“We were a very mixed lot….” With these words, Kurban Said began his famous novel “Ali and Nino.” He was, ostensibly, speaking of the hero’s schoolmates, but in a broader sense he described the complex multi-ethnic reality of Azerbaijan.

As a tribute to this diversity, Silk Road Dance Company created a special program of dances for Azerbaijan Republic Day. The first dance, the Tat duet Astarho, echoed the legacy of chivalry for which the Caucasus is known. Like Ali and Nino, the two dancers themselves represented different heritages; Valeriya Nakshun comes from a Kavkazi Jewish Tat family and Ahmad Maaty is an Egyptian-American Muslim. The song lyrics in the Tat language served as a reminder of the linguistic multiplicity of the Caucasus that so confounded ancient Greeks, that they dubbed the region the ” mountain of tongues.”

For the second piece, the ensemble performed an energetic, all-female Yalli from Naxchivan, birthplace of former President of the Azerbaijan Republic, Heydar Aliyev. The ancient city of Naxchivan, home to many different ethnic and religious groups, endured invasions by Arab, Persian, Turkish, and Mongol armies. The inspiration for presenting this spirited dance came after Silk Road Dance Company’s Artistic Director Dr. Laurel Victoria Gray saw historic footage of the Chinar Group performing the dance. The soloist was Alagoz Salakhova, grand-daughter of legendary People’s Artist of the USSR, Tamara Khanum, the famous dancer who was the first in Uzbekistan to perform in public. By coincidence, Gray had become acquainted with Tamara Khanum in the 1980’s, when she was the first American guest in the artist’s home. Later, Gray met other family members, including Alagoz. Adding this dance to the ensemble’s repertoire created a connection to the lineage of Tamara Khanum as well as to the cultural heritage of Naxchivan.

And perhaps, most appropriately, a program celebrating diversity seemed appropriate since members of Silk Road Dance Company hail from a variety of countries and cultures from both East and West. They, too, “are a very mixed lot.”