we all, in the overall landscape of media, have a responsibility to use our better judgment about exactly what we are putting out there for everyone to see? I say yes.  But does that mean we have to bear the responsibility of adjusting our stories according to every single person’s sensibilities? I don’t think so.

Consider the screening of a documentary I attended the other day. The title was a catchy one: “How to Start a Revolution.”  In truth, the story the filmmaker chose (or maybe was encouraged) to tell wasn’t quite the story of “how” to start a revolution but it was in fact, a thoughtful tribute to one Gene Sharp, the guru of non-violent resistance to dictatorship, and the founder of the Albert Einstein Institute in Massachusetts.  And because this particular angle was nowhere to be found in the announcements about the screening nor in the introduction to it, the question and answer session included more than a few attacks about the agenda, the funding, as well as the ill-advised subjectivity of the film.  As much as I agreed that the film was a little heavy on the tribute perspective for the aging Gene Sharp, I felt pretty bad for the filmmaker and for the Institute’s extremely articulate executive director who were exposed to hostile questions. The latter ranged from the reasonably legitimate ones about the funding of the film, to ones insinuating Sharp’s hidden ties to the CIA, to outright soliloquies of those attendees who wanted to vent their frustrations about the hypocritical and hubristic policy of the United States in the entire world!  Sitting quietly listening to the rants of those who expect too much from one story by one filmmaker, I felt like shouting: “relax, it’s only TV!”

Finally to my “piece de resistance:” About a few months ago, I sat down to watch a TV show titled “American Gypsies” on the National Geographic Channel. I hung in there even though I quickly realized I was watching a reality TV series, not exactly my favorite genre! Still, I kept watching, not only because I believed that anything the reputable NG would put on the air would be worth my time, but especially because I have spent quite a bit of my professional life as a researcher/storyteller/tv producer on the subject of the world’s Roma.  I had missed the introduction, and as I watched the first segment I found myself intrigued by the discussion of the young Roma girls’ education.  Just as I was getting interested in what could have become a good discussion about the role of education and its repercussions for the Romani families who live in the U.S., the story quickly became just another reality show, going from one supposedly “spontaneous” meeting with the grandfather and his perfectly made-up grand-daughters, to an “impromptu” fight between the two brothers who differed over how to deal with a rival business owner.  What I thought was going to be a fresh, new look at one of the most insular and at times misunderstood communities in the world, became fodder for yet another “expose” with subjects who were only too eager to play up to the camera.  Then came the straw that broke the camel’s back: the Kris-Romani. The latter is the court for conflict resolution, unique to the Roma who take pride in keeping it extremely “private” and away from any outside influence.  And yet, here it was, a supposed Romani “kris” under the limelight of the NG video cameras, cameramen and producers.  What a stark difference with my own experience!  Back when I produced a half hour program about this community, the especially private nature of most of the Romani people I had met was unmistakable. In fact, not only would they NOT allow me into one of their “kris” meetings, but I remember how I had to use every inch of creativity I could muster to visually tell the story of a group of Roma who were regulars at a local church: filming the empty pews, writing a little introduction for the host to do a stand-up[1] at the church, and a bunch of other visual tricks performed by a few of the show’s brilliant video editors… just to tell a visual story about a group of people who were extremely camera shy and would not show up for our cameras’ sake. And here I was watching a reality show full of all of the typical stereotypes we should be avoiding when speaking about the gypsies: young girls dressed to the nines, and extremely loud people exposing their business for the sake of their two minutes of fame on camera!

…And so I started ranting and raving towards the TV set, cursing at how stupid I was in hoping that a “reality show” format could have become something else in the hands of National Geographic.  How I wished I could just pick up the phone and scream at the providers of this stupid reality show masked under the guise of quality television…

But then, I stopped myself and simply said: “relax Gonca, it’s only TV!”

[1] A stand-up is a TV production term and means that the TV host or the reporter faces the camera with the scene of the story in the background, and summarizes an important point in the story or relays a piece of news related to that particular location or setting.