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Gagik Aghbalyan

Ziya Azazi: Thoughts on Life, Culture, Dance and Spiritualism

Ziya Azazi is a choreographer and a dancer. He is particularly famous as a Dervish dance performer, who interprets the dance in his own way.

Ziya Azazi, based in Vienna, was born in Antakya, Turkey. He performs in various parts of the world.

Ziya was in Armenia for three days, participating in the ARé performing arts festival. We used this opportunity to interview him.

It's very difficult to talk about something that is cultural at first sight. However, on the other hand, it's something spiritual, created from religion. In my opinion, there are very few followers of Sufism in Armenia. Information about the whirling dance is superficial as well. What's Sufism and what's the dance about?

I should start with the Big Bang.  Once upon a time, there was the Big Bang. I think we, humans, are "lost in translation". When someone discovers something, they try to talk about it. When one talks about it, another one understands it differently. And the third one gets it in another way. And then it goes like that and you get "lost in translation". Thousands of generations have practiced Sufism. Thus, Sufism has changed. You are Armenians but you are not like the first Armenians. Turkey is not the Turkey it used to be, Europe is not the same Europe. So, this is why I use the expression "lost in translation". Life is a multidimensional happening. When something happens, it seems to go from A to B. But the reality is not linear. Imagine you want to learn a language. You go to a course and learn grammar. Every day you start with A, then go to B. But in reality learning a language is a not linear process.  In the meantime, you go out shopping, learn some words from passersby, etc. So life only looks linear. It is actually multidimensional.  I think moral traditions or any practices also can be mystical, religious or cultural. All of them work the same way. In this case, religious, cultural or graphical heritage is work of thousands of years and generations.  And this works in a very natural way: if something is effective, it stays. And this is how we create knowledge, religion, language and life. We even create society this way. If we go extreme, it’s the same with gender. There is no man or woman. There is a body, and we have many types of it.  If we come back to religion, mysticism or dance, all of them are like "is it chicken from egg or egg from chicken?" I move my body to move my mind. I move my mind to move my spirit. I move my spirit to move my body. It is where the body-mind-emotions trilogy is important. I always talk about it. If I move my body, I can move my brain.  If my brain moves, then my endocrine system moves. It starts to create different hormones which are called emotions. Therefore, in reality, we cannot separate dance, religion, spirituality and society.  Nothing serves the other one. They support each other.

You have brought the whirling dance to another level.  You do your own interpretations. What's the goal? Has the dance lost its ideology in the former way or it's the reflection of your own ideas and philosophy?

You know, nothing stays the same in the nature.   Ararat, for example, is not the same as 5,000 years ago.  Nothing stays the same. We are creations. We live for maximum 100-120 years. And this is a very short time, and therefore we think everything stays the same. In reality, there are constant changes. Even traditions change. So what is a tradition? Which Armenian is Armenian? The one from America or the one who was born in Armenia? Am I Turkish?  I was born in Turkey, brought up in Syria and I live in Vienna. I’ve spent the biggest part of my life in Turkey. As you see, everything is nothing. I mean we cannot stick to anything.

Therefore, I’ve always realized that the traditions are data from the past, from different generations. You understand that you are collecting data, and you start to make your own language because you belong to the 21st century. And this is a mixture of past and present. Each of us does it.

Armenia is a homogeneous country. Christians make the overwhelming majority of local population. How did you manage to deliver this unfamiliar culture? Who came to your workshop? Which is the main key to deliver Sufism and the whirling dance to the society with another cultural background?

I don't think of it. I was just invited and I came. I believe that thinking in that way causes separation in minds and between people.  You say I'm someone with Islamic heritage and came here to do some performances. I was welcomed here. But I tend to forget about religion, country or gender.  We are spirits, we are minds. We just need to exchange ideas.

You were born in a complicated region. All of us live in such a complicated region where clashes and wars last longer than peace.  Do you find Dervish dance or Sufism one of the ways to keep us in peace? Can you call them universal values?

Actually, first of all, as an artist or a person, I do not belong to Sufi traditions. I welcome the heritage that has general view of life. When you practice it, you’re able to see generally. In reality, mankind all around the world creates different traditions, moral practices, languages and way of living. Many of them actually get the idea about what it is to be a human. They keep working on it. They make different mystical approaches called Buddhism, Sufism or Hinduism.  So all of them talk about the same thing in different languages. And, as you see, this mystical way of thinking or living has physical, mental, intuitive and emotional activities.  What the person does in this dance is not only dancing but also killing and kicking his body to make his body work. Through such a physical action, you learn that you have a body that aches. And if you know what is pain, you do not cause pain to others. The other activity is thinking. You learn history, traditions or dance. You make your brain work. And when you make the two work, you start having emotions. You activate your intuition, you sense better. When you activate these three parts of yourself, you are efficient for life. Therefore, any practice in life is good for humanity. And Sufism is just one of them. But it’s important to understand the core idea of becoming mystical and then update our daily life. We cannot practice Sufism or Buddhism as it was done in the past.

Can we compare Dervish dance with yoga or qigong as a means of meditation or healing?

Absolutely yes.  You can do fitness as well. Just without Facebook or TV in front of you. You must concentrate on it. Simplified activation of the body, mind and emotions is the key to being healthy.

There is a white tape in your performance which limits the space of the dancer. You usually take it away.  Would you please comment on it? Is it a kind of border that is being destroyed?

Exactly as you said. We have so many borders.  And actually what we try to do is to gain space. We try to cross the borders.

The topic of mysticism in contemporary dance is popular. Is there no life without mysticism? And what is it?

You can live without mysticism. But life without mysticism is not a life. And mysticism for me is visiting the "unknown", being connected to it. So what is the "unknown?" For example we can see the light in the certain spectrum of electromagnetic waves. If less or more, we will not be able to see it.  The same for sound and temperature. We don't know how it works.  If we take time and think about such things, we realize we can do more. We can see, hear and sense more. In my opinion, all the means to discover it are spiritual approaches.  

In other countries people who take part in your workshops belong to different cultures.  Who are they? What are they looking for?

That’s exactly the subject I was talking about.  Because there are some of us who have the courage to cross the border and enter the unknown. Everyone has an individual approach to visiting the unknown. But they want to learn from someone who knows how to do it and what instruments, devices or tools he has.

Dance is one of those instruments.

Absolutely. One of the strongest instruments I have ever experienced in my life.

Do you find that every dance is a journey? Or does the Dervish dance have some spiritual codes?

Dancing is good, but the power of spinning is quite unique. Because you cannot be connected to the external life. You are isolated. You are by yourself. Because of the spinning, everything starts to move in your body.  Your senses work differently. Your brain is not used to being in such physics. But you take time and learn that this is another type of life. And you have very profound confrontation with yourself while spinning. No other dance can give you such a profound experience.  So if you combine dancing with darkness, light, alcohol, then you also have the journey to the high. Have you ever thought why people really like drinking, smoking or going to parties?  To get high. Spinning dance is about getting high without any external support.

According to the founder of ARé performing arts festival, embassies and foundations help to cover the traveling expenses of the international artists.

This year's festival was supported by the Consulate of Israel, Tekeyan Cultural Association, Hrant Dink Foundation, the British Council and the Australian Consulate.

Photos: by the author and Narek Aleksanyan

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