Culture officials in Armenia have been under fire over a government-funded play that sparked a controversy in the country after artists conducted its street rehearsal in Yerevan over the weekend.
A group of young artists that has worked on the modernist play said to be based on early 20th-century Armenian poetry staged the open-air experimental performance near a metro station in the center of the Armenian capital on Saturday.
The play called “Emotions and The Bell” was angrily confronted by those who had gathered in the same place to protest against it. One young protester attacked one of the performers with brilliant green (zelyonka) dye that takes days to wash off. He was detained by police for what he did.
The video of the performance went viral, causing an uproar on social media, with some accusing the performers of promoting Satanism, “non-traditional” sexual orientation and unpatriotic behavior.
The group who are not known to the general public in Armenia said they presented “a modern synthesis of dance and poetry – an experimental rendition of futurist poetry by Armenian poets Charents, Gevorg Abov and Azat Vshtuni.” Members of the group did not wish to elaborate or comment on the incident.
The news that the play had become possible due to a government grant added to the controversy, unleashing more criticism from opposition circles.
The Ministry of Education, Culture, Science and Sports, which had allocated 2.7 million drams (about $5,650) for the play, said the application for funding submitted by the artists indicated that it would be based on the works of 1920s Armenian poets.
Minister Arayik Harutiunian said the ministry will be able to evaluate the efficiency of its spending after the artists present the results of their project.
Decisions to finance projects like this are made by an artistic council set up upon the minister’s order. “It is hard to set concrete criteria for a cultural project and specialists arrive at conclusions based on their experience and knowledge,” the minister explained.
Among the specialists that had given a positive conclusion for funding the play were a Yerevan State Conservatory lecturer, several opera, ballet and variety artists as well as a deputy minister.
Explaining the process, Minister Harutiunian said: “Culture is not mathematics and predicting a precise result is difficult. We should allow for some mistakes. Things are redressed after mistakes and the given direction or field only benefits from this.”
The minister said that he himself was dismayed to see some of the plays financed by the ministry, but took it in its stride. “This is a constant process,” he explained.
Prominent Armenian actor, director and producer Armen Elbakian said that censorship can never been good for arts and only time can shows what is true art and what is not. “It is not we who should prohibit someone to do something or make them think the way we think,” he said.
Hasmik Khachunts, a pro-government member of the Yerevan City Council who is one of the artists involved in the “Emotions and The Bell” play, refused to speak about the performance, saying that she was only a performer, while questions about the contents of the work should be directed to the choreographer who is currently outside Armenia.
Meanwhile, lawmaker Naira Zohrabian, of the opposition Prosperous Armenia Party, added her voice to the chorus of criticism.
Zohrabian, who is a theater critic by her training, described what happened near the Republic Square metro station in Yerevan as vulgarity that has nothing to do with arts. “I will raise the issue of why taxpayer money has been allocated for this vulgarity,” she said.
The lawmaker who chairs the parliament’s standing committee on human rights also claimed that the performance violated a number of conventions on human rights protection. “Because, especially if I am with my child, and I am getting out of the metro station, I will be forced to watch something that I don’t want to watch,” Zohrabian said, suggesting that such performances should be rehearsed and staged indoors.