Dance - Staibdance's Name Day takes modern look at Armenian tradition

Choreographer George Staib's personal heritage comes to life in dance

When choreographer George Staib was growing up, he'd ask the adults around him how old his grandfather was. "Nobody would know," he says. "That's because in the Armenian tradition, children are named after a saint, and the saint's day is celebrated. It obscures the birthday and even the birth year. The Name Day is just a much bigger deal."

Staib will explore Name Day and other aspects of his mixed heritage in the new show Name Day, premiering this weekend at Emory's Schwartz Center for the Performing Arts. Staib's American father met his Armenian mother when he was stationed in Iran with the military. Staib lived in Iran until he was 10, when his family returned to the States. "Wherever we lived, there was always this blending of American culture and Armenian tradition," he says. "We tried to cling to both."

The Armenian way of celebrating, of mourning, of rearing children, and of dancing were all part of the Staib household. "When we had parties, my sister and I were just thrown into the middle of a circle and we'd have to dance together. If you went to someone's house for dinner and music was played, you'd have to get up and dance. It's very much a part of life," says Staib, who has been a member of Emory's dance faculty since 2001.

A visit to Israel last year inspired Staib to create a show on his family history. There, he was immersed in traditional Armenian communities in Jerusalem and witnessed innovative modern choreography in Tel Aviv that incorporated elements of traditional folk dance. "I dropped into a really old version of Armenian culture in Jerusalem," says Staib. "I felt it was an interesting challenge for me to work with something really old in a contemporary way."

Name Day is comprised of lively folk-driven group dances interspersed by more contemplative and introspective solos. The costumes capture the look of the clothing Staib remembers from his childhood, Western clothes of the '60s and '70s, and the music represents a diverse soundscape: traditional Armenian music, electronica, Israeli folk, choral music, and Bach.

The work also prominently features dancer Helen Hale, who has become a central figure on Atlanta's independent dance scene. Her recent work ANTI-MANNERS also blended elements of folk and contemporary movement. "She really gets this piece," says Staib. "If I want to do something that's a little strange or obscure or highly theatrical, she is the one to give those moments to because she indulges so fully in that."

And Staib is determined to dig in: "There's so much of my family history that no one would ever talk about," he says. "You're expected to know the traditions, but they're never explained. You do it 'just because' without knowing why." With Name Day, Staib may finally uncover some of the why.

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