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By Tony Halpin (Moscow) and Gayane Abrahamyan (Yerevan)
The modern dance performance was billed as a frank expression of friendship between Britain and Armenia, the former Soviet republic.
Instead, Nigel Charnock’s solo show provoked diplomatic outrage after he was accused by the Armenian Culture Minister of desecrating the national flag.
Charnock, a noted dancer, has been called a “national treasure” by British critics and praised for his “eerie brilliance” and “profligate talent” by The Times. The British Council had described Frank, Charnock’s one-hour improvised performance, as “a stand-up, sit-down, leap-around live show that picks you up, calls you names and lets you in on some home truths”.
But the name-calling was largely done by Hasmik Poghosyan, the Culture Minister, after Charnock, on his first vist to the country, had placed Armenian and British flags on the stage and danced on them before an audience at the Stanislavsky State Theatre, in Yerevan, on Wednesday.
Mrs Poghoysan, 46, who was not at the performance, ordered a second show to be cancelled and accused Charnock of committing a criminal offence punishable by up to a year in prison. She declared: “It is unacceptable for us that someone who is considered a national treasure in Britain would bring such low-quality art to Armenia.
“We honour the high art of British theatre and are sure that from the Queen to ordinary Britons the greatest pride and treasure is Shakespeare. It appears that the English perception of treasures has been drastically devalued and Nigel Charnock is its best evidence.”
Mrs Poghosyan said that she was not censoring artistic expression but acting to prevent disrespectful treatment of Armenia’s flag.
“Charnock may treat the British flag as he likes. He can drop it on the floor, step on it, chew it or swallow it, but it is unacceptable and punishable by law to treat the Armenian flag that way,” she said.
At a press conference called swiftly by the British Council, a chastened Charnock, 45, offered his “unconditional apologies”. He told reporters: “All I’m trying to do is communicate love.”
The Culture Ministry lifted the ban, provided that Charnock promised not to repeat the offence, but by then it was too late to reschedule the performance and the dancer flew home yesterday.
Lucine Ghulyan, arts manager at the British Council in Yerevan, told The Times: “He was trying to show friendship between Armenia and Britain. There was a total misunderstanding of his intentions.
“He was showing his affection for Armenia, but when I called the deputy minister to explain this she didn’t want to listen to me. She kept saying that she was offended as a citizen of Armenia to see the flag on the floor.”
Ms Ghulyan acknowledged that some in the audience had been offended by sexually suggestive movements during the performance. Charnock had wrapped a Union Jack around his loins and then draped the Armenian tricolor over his naked torso.
But Ms Ghulyan said that most had understood the show and many gave him a standing ovation at the end.
Charnock, 45, has performed Frank around Europe since 2003, when it was commissioned for the Venice Biennale. He co-founded the DV8 Physical Theatre before establishing his own dance company in 1996.
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