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Giving Back

Keeping the Torch Alight
By Karen Apostolina
Photo by Evans Vestal Ward
At first glance, the busy Djanbazian Dance Academy in Glendale looks like any other ballet studio. The white walls and floor complement the soft swirl of girls in pink and white leotards spinning by. Young dancers stand in precise rows executing graceful exercises while their teacher, Anna Djanbazian, swans through the room gently calling out instruction and snapping her fingers to emphasize the meter of the music.

Hanging on ballet-barres behind them are garment bags stuffed with colorful, gauzy costumes for a rehearsal later that evening. The ethnic tunics and headscarves spilling out on to the floor hint at greater depth beyond this sugary tableau.

The Djanbazian Dance Academy has a rich history that began in Russia with its founder, Sarkis Djanbazian, one of Leningrad's principal dancers and Anna's father. In the 1940's he emigrated and eventually became the successful and respected ballet master of a studio in Tehran. But sadly, in 1963, while still in his prime, Sarkis died suddenly of a heart attack. Though she was only 11 at the time, Anna understood she would dedicate her life to dance to continue his legacy. At age 16 she went to the Soviet Union on her own to continue her training.

After graduating with a Bachelor of Arts degree in ballet and traditional dances from the Yerevan Choreographic Pedagogical Dance Institute, Djanbazian returned to Iran in 1972, intent on returning her father's school to its former glory.

However, after her five-year absence, the business was floundering, despite her mother's best efforts to keep it afloat.

“I promised myself that after five years I would bring the studio back to the level my father had it at and continue going further than before,” says Djanbazian, “ but unfortunately—the revolution happened.”

The Islamic revolution became a catalyst for the next phase of Djanbazian's career. Being Armenian put her in the minority, and under the new regime dance was forbidden. New rules condemned the mixing of Muslim and Armenian or male and female students in the school. This was a big change from the way things had been in her father's day.

“When the revolution came, we couldn't have music, dancing was forbidden. So in the studio, I was covering all the windows with paper so nobody could see what we were doing.”

At one point Djanbazian says “Islamic soldiers” came to the studio and demanded to know what they were doing. They spent eight hours investigating the premises.

“We were in a class with dance clothes on—a pas de deux class—which is the lifting of the female dancers by the male,” says Djanbazian. “It was very, very terrifying.”

Although she continued working and choreographing surreptitiously until the 40th anniversary of the academy, Djanbazian grew tired of dancing “underground” and decided to leave. Her whole family came to Los Angeles and she attended UCLA, receiving her Masters degree in education and modern dance choreography.

“I really needed to get out. I wanted to continue my education and reach more information, which was very hard to do there.” In 1988, she opened her studio in Glendale.

On this evening, company members are hard at work rehearsing Asemoun-Beh-In-Gapi (Joy Lifted to the Heavens) for Welcome to Persia, a collection of Djanbazian's choreography to be performed at California State University Northridge. The piece is reminiscent of the traditional folk dances of Iran and portrays a pre-marriage celebration. The dancers twirl and fling their full, white skirts; their moves are saucy and flirtatious. The music of a Tar, a middle-eastern long-necked lute, accompanies their joyful movement.

Djanbazian plucked the best dancers from her academy to form the nucleus of her company in 1992. With a knowing smile on her face, she watches as they bend and sway, performing the intricate choreography of these traditional Persian dances with ease. She understands that she is preserving tradition while deconstructing stereotypes here in the West.

“Right now, in this situation in the world, we all have information—but not the full information. Nobody can imagine that Persian, Iranian people can have happy dances, colorful dances. They're very, very hospitable, easy, good and friendly people, and it shows here in their own dances.”

One example of this is Girl Talk, with music by Hosseyn Vaseghi. This dance from Tehran depicts playful girls gossiping in the Syrian court of Ghajar. Another is Zang, a sensuous dance with finger cymbals. In both pieces, the women wear sparkly shoes and radiant smiles. This is not the stereotype of Iranian culture Americans are typically fed. But Djanbazian says the time is ripe for people to get acquainted with her culture.

“We don't anymore think, oh, Iran is too far. We know for instance about Zankou chicken and so we think, I know the food—so I know the people. This is true, when you begin to know more about the culture, you begin to know the people. It is difficult, but not impossible. I really want to invite people to open their hearts and come and take a chance…Persian dance is pretty.”

Djanbazian also choreographs in other genres—ballet and modern. She says she prefers dance over words to tell her stories or channel her emotions, and she considers the audience an integral part of the process, always hoping to touch them in their hearts, because “…with their energy and my energy, we can dance around each other.”

This symbiosis extends to her dancers as well. Twenty-one-year-old Araz Ranjbar of Glendale says dance is her passion and that Djanbazian's choreography brings out a different side of her.

“I feel free. I just do what I want to do and her choreography… it takes me to a different place, I could never imagine myself dancing with somebody else.”

But choreography is only as good as the dancers performing it; Djanbazian's have clean technique and an emotional commitment to the material. As they rehearse Friends, an ethnic dance from Tehran, they manage to radiate cheerfulness without artifice. Perhaps these native dances allow a freedom that the “too cool for school” strictures of contemporary California culture forbid. Djanbazian's choreography incorporates over 60 years of tradition from Iran; This is what sets her company apart.

“I think history is keeping this foundation very strong. I didn't just get here—my father had this school and many people knew him and respected him.”

And so she works—and works! “Can you believe since 1972, I've never had any vacation?” She hopes that someday one of her students will take over and keep the legacy going. But right now, she is focused on expanding her audience.

The strains of piano music by Shardad Rohani fill the air as the dancers rehearse Love Dance. Last year, PBS chose this piece, choreographed in 2003, for national broadcast from the Music Center in downtown Los Angeles. It's based on an old Persian fable that says you can turn any evil to good if you repeat the word love three times. Djanbazian put this idea to good use by turning the loss of her beloved father into a declaration of her love of dance, and her early artistic suppression into a mission to find greater creative freedom.


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ANNA DJANBAZIAN Keeping the Torch Alight By Karen Apostolina [...]

Annette Melikian

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