Tangled Yarn: An Unusual Multimedia Performance


Kevork Mourad at “Tangled Yarn”

By Aram Arkun
Mirror-Spectator Staff

NEW YORK — Armenians seem almost obsessed with fate — jagadakir. You might think that it is because of all the painful vagaries of modern Armenian history, but in fact, it is something that many people think about, whether religious or not. Anaïs Alexandra Tekerian and Kevork Mourad thought about it too, and prepared a multimedia presentation called “Tangled Yarn,” which premiered on August 15 in New York City and has the last of five performances on August 26. The production is part of the New York International Fringe Festival (FringeNYC), which claims that it is the largest multi-arts festival in North America. More than 200 companies from all over the world perform for 16 days in more than 20 venues.

What is unusual about this performance is that with the use of modern technology, it combines live drawing, music and acting. Mourad illustrates the story and draws the paths it must take, with a computer and projector. He served as director and planned the staging. Tekerian, the author of the text or story, is the sole actress, alternating between the characters of the two grandmothers and Ismene. Tekerian also composed nearly all the music for the performance together with her fellow members of a cappella trio, Zulal. The music was nearly all prerecorded.

“Tangled Yarn” is the story of three generations of women. The main character’s name is Ismene. When you learn that Ismene’s sister is Antigone, you can already surmise that this performance is based on stories from Classical Greece. Ismene and Antigone are daughters of Oedipus. In the plays of Sophocles, Antigone is sentenced to death for defying the order of King Creon of Thebes (her uncle and greatuncle) against burying Polynices, her brother. Ismene initially refuses to help Antigone, despite the traditional importance of burial, because she understands that opposing the government would be futile and dangerous. Nonetheless, when Antigone is sentenced to death, Ismene declares she is as guilty as her sister. In the end, King Creon does not execute  her because he understands she did not really break the law, but  Sophocles does not write about her ultimate fate.

Despite all this Greek background, the two grandmothers of Tekerian’s Ismene are Armenian and Latvian, and the story is transposed to the present. In fact, the grandmothers are largely based on Tekerian’s real-life grandmothers.

Tekerian slips quickly into the character of Ismene, helping her mother prepare the wedding dress for Antigone. Then she adopts an Armenian accent to become the grandmother Verzhin, and the audience learns of her arranged marriage as a child of Genocide survivors living in Ethiopia. Switching back to Ismene, she next becomes the grandmother with a Latvian accent. This grandmother attempted suicide at 18, and fled Latvia for Germany during World War I. There, after working in a clock factory, she was placed in a labor camp. And the performance continues, with the character of Ismene always serving as an intermediary stop between the two grandmothers.

The Armenian grandmother relates her various superstitious beliefs, on the surface somewhat comical, and talks about fate. She gave Ismene a blue bead to ward off bad luck, and Ismene fled the sad past of her family to a big city. There, she felt paralyzed, thinking that the fates had forgotten to “weave” her destiny.

Yet fate indeed was driving Ismene on. Ismene at one point declares: “I couldn’t see it, though. The long line of it spinning outward, pulling me forward.” And Ismene’s Latvian grandmother sees it too: “All of a sudden I saw them wrapped around her and pulling her forward, the same ropes that had tied me.”

Verzhin started over many times in her life. She was a survivor and she did the same thing with her knitting: “you can always undo and redo with yarn.” This is advice for dealing with life and fate too. It is the rope or yarn, “spun” by Mourad’s hand on the screen through projection, that sets the destiny of the characters.

For Ismene, and her Latvian grandmother, this destiny is drawn in a different way than for the other characters. The grandmother related that “other people had their destiny measured out for them from above; I had mine measured for me by those that loved me.” For both women, their loved ones decided their own actions.

The unmentioned and unofficial “character” in Tekerian’s play is actually the hand of Mourad, drawing and showing the way like destiny’s writing, or yarn unraveling. Mourad’s hand is sometimes seen on screen as it creates a scene. Tekerian’s characters interact with Mourad’s creations, doing things like lifting a cup drawn on the screen and drinking from it. In addition to his live drawing, Mourad prepared some animations beforehand for the performances. Mourad pointed out that “the animation is handmade — thousands of drawings in the same style. I film them piece by piece. It takes months.”

This multimedia performance was 10 years in the making. Tekerian and Mourad were married 10 years ago and had always wanted an opportunity to work with each other professionally. Coincidentally — or not, if you believe in destiny — the last performance on August 26 took place on their wedding anniversary.

People always told Tekerian to write about the interesting lives of her two grandmothers, and she took this to heart. She had been writing down episodes from their lives over the years. Furthermore, as she explained after the performance, “I have always loved those [Greek] stories and wanted to play Antigone, but because of the lines I found in my grandmothers’ stories and the obsession Armenians have about fate or vijag, I realized that it was Ismene whose story you can play with.” Ismene’s fate had not been written about by the Greeks, a situation which enabled Tekerian to develop her character further.

She merged the Greek family of Ismene and Antigone with her own Armenian-Latvian family. She pointed out that “the dialogue of the grandmothers is taken from real life. There are some similarities with my sister, but the story is not the same there.” Another similarity between the two families is the loss of a mother. Tekerian seems to have taken on the role of preserving the stories of her family, and sees Ismene, as the sole survivor from her own family, similarly carrying on with the memories of her ancestors.
Tekerian concluded, “‘Tangled Yarn’ is at once a very personal story and also one that touches on the big themes of destiny and family that the Greek plays explore. I  would love for the audience to come away with a strong sense of the courage that all the women in the play have shown, which is the survivor’s courage that we all have and have to call upon in our most trying moments. I would like for the audience to appreciate the sacredness of the line that ties grandmother to mother to child, the generosity with which a mother will set her child moving forward along his/her own path.”

Tekerian stressed the importance of the idea that you can always undo or redo things through art — not just in art but in life itself: “you create yourself using whatever it is that you need to use. You create your future.” Tekerian, aside from singing with the Armenian trio Zulal, also has acted in theater and film in the New York City area in such pieces as Fault Lines (Invisible City Theater Company), Blood and Honey (Theater in the Flesh), Disappeared (Richmond Shepard Theater), Lorca (Blue Heron Art Center), and Howling (La MaMa). Born in San Francisco, she studied theater at Yale University.

As for plans for the future, a company of which she is a member, Invisible City Theater Company, will be putting on a production in the fall, while Zulal is working on its third CD and a new show.

Tekerian exclaimed that it was great to work with her husband for the first time, and hopes that “Tangled Yarn” will have future performances in other venues. She also would like the opportunity to collaborate for a second time with her husband in a “sibling project.”

Mourad reciprocated, adding that “I can’t believe how easy and wonderful it is. It’s not just a husband-wife relationship but because we both work well, it makes things faster and quicker. We have a better understanding of each other during performances” because of a deeper knowledge of one another.

Kevork Mourad
Mourad, born in Kameshli, Syria, studied at Yerevan’s Institute of Fine Arts, and because his parents and most of his immediate family moved to Armenia after independence, he frequently travels there. He lives in New York now but draws on both his Armenian and Syrian roots while engaging in his art: “My work is a combination of being Syrian and Armenian — an Armenian born in Syria. Both are rich cultures and I’m so lucky to speak both languages fluently. I go back and forth to get inspiration in both places.” Mourad, in Syria, is considered an important Syrian artist. He exclaims: “I have great support from Syria.” Living in the United States actually helped him to become closer to his cultural roots: “I don’t think American culture has affected me as much.”

Mourad expounded on his unusual approach to live art. He began experimenting with live drawing in Gumri, Armenia in 1997 together with trombonist David Minassian: “There was nothing prepared. We were inspiring each other.” During a cross-country trip in the US after his return, Mourad began to think about how he could develop this technique further. He explained: “I realized that I could create similar performances with technology. When I arrived here in 2000, I started doing straightforward camera-to-screen projection drawings. Most were improvisation with musicians. But I always had the idea that I wanted to tell a story with this.”

Suddenly, Mourad met a Syrian clarinetist named Kinan Azmeh, who was classically trained. He began working with him in 2003 on a project on the epic of Gilgamesh. It was a 50- minute performance simultaneously about the war in Iraq and the Sumerian epic. Mourad continued: “I toured the world with it. I showed it in many museums and countries. I went to Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Damascus, Tartus (in Syria), Beirut and New York.”

Then in 2005, Mourad joined the Silk Road Project with Yo-Yo Ma (the famous Chinese-American cellist and composer), and as a part of the Silk Road Ensemble performed in many museums throughout the world, including in Nara, Japan, the Rhode Island School of Design, the Rubin Museum in New York, the Art Institute of Chicago and Harvard University.

He stated, “My contribution in the Silk Road Project is that …I created a story painting on a big screen, telling parts of the [specially composed] music, and later creating animation.” He did one piece with Yo-Yo Ma himself. Some of his work in the Silk Road Project was about Armenian culture, manuscripts, Gomidas and the Genocide. Mourad has collaborated with other groups and performers too, including Djivan Gasparyan at Cooper Union (April 2001).

Upcoming Performances
He has an interesting project coming up in Armenia at the end of October or early November of this year, together with his clarinetist friend Azmeh. It is about how the Arabs in Syria received the Armenians in 1915, and also about the relationship between Armenian and Arab culture. The Armenians in the Republic of Armenia built a monument to thank the Syrians, and this piece has been commissioned for the inauguration. Mourad said, “I want to go back in history and give the sense of Armenian culture, and compare it with Arab culture simultaneously, with poetry, sounds and manuscripts. It will all be recorded.”

Another exciting project will take place at the Metropolitan Museum of Art on January 22, 2011 as part of a family-oriented program to which children are welcome. It is called “Cirène,” after the name of Mourad and Tekerian’s young daughter. The storyline is taken from South Asian mythology, and is about a king seizing food from the people, and a young girl managing to get it back. Mourad performs with a dancer from the Mark Morris Dance Group, and three members of the Silk Road Project — a violinist, cellist and percussionist.

Mourad is quite busy, with several other projects. On October 30 he has an exhibition of his paintings in Los Angeles at the JK Gallery, and on November 7 he will be at the Palace of Arts in Montreal performing “Sketches of Beirut” with pianist Rami Khalifeh. On March 15, 2011, he will be in Dubai for an art festival.

Mourad attempts to both create joy and understanding through his work. He pointed out that this was true in the “Tangled Yarn” project, partly through its “live” dimension: “Life is all about magic. You have to appreciate every single moment you live. So when you see something happening in front of your eyes, you get surprised and it makes you feel much more innocent.… You see that very simple things like drawing one line on paper can represent the complexities of life. In the simplest way they can narrate something so complex — and it is believable.”

He likens the experience for viewers as a journey, and concludes, referring to his own drawing by hand: “I want the hand to lead the journey and when they come out, for them to say that we went to this world that we did not know existed.”

For more information about forthcoming performances, see http://www.tangledyarn.net.