Harout Solakian Choreographer – Dancer
By Carlos Jose Bourdjian
It is a well known fact that all Armenian cultural unions and associations in Diaspora, with their different points of view and diversities, have one thing in common, one aim; to keep the spirit of Armenian culture alive, which is one form of what we call in Armenian Hayabahbanoum (Հայապահպանում).
Therefore when you go to an X Armenian cultural event like a choir concert or a dance performance, 75% of the repertoire includes different Armenian songs and dances while 25% is dedicated to different foreign cultures.
So far this was the traditional and common way in the past decades?.
I was walking in the street 2 months ago when my eye caught an attractive poster. From a distance, the word UNO was noticeable and the slight image of a hip-hop dancer in the background. Moving closer, it turned out to be an announcement for a new dance group called UNO, premiering their first show with the help and sponsorship of Tekeyan Cultural Union in Aleppo.
I went to the show and was completely surprised. Out of 13 dances, only 2 were Armenian. From Tango and Salsa, Flamenco and Jive to Break dance and Hip-hop, Arabic and new contemporary dances, all choreographed and directed by the same guy who was even dancing with the group in most of the performances.
I?m not saying that the show was absolutely stunning and all members were dancing 100% accuratly, since most of them were first time dancers. But what I?m saying is that finally somebody dared to take an action and change the standards; something needs to be appreciated in my point of view.
Presenting new ideas in new ways using a unique lighting system, nice costumes and most of all different music choices. Someone who made me return to writing articles after six months stop; this is Harout Solakian, the artistic director of UNO Dance Group, around a cup of coffee in a cozy chat just for you my dear Azad-Hye readers.
Before introducing yourself. Why did you choose the name UNO?
UNO means number one in both Italian and Spanish languages. I always wanted to be a number one; I mean in the first place, and the first to present new ideas transformed to dances.
UNO is an easy word. It attracts people and they can easily memorize it. Besides it keeps the group distinguished from other dance groups that use always Armenian or Arabic names in our community. I wanted people to remember UNO as something unique.
And what about yourself?
My name is Harout. I?m 27 years old, still a student in University of Aleppo, Faculty of Chemistry. I intend to finish school and graduate, because I have come to realize that education is very important and can help me in my future plans. I remember how I managed to go to university classes, dance classes and helped my father with his profession as a blacksmith and metal-dissolver in the same time.
I started to dance 7 years ago as a beginner in the private dance group of Jiro Kechedjian. Our first show was in Grtasiradz Zareh Kaprielian hall, same place where UNO had performed for the first time. At that time I toured with Jiro?s group even outside Syria. We had performances in Dubai, Bahrain and Oman.
In 2007, I quit the group and had the idea of forming a modern dance group, which later on became UNO. So I gathered few dancers and started to rehearse with them. Last year our group of 25 dancers participated in 3 different international events:
The first one was our performance in Bahrain during the National Crowning Day, an annual ceremony dedicated to the King of Bahrain.
During the Arabic dance
The last event was in Damascus, where we performed a Hip-Hop dance at a special dance festival with the participation of different international dance groups and with the presence of Syrian Prime Minister Mr. Naji Outri.
There was another individual project too. I went to Dubai for 3 months and worked there as a choreographer and participated in different workshops. I even attended some private Flamenco classes by a native Latin professional dancer.
This 3 months trip had changed all dance concepts I knew before and made me think seriously of starting the UNO dance group project.
Who was the sponsor of all these international events you?ve mentioned?
Actually, each event had its own sponsor and usually they were private companies encouraging such projects. I had few contacts with their regional offices in Damascus which made all these possible.
How did the collaboration between you and Tekeyan Cultural Union (TCU) begin? Did you ask the sponsorship of other Armenian unions or you went directly to Tekeyan?
In fact, I?m an active member of TCU for over 20 years and when I had this idea I preferred working with them for two reasons. First, working with any Armenian union as organizers of such event, is a better choice, than working independently, since the idea of managing a private dance group is still virgin and needs a special staff to handle details like getting permits, selling tickets, finding sponsors and other duties that TCU is expert in doing them. Secondly, we had a permission from TCU to use the big hall at their building as a rehearsal center for the group, thus avoiding extra rent expenses. So when I suggested my ideas to the responsible people at TCU they were very much delighted and acted immediately.
For me Tekeyan was my second home with all the facilities and hospitality they offered.
How supportive was your family during this period?
I guess I?m pretty much lucky. My family always supported me during the past seven years since I began as an amateur dancer, which still I am. I can?t say that I reached a level of professionalism, because I?m new in this domain and still have a lot to learn and later to teach my dancers.
I did not hear any remark from my parents for wasting time in dancing, because they knew how much I loved what I did. Besides, I was able to organize myself without any interference between my working hours during the days and rehearsal times in the nights.
How hard was it for you working with beginners who didn?t have previous experience? And were all members of UNO first time dancers? Any exceptions?
I can say that ten out of twenty dancers had a previous experience. But eight of them were better dancers than the other two. This made my job a bit easier comparing to the rest ten members who were all beginners. So I had to teach them everything from A to Z step by step.
I faced too many difficulties and hard times during the past few months, because to dance means to be flexible, fit and elastic; three basic elements hard to be found in first time dancers. Not to forget the lack of both ability of feeling the rhythm and dancing with passion in order to create the right mood for each performance alone.
I realized that my job will not be easy, because I already knew the level of each dancer individually and I didn?t expect to get more than their capabilities. That?s why the success of UNO dance group was a result of six months of intensive hard work.
Who helped you in the choreography?
I made all the choreographies using my ideas with the exception of five dances, where I used some moves that were previously used by other international dance groups, but that would be ten seconds from the duration of each of these five dances.
Designing a dance and defining its sequence is usually affected by the ready moves and steps of different choreographers. I tried my maximum to avoid all these, using my imagination and inspiration to create my own moves.
And what about the costumes?
It may sound as one-man show, but, to be honest, I designed all costumes myself, but they were all made by both my mother and my aunt. Our house looked like a workshop during this period and the design of each costume was modified several times, even it was changed completely to match the moves of the dancer during his/her performance. It took a lot of time and effort till the costume of Salsa dance for the girls had its final look. And even worse, high heel shoes were replaced with traditional ballerina flat slippers two nights before the opening. I didn?t like that, but it was my only choice. The original shoes arrived very late and didn?t fit the floor. Dancers with high heels were slipping and sometimes even falling on the stage during the last rehearsals.
Meanwhile the male dancers? costume of Spanish Flamenco (with images of fire) in the last two performances had a different version as well. After dancing four nights the whole design was removed because it was different than what I pictured in my mind.
I guess you agree with me that facing such difficulties you have mentioned above did not effect on the moral of the dancers. They looked more confident, especially that you were also dancing in the group and sharing every detail with them. This had a double positive effect; for the group you were like any one of them, a cheer up friend besides being a teacher too. Meanwhile you left a good impression among the audience. For them you were the kind teacher whose high professional level and previous experience did not interfere with his ego and decision of sharing the stage with beginner dancers.
I agree 100% with what you have said and glad that people noticed the other side of me, apart from being a teacher, being a human first. I love my dancers and always consider them friends, members of one family called UNO. But during the rehearsals I become their teacher and they respect me for that.
What is the real story of ?foreign? non Armenian dancers and what kind of conflict you had with them? There were different versions but we need to hear the truth from the right source.
There were two dances in the first part of the program that needed to be set aside with enough time for the dancers to change their dresses and prepare themselves for the next dance. I proposed some of my Arab friends to fill the gap and perform Break dance. They accepted to participate, but problems began when they asked to include their names in the poster. I could not agree with them, because it was planned to mention their names in the program booklet only, with a special thank you note. Eventually, they left the group and I managed to replace them with other ?foreign? dancers from Damascus who agreed to come every weekend for 3 weeks just to perform a dance and return back.
I was surprised that this issue was wrongly criticized by some members of our Armenian conservative community. After all the show was successful and the Break dance part created a different ambience between Salsa and Flamenco. I looked to the whole issue from the artistic way, while they were worried about foreigners participating in Armenian cultural activities, even with the performance of a single dance and participation in the final panorama sketches. Imagine how intense the criticism would have been if they had a bigger part to perform.
Harout performing Jive with the group youngest dancer
Speaking of dancers, I noticed that there was the lack of feminine touch Nazank (նազանք) in Armenian dances.
Harout performing Jive with the group youngest dancer
Yes, you are correct because only two of the female dancers had danced Armenian before. But this reflected positively during preparation of Flamenco, a dance that required more aggressivity than Nazank (laughing).
What are your future plans?
There is a possibility of participating in Dubai Summer Festival in June but this time with part of the group only. There are other undecided plans on the side, but the most important one is to prepare the next UNO show, working more on quality and bringing forth new ideas as always.
Anything you wish to add?
Just wanted to say that while preparing the program my aim was targeting the young generation. I didn?t choose, for example, Ukrainian or Slovenian traditional dances (as it has become habitual), with all my respect to both cultures. Instead, I picked up international and contemporary dances that attract the youth and interest them. I think I reached my goal. Most of the audience was youngsters, who came to watch the show more than one time.
People blamed me for the lack of Armenian dances. I wanted UNO to be distinguished from the rest of Armenian dance groups, who perfectly present a big variety of Armenian dances. UNO is more international, that?s why Armenian dance here is only a genre next to different other international cultures.
Black and White with special lighting techniques
UNO at the Flamenco