APRIL 13: Armen Ohanian (1887-1976)


April 13 seems to be another slow day in wlw history, so we’d
like to introduce you to a highly fascinating and enigmatic figure: Armenian
dancer and writer Armen Ohanian.

Her birth name was Sophia Pirboudaghian; she was born in
Shamakha in 1887 – this is now located in Azerbaijan but at the time it was part
of the Russian empire. After an earthquake in 1902, her family moved to Baku. She
graduated from school there in 1905; that same year, her father died in the
anti-Armenian pogroms. She started out as an actress, going by the name of
Sophia Ter-Ohanian in an Armenian theater group in Baku in 1906, and then, two
years later, moved to Moscow where she performed as a dancer and studied
plastic arts. She appeared for the first time as Armen Ohanian at the Tbilisi
Opera in 1909.

Early 20th-century portrait of Armen Ohanian,
Charents Literature and Arts Museum

After this, she traveled back to Iran, where she performed as
a dancer, acted on stage, co-founded the Persian National Theater in Tehran,
and generally contributed to expanding the place of women in the public arts. In
April 1910, with the help of the Persian Women Benevolent Association, she
organized a gala featuring music, literary events, theater, and cinema. It was
during that period that she honed her skills in what are categorized as “Oriental
dances.” She toured Egypt and the Ottoman Empire, and eventually ended up in
London, where she was hired to perform in 1911. An Orientalist craze for exotic
forms of dancing was sweeping through the West at the time so basically Ohanian
decided to capitalize on the West’s fetishization of the Orient while at the
same time finding a way of self-expression in dance that combined American elements
(such as methods of “free dance” developed by Isadora Duncan) and Armenian and
Iranian music and elements. From there on, she toured extensively all
throughout Europe, the United States, and Mexico City, and was usually met with
high praise. When her own career as a dancer started declining, she nonetheless
continued being active in this milieu: she notably founded a school of dance in
Mexico City in 1936, and even made a comeback in the dance scene and on the
stage throughout the 40s and 50s.

Her talent for dance should not eclipse her literary talents:
she started writing poetry and autobiographical material when she moved to
Paris in 1912. She published several memoirs and accounts of her travels, which
were widely translated. Well-versed in many languages, she translated books from
Russian to Spanish in collaboration with her second husband. She was also
politically involved, as an active member of the Mexican Communist Party (which
has us wondering if she ever met Frida Kahlo).

She led an eventful love life: when she was young, she’d
been married off to an Armenian Iranian doctor (Haik Ter-Ohanian, whose last
name she kept) but that didn’t last even one year. As she toured the world and
became increasingly known as a dancer and writer, she entertained relationships
with various artists, writers, and intellectuals. Most of them appeared to be
men, but there are records of Ohanian having an affair with Natalie Barney –
which seems plausible enough, given the effervescent artistic context of the
time, and which would indicate she was most likely bi. Her second marriage was
to a Mexican diplomat in 1922; the couple lived in many different world cities
until 1934, when they settled down in Mexico.

Her life was explored in a performance project called Dear Armen created by lee williams
and Kamee Abrahamian. This is the summary:

Garo has been researching Armen Ohanian, an enigmatic
Armenian performer and survivor of the early 20th century anti-Armenian pogroms
in Baku. Grappling with the discrepancies between Ohanian’s biography and
memoirs, they are forced to confront memories from the past, unraveling
experiences around gender, sexuality, ethnicity, family, and the role of the
artist. An immersive theatre experience featuring a blend of monologue,
traditional Armenian dance, erotic performance and live music, Dear Armen
weaves together the voices and struggles of three generations of women and
gender nonconforming Armenians.

You can find the trailer below and read more about this installation here in this interview and in this review: