If they're crotchety and weary now, The Last Tightrope Dancer in Armenia shows how Zhora and Knyaz were once full of imagination.
Now I am alone, as this rope is alone.
-- Knyaz Mheryan
"Had I kept myself in good shape, I would be performing to this day. I breathe easily, I don’t cough, I walk freely. Everything is fine with me except for being old." Despite -- and in part because of -- being old, Knyaz Mheryan can't imagine retiring. At 77, he's got a long history to look back on, as well as a sense of legacy. Once one of the most celebrated tightrope dancers in Armenia, now he sees interest in the art faded. He travels the country with his student -- his one student, Mamikon Papikyan -- and feels disappointed daily that so few people turn out to see the show. "Tightrope dancing now," he says, fingering the photos and mementos he keeps in a suitcase, "is not like it used to be. Its smell and taste have disappeared."
Knyaz's story is intertwined with that of 78-year-old Zhora Armenakyan, his longtime rival and fellow survivor. The last of a generation, they hope to pass on their passion and skills to students, namely, Mamikon and, for Zhora, an orphan he took in 10 years before, Hovsep. The teachers compare their styles and reputations for The Last Tightrope Dancer in Armenia, premiering this week as part of PBS' Global Visions series. Each man insists that his contribution to the art is most important. "Doing tricks is not art," says Knyaz. "Dancing is what they cannot do." Zhora counters, "Knyaz could only dance when the rope was very low. I have ridden a motorcycle on a rope 40 meters high, and who was he then?"
The film underscores both their intense competition and their mutual dedication in vivid cinematography. Whether the men speak their opinions or not-- and they do like to talk -- the camera repeatedly intimates their perspective, in sharply angled close-ups of performance preparations (pounding stakes into the ground) as well as pensive shots of tree branches and cloudy skies. The effects of time passing is revealed as well in the men's faces, filling the frame, weathered and etched. Hunched over the steering wheel in his van, huffing along mountain roads as he drives his show from one village to the next, Zhora points out his hat, snug on his brow. "I've been wearing this hat since my childhood," he announces. "My head is 70 years old: imagine how easily it catches a cold."
If they're crotchety and weary now, Zhora and Knyaz were once full of imagination. The film helps you to see this in old footage of their frankly magnificent tightrope performances, by turns antic and determined, quaint and exhilarating, the ropes stretched over rocky terrain and hard dirt streets without nets. "I was jumping with my legs high in the air," Knyaz remembers, his eyes bright. "It was such a performance. The foreigners had never seen anything like it." The art has survived since pagan times, sometimes perceived as "miraculous," the dancers holy men embodying a connection between heaven and earth, and sometimes representing local and longstanding culture, surviving efforts by the Soviet Union to suppress it.
Now however, economics hold sway. In the old days, both masters recall, they danced for crowds at each stop. Now, Zhora laments, "Nobody is interested in tightrope anymore. People don’t have money. They no longer attend. Whom shall the tightrope dancer perform for?" This question troubles Mamikon and Hovsep especially, who repeatedly find themselves dancing for no one. "I've been in this art since I was five years old," Mamikon says, "So I can't dislike it." Still, he's increasingly frustrated that he's unable to make a living; when he finds other work, Hovsep becomes the focus of both masters' resolute efforts to preserve the tradition.
The 18-year-old Hovsep bears this burden with a mix of resignation and resistance, his own past a source of confusion. Zhora sees him as one of many students he's "found" and nurtured through their adolescence. Given up for adoption by his mother (whom he now visits in prison, at once wishing he might earn enough money to provide them with a home to share and also angry that she abandoned him as a baby), Hovsep feels increasingly constrained and defiant. "I feel like a prisoner in prison," he says, "with some freedom."
Ambivalent and restless, Hovsep is at once appreciative of his mentor's care and teaching and resentful of his expectations. In this, the boy embodies as well as cultural shift. Struggling with his own simultaneous desires to honor the past and reject it, Hovsep is the last tightrope dancer, and all too aware of his burden.