A History of the AMAN Folk Ensemble and the AVAZ International Dance Theatre

Anthony Shay is an Associate Professor of Dance at Pomona College.  He is the founder of AMAN, which became one of the largest and most influential folk dance ensembles in America.  He writes of the early history of the Los Angeles-based group, which has existed for more than fifty years, a rare accomplishment in the world of dance.  Professor Shay is also the founder of the Los Angeles dance company, AVAZ, which focuses on middle eastern dance. He is the author of many articles and books that address the ways in which dance can serve as a scholarly lens through which to investigate politics, ethnicity and race, nationalism, gender and sexuality, and, in general, the role of dance in identity formation.

Born and raised in Los Angeles, I was very early exposed to a wide variety of ethnic music and dance. This was especially true of my years at Los Angeles City College, which had over a thousand students from a wide variety of countries, and at UCLA during the period in which the beginnings of the ethnomusicology program instilled a deep interest in the music and dances of many cultures, that I began to learn the dances of a spectrum of cultures and performing in student productions. I even remember performing in Irwin Parnes’s International Folk Dance Festival in the same programs in which Ruth St. Denis appeared. I learned Danish dances from inhabitants of Solvang, Persian dance from the Iranian students, Croatian and Serbian dances, both at their respective churches and as a participant in the burgeoning international recreational folk dance movement, Greek dances at St. Sophia festivals and the Greek Village tavern on Hollywood Blvd., and mambo and samba from my classmates at LACC.

In 1960, upon my return from Iran where I had attended the University of Tehran studying Persian language and literature, and Persian classical music, I returned to UCLA to begin graduate school in Middle Eastern languages. From the 1940s, UCLA had sponsored a student body recreational folk dance club that utilized the women’s gymnasium for weekly meetings. At that period the company had been dormant, so I started it up again, but changed the focus from a recreational to a performance company. The UCLA student body provided us with a handsome budget of $25.00 a semester to purchase dance records. I used the old name, the UCLA Village Dancers. It was with this small group, and a $25.00 budget that I began to create my first choreographies and the company gave many appearances, culminating in an evening-length performance at UCLA in 1962 using live music.

The model for these choreographies were the appearances of KOLO, the Serbian State Folk Dance Ensemble, and Tanec, the Macedonian State Folk Ensemble, both of which had toured the United States in 1956, as well as the more spectacularized Moiseyev Dance Company, which appeared to great acclaim in 1958, the first performance in the newly-minted cultural exchange program established between the United States and the form Soviet Union. I envisioned creating a company with one hundred dancers, singers and musicians, so the models from Eastern Europe did not serve as a choreographic model so much as a model of scope, empowering me to create a large dance ensemble. I began my first attempts at choreography with dances from Iran and Turkey, which meant that the choreographic models from the professional companies like the Moiseyev Dance Company would not work for dances from the Middle East. I had to develop unique works, but I wanted to have the professional level of performance and the authoritative look of those professional companies.

In 1963, several of us in the company grew unhappy with the name of the company the UCLA Village Dancers because it had an amateur, recreational sound, and since the companies that we had seen tended to have short, pronounceable names, we tried out a number of them. I remember one evening as I was humming some music from Serbia, Iran, and other places, that several of the songs had the recurring refrain “aman, aman.” (Aman, like amen, is a Semetic word to secure a wish or prayer) I decided that would be the name: it was short and everyone could pronounce it. So, in December 1963, we did our first performance using the name AMAN in Santa Monica for Parviz Gharib-Afshar, the emcee who presented an international show, for which he invited us to appear. We performed a number called “Banatske Igre” (Dances from the Banat, a region in Northern Serbia), using the costumes, music, and choreography that I had created for the Village Dancers. The dance suite utilized fifteen dancers. At the time we also had dances from Bulgaria, Serbia, Croatia, Iran, Turkey, Azerbaijan, Armenia, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan in the repertoire.

It was during this period that I met Leona Wood and Phillip Harland, husband and wife, who were an oriental dancer and musician respectively. We had appeared in several of the same international festivals, and found a common interest in dances and music of the Middle East. We then gave a joint appearance at the El Cid, the well-known flamenco club on Sunset Blvd, in Silver Lake, using five performers (Marianne Allen, Phil Harland, Pam Heider, Leona Wood, and I), in which we performed with the flamenco dancers showing the connections between flamenco and our Middle Eastern dances. After that performance Wood and Harland decided to team up with the already functioning Balkan and Middle Eastern dance ensemble that I had resurrected from the Village Dancers.

Shortly after this I performed in a film called “What Did You Do During the War, Daddy?” and I invited several of the very fine dancers who appeared in the film to join the new company. These new dancers contributed greatly to the professional level we were striving to achieve. Within weeks, the company was engaged to perform in the film “Gambit.” In that performance, we did Leona Wood’s choreography of a suite of Moroccan dances, further attracting more dancers.

We developed live music for the company and AMAN grew in the number of performers. We worked in two groups, one under Leona Wood’s direction, which performed mostly dances from the Middle East and Central Asia, which I had learned and taught them, including a solo from Tajikistan for Wood and a group number, “Bukhara,” which I choreographed for four dancers. Leona Wood had learned many dances of the Arab world, and was an outstanding professional belly dancer. The second group under my direction focused on dances from Eastern Europe. The Balkan dance unit, within two years had an orchestra of twelve to fifteen musicians and 48 dancers, 24 men and 24 women, a number that we maintained until I left the AMAN company in 1977, to create the AVAZ International Dance Theatre. For a brief while we experimented with creating a chorus, but quickly realized that requiring the dancers to sing was a better to solution to provide the important vocal element that characterized folk dancing, particularly from the various regions of the Balkans. Over the course of the years, AMAN created many recordings of folk dances that we had researched that featured the musicians and singing dancers.

Our first appearances were frequently shared with other groups in festival settings, but we quickly built a repertoire and costume collection that permitted us to provide full-length evening performances in legitimate theatres. These theatres were the most common venues in which we performed throughout our history.

I realized many years later, that the success of the AMAN Folk Ensemble, and later the AVAZ International Dance Theatre, was the result of a choreographic “perfect storm.” This was due, in part, to the availability in the 1960s and 1970s during which a disaffected youth–particularly young, middle-class, Anglo men and women who felt that they had no ethnic identity, and the appeal of being a Balkan peasant, or a romantic oriental dancer was so intense, that all over America folk dance ensembles, based on the state folk dance companies, like Moiseyev and Ballet Folklorico de Mexico, which had begun to tour widely throughout the world, were springing up like mushrooms. Many colleges and universities in the United States had recreational Balkan folk dance clubs, and some of those developed performing companies. The students constituted a major source of dancers; many came from all over America to join the AMAN Folk Dance Ensemble, which was beginning to make a name among devotees of Balkan dance. Hundreds of thousands of young women and men began learning the dances of regions that most of these young men and women who were dancing dances from places that they had never heard of before. It was, fortunately for me, unimportant to these eager dancers and musicians whether or not they were paid. They simply wanted to be a part of the artistic phenomenon that the AMAN Folk Ensemble had become. For some of us it became a way of life—we were our own village, and we spent every possible moment perfecting our craft. Many of the companies in America were large, most numbered between sixty and one hundred performers. None of us was paid. All of the earnings went into the costume wardrobe, which began to resemble high quality collections only found in the national ethnographic museums found throughout Eastern Europe. Many of the folk dance companies told us that they had based their organization and style on the successful performances of AMAN.

While many of the performers, who often stayed with the companies for a period of ten or more years, enjoyed the sensation of identifying with peasants and their stunningly beautiful music, dances, and costumes, for me it was a labor of love, it was all about the work. Unlike most of the members of AMAN, I did not come from a middle class background, but from a very poor working class background. That included a period of five years doing backbreaking work on a large ranch in Central Oregon that had no hot water or plumbing. I knew first hand what peasant life was like, and I had absolutely no interest in recreating those bitter years with 40o below winters, milking a large herd of dairy cows twice a day, and trudging through the snow to gather and chop firewood. For me, the artistic work and creating new choreographies was the thing. The creative thrill for me came from the choreographing of dances that I learned from workshops in Croatia and elsewhere, or research from the many books that I had acquired that described the dances in detail.

For this I had to learn languages, spend hours immersed in ethnographic, music, and dance literature, attend dance classes and workshops, and create new choreographies based on what I was learning. The reward was the thrill of finding a unique song to be used in the choreography, the discovery of a beautiful costume and imagining how it would look on stage, testing new ways to create choreographic effects. Directing these companies, gave me that unique opportunity and I am grateful to each and every dancer, singer, and musician who trustingly put themselves in my artistic hands. Together, we had created a dance ensemble that would today cost a fortune to launch.

In 1967, LADO, the Ensemble of Folk Dances and Songs of Croatia, appeared for one week at the Greek Theatre. I arranged to have AMAN perform for them. If the AMAN dancers had known what to expect from a LADO performance, it would never have happened, but we performed for them upon their arrival, before their performances, and the members of the two companies became fast friends; the members of LADO were enchanted to meet Americans who were so devoted to learning their music and dances and who performed them as authentically as possible. Members of the two companies spent every free hour together, during which they taught us several new dances for the AMAN repertoire. The following year two company members and I journeyed to Croatia where we were allowed to run tame in the company’s rehearsal halls, wardrobe, and attend concerts riding on the LADO bus. Several of the company members reached out to us and taught us everything they could about style and dance technique. I have kept those friendships to this day. The experience with LADO, and seeing the operation of a professional dance company, the ways in which they rehearsed and performed, the attention to detail, was eye-opening for a green choreographer, and through those experiences, I fully understood what professionalism meant and I strove to achieve that level in our performances.

AMAN began to tour widely, and in 1970, we were the first local dance company that the Dorothy Chandler Theatre invited to perform at the Music Center. It was a sold-out house. Sol Hurok, the famous impresario, came to see the company in a Royce Hall performance, and engaged us to fill in several appearances that the Philippine national company, Bayanihan, was unable to fill. In 1977, KCET (Channel 28), created a very expensive, beautifully directed and produced special about the company. During this entire period, major US newspapers gave the company rave reviews.

With the beginning of the rumblings of the Islamic Revolution in Iran, and the influx of hundreds of thousands of Iranian refugees, I felt the need to turn to the dances of Iran and Central Asia, to meet the needs of this shell-shocked community, just at the point that AMAN felt the need to have a more broadly international repertoire. I therefore decided that I needed to have an ensemble that I could tailor to meet the cultural needs of these new people who had a desire and a thirst to see the dances and music of their lost homeland. In 1977, following a research trip to Iran and Central Asia, I founded the AVAZ International Dance Theatre. Between the two companies, I created over 200 choreographic works.

Throughout this entire period, to earn room and board, I received a master’s degree in library service, and for thirty years worked as a librarian for the City of Los Angeles. In addition to giving me expertise in how to conduct bibliographic research, it permitted me to indulge in my secret sin of choreography.

In 1992, as I retired from the library, the University of California, Riverside announced the opening of the first PhD program in dance history and theory. I applied, and they accepted me, and so began a new journey in my life. At this point, I began to turn to writing about the meaning of what all of us participated in the traditional folk dance movement, instead of the creation of dances, I was now analyzing its meaning. During this period, one of the high points of my creative life as a choreographer was to be one of the eight choreographers selected by the James Irvine Foundation as an Irvine Choreographic Fellow.

In 1992, Iranian-born Jamal, an award-winning visual artist, renowned for his Southwest paintings, and who had participated for over two years in AVAZ as set and costume designer, began to choreograph a complete Iranian repertoire of classical and folk dances to complement the dances already in repertoire. In 1994, he was appointed as the Artistic Director and Choreographer of the company. During Jamal’s directorship, he received numerous fellowships and grants for the quality of his choreographic works.

In a few years, after having created the most complete Iranian classical and folk dance repertoire in the history of that dance genre, Jamal began to move into a unique contemporary style of choreography, informed by both his background, heavily steeped in Iranian dance, but also incorporating western and other dance traditions. He calls his new choreographic style contemporary/traditional. Beginning with Guran, which premiered as the opening production of the Luckman Auditorium, a full-evening narrative dance drama based on a tale from the Shahnameh, the epic history of Persia. The LA Times stated that Guran was “a visionary spectacle, a series of disconnected dreamlike meditations staged with extraordinary visual flair and choreographic savvy” (Lewis Segal, July 21, 2003). Since that performance, Jamal has choreographed several works for LACMA, related to important exhibits.

Anthony Shay is Associate Professor of Dance and Cultural Studies, Department of Theatre and Dance, Pomona College, Claremont, CA.


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