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Armen Ohanian (Armenian: Արմեն Օհանյան), born Sophia Pirboudaghian (1887 – 1976) was an Armenian dancer, actress, writer, and translator.
Armen Ohanian was born in Shamakha, then part of the Russian Empire (now in Azerbaijan) to an upper-class Armenian family. A devastating earthquake caused her family to move to Baku, where she attended a Russian school. She graduated in 1905, the same year the anti-Armenian pogroms, which she witnessed, caused the death of her father, Emanuel. She was hurriedly married to an Armenian Iranian doctor, Haik Ohanian, but the marriage did not go well and ended within a year. She kept her married name but changed her first name to Armenuhi (later Armen) when she began her acting career at the Armenian Dramatic Theatre of Baku in 1907. She later moved to Moscow and studied plastic arts at the Nelidova School, while performing her first dances at the Maly Theatre.
After a short stint at the Tbilisi Opera in 1909, Ohanian returned to Iran, where she appeared on stage as a dancer and actress during the last period of the Iranian Constitutional Revolution. She founded the Union of Iranian Theater-Lovers in Tehran. In April 1910 she organized a musical and literary gala in cooperation with the Iranian Women Benevolent Association. For the first time, Iranian women were able to play on the stage and watch a film. In May 1910 she produced and directed Nikolai Gogol’s The Revisor in Persian, playing the role of Maria Antonovna.
While in Iran, she perfected her skills in Oriental dances. After leaving the country and touring Egypt and the Ottoman Empire, she was hired to perform in London. From then to the early 1930s she would become quite a sought-after name, as part of the craze for exotic dances that swept the Western cultural scene at the time. By using the methods of “free dance” developed by the famous American dancer Isadora Duncan, she created her own choreographies based on Armenian and Iranian music. Many of her dances, such as “Salome,” “At the Temple of Anahit,” “Treason,” “The Matchmaker,” “Haschich,” “The Great Khan of Shamakha,” and others, fascinated the European public. She performed extensively in London, Paris, Brussels, Milan, Sofia, Madrid, and other European cities, as well as in the United States and Mexico. Her performances were widely covered in the press and met the approval of writers such as Maurice Maeterlinck, Rene Ghil, Claude Anet, and others.
After settling in Paris in 1912, Ohanian made her first forays into literature, her poems and autobiographical sketches eventually found their way in the press. Her first book, The Dancer of Shamakha, was published in 1918 in in French, and prefaced by Anatole France. The book was translated into English, Spanish, German, Swedish, and Finnish. She later published other memoirs, such as In the Paws of Civilization in 1921, The Laughs of A Snake Enchanter, an account of her 1926-1927 sojourn in the Soviet Union, in 1931, In the Sixth Part of the World (Journey into Russia) in 1928; and a novel, The Soloist of His Majesty in 1929.
Her love life in the twilight of the Belle Epoque was no less eventful than her artistic career. A bisexual, she had relationships with various people such as painter Emile Bernard, writer and politician Maurice Barres, writer Andre Germain, and a short-lived affair with famous American writer Nathalie Barney. She finally married the Mexican economist and diplomat Makedonio Garza in 1921, and after living in Paris, Moscow, and Madrid, the couple settled in Mexico in 1934.
The decline of her dance career did not deter Ohanian from pursuing cultural and political interests. Having become interested in the native dances of Mexico during a brief trip in the 1920s, she founded a school of dance in Mexico City in 1936. Committed to communism since the mid-1920s, Ohanian was an active member of the Mexican Communist Party. In collaboration with her husband, Ohanian translated many books from Russian into Spanish, but also became a prolific author in her own right with books on Russian/Soviet and Mexican literature. In 1946 she published Happy Armenia, a book on Soviet Armenia in Spanish, which marked a renewal of interest in her Armenian ancestry. Among her literary output, however, her work of choice was a poem, “My Dream as an Exile,” written in Armenian and published in 1953 in Paris.
Ohanian made a comeback in the Mexican dance scene in 1948 and appeared on the stage in Paris in 1949 and 1953, when she was well into her sixties. During a second visit to the Soviet Union in 1958 with her husband, they traveled briefly to Yerevan, Armenia, where she offered part of her private files to the Museum of Literature and Arts. After returning to Mexico, she continued to write, translate, and publish until 1969, when she came out with a first volume of memoirs in Spanish.
- La danseuse de Shamakha, Grasset, Paris, 1918.
- Dans les griffes de la civilisation, Grasset, Paris, 1921.
- Dans la sixième partie du monde (voyage en Russie), Grasset, Paris, 1928.
- Le soliste de Sa Majesté, B. Grasset, Paris, 1929.
- Les rires d’une charmeuse de serpents, Les Revues, Paris, 1931.
- Leon Tolstoi (1828-1910). Su vida, su época, su obra, Editorial Cimientos, Madrid, 1934.
- La ruta de Máximo Gorki es la nuestra, Editorial Cimientos, México, 1935.
- Un análisis marxista de la literatura española, Ediciones de la Liga de Escritores y Artistas Revolucionarios, México, 1937.
- Las guerras campesinas en Rusia y Tolstoi, Editorial Cimientos, México, 1939.
- Clásicos mexicanos. Ruiz de Alarcón. Juana de Asbaje. Lizardi, Editorial Cimientos, México, 1939.
- El sentido clasista del romanticismo y Alejandro Pushkin, Editorial Popular, México, 1938.
- Armenia feliz, Editorial Cimientos, México, 1946.
- Literatura española medieval y clásicos mexicanos, Editorial Cimientos, México, 1956.
- México en la cultura, Editorial Cimientos, México, 1967.
- Recuerdos del Cáucaso pre-revolucionario y de mis andanzas por el mundo, primer tomo, México, Editorial Cimientos, 1969.
- Bakhchinyan, Artsvi, and Matiossian, Vartan. «Շամախեցի պարուհին» (The Dancer of Shamakha), Yerevan, 2007.
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