Heads turn when 46-year-old Mher and 45-year-old Raul Babayan walk down the street with their flamboyant clothes and hairstyles. The two brothers stand out from local men in their home city of Stepanakert, Nagorno-Karabakh.
The Babayan brothers are passionate about dancing, which is unusual here. Raul used to specialize in Armenian traditional dance, but has not performed for several years after a spine injury. Mher has continued to dance. In fact, Mher believes he is the only professional ballet dancer in Nagorno-Karabakh.
“The fact that I dress differently and dance ballet, does not mean that my work is less important or is unsuitable for men. First of all dancing is a sport, which demands great willpower and being in good shape, especially for ballet” says Mher, who also works as a choreographer.
Mher said that he and his brother started to dance when they were four or five years old. They were encouraged by their father Ashot Babayan who founded the Stepanakert Choreographic College in 2001 and was awarded the honorary title of People’s Artist of Nagorno-Karabakh for his contribution to local cultural life.
There was no ballet here in Nagorno-Karabakh during the Soviet period, nor during the war years in the 1990s when people had other priorities. To this day the Stepanakert State Dance Ensemble, Karabakh’s only state supported dance group, performs classical, modern, and traditional Armenian dances. In order to follow their passion, the brothers had to move away to neighboring Armenia.
“When I was thirteen I entered the State Choreographic College in Yerevan [the Armenian capital.] I trained at the ballet department and my brother at the department of Armenian [traditional] dance,” says Mher.
When war broke out, the two brothers returned to Karabakh to serve in the army as volunteers. At the time Mher was 18 and Raul just 17 years old. In 1993, while the war still raged, the Babayan brothers went on tour to Paris as part of the Stepanakert State Dance Ensemble.
“My father was the art director of the ensemble in those days,” recalls Mher. “We were allowed to go on tours. We gave our weapons back and went to France to dance.”
After a year spent dancing at the Armenian National Academic Theatre of Opera and Ballet in the early 2000s, Mher received an invitation from the Itzik Galili dance company and left for Europe to join the Dutch troupe. For five years he performed in various cities across the Netherlands in ballet, classical, and modern dance ensembles.
Mher’s reputation preceded itself. After five years in the Netherlands he moved on to the Kyiv’s Fire Dance ballet, where he staged dance shows for Ukrainian and Russian pop stars. In 2010 he got an invitation to work in Canada, but decided to return home instead.
“My father wanted me to invest my experience in Nagorno-Karabakh,” explains Mher. “So I became an artistic director at Stepanakert Choreographic College. And I decided to stay there for two years.” During that time, Mher also started a family. “I realized that I didn’t want to leave everything I’d created during these years and leave again,” he says. Meanwhile, in 2016 Raul became director of the Stepanakert State Dance Ensemble.
Last year, Mher’s dream came true as he managed to create the college’s first ballet group. Mher had to convince boys raised in a conservative society to wear ballet tights.
“Of course in the beginning they were ashamed, but I explained to them that the audience will not look at their tights but how they dance,” adds Mher, who is currently preparing to stage a Don Quixote ballet which will be performed at the college’s annual graduation ceremony.
Sarine Hayiryan, a former cultural journalist who now works as event manager at the Roots Life Center, a Stepanakert-based cultural institute, stresses that society in Nagorno-Karabakh has a very conservative mindset.
“In our society, perception of masculinity is linked to different criteria, including profession, style of dress, hairstyle, way of talking and general behavior. As dancers are completely different from men of other social groups, they’re seen as not being ‘serious men,’” explains Hayiryan.
Another reason for that perception might be that dancing is not seen as a profitable career.
Nagorno-Karabakh’s Minister of Culture, Youth, and Tourism Lernik Hovhannisyan explains that there was no ballet during the Soviet period in Nagorno Karabakh, because ballet and opera houses were usually located in the capital cities of union republics such as Azerbaijan and Armenia. Therefore, as the capital of an autonomous republic, Stepanakert was not eligible.
“After the war there were no financial means and no competent staff. But currently we are thinking of developing classical dances, especially ballet,” explains Hovhannisyan. “Beside a ballet ensemble we plan to launch a ballet studio for children,” says the minister, adding that a major hurdle for the local authorities is their lack of funds and trained staff.
Luckily, it seems that eager young people are not in short supply.
It was Slavik Mikayelyan’s mother encouraged her 16-year-old son to attend the classical dances department of the choreographic college.
“At that time I was 10 years old and didn't understand many things. My mother told me that she had a surprise for me and that I would attend a new school. I remember when director asked me whether I would dance, I felt ashamed and answered ‘no.’ He said I didn’t have to right [then], but could in the future. We joke about and this is how I started dancing. Until that day I had never tried dancing.”
Mikaleyan says that he has come to love ballet even more as he has grown up. Many of Slavik’s friends do not understand his choice, but that fact does not hinder the young ballet dancer from pursuing his dream to perform on the big stage.
“I want to dance in the world’s best ballets so I’m working hard. In two years I have to start my mandatory service in the army. Usually those two years have a negative effect on flexibility and mastery [of dance]” explains Mikayelyan.
In any case, Mher Babayan may have been the first ballet dancer in Karabakh, but it seems he won’t be the last.
Masculinities, April/May 2019