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Dancing with Othello in Iran

by ARTS CORRESPONDENT in Tehran

03 Dec 2010 01:48No Comments

[ theater ] In one of my previous Tehran Bureau essays on Verdi's Shakespearian opera Macbeth -- "Macbeth and the Marks of Violence" -- I drew a parallel between the opera's dark side and contemporary Iranian struggles: the story of the paranoid and intolerant Macbeth, traumatized by war and manipulated by his wife, reminded me of the Basijis, those plainclothes civilian enforcers. Some, unable to exorcize the memory of the Iran-Iraq War, beat and killed their own children who were contesting the outcome of the 2009 presidential election. Macbeth, dealing with power, guilt, and the inescapable consequences of violence, led me to wonder if an entire generation of Iranian youth will similarly fall into a spiral of hate and revenge. During last year's events, we saw how hard the young tried to remain nonviolent in the face of the government's aggression. Meanwhile, there was an outpouring of protest that could have lead to a civil war. In the end, my people had to accept the situation. Whether they consider the current government to be legitimate or not, one thing remains for sure: the memory of the thousands of battered bodies. The violence has penetrated deeply into their psyches and will never be forgotten.

I had noticed the importance of spectacular scenes of violence and highly charged emotional states in the production of Caligula staged by Homayoon Ghanizadeh last summer in Tehran. I could see how this awoke the deep instinct of survival that rejected the regime's restrictive laws. In my essay "Caligula in Tehran," I described how its particular brand of body language was the perfect metaphor for the politically motivated violence that had been imposed on soul and flesh. The adaptation of Shakespeare's Othello that I saw in August at the City Theater of Tehran was another such astonishing example. Atefeh Tehrani, its young choreographer and director, won the International Association of Theater Critics Best Director Award for the production at the 28th Fajr International Theater Festival earlier this year.

Tehrani's Othello contains not a single line of dialogue, but is entirely danced, mimed, and wordlessly voiced. In her version, the political context of Shakespeare's work is set aside. The fact that Othello was a Moor, a black African from Mauritania, and a great warrior whose growing power worried 16th-century Venice didn't really matter, nor did all his inner struggles over his wife's supposed infidelity. Far more relevant to the choreographer are the passionate human relationships, which are reduced to their most basic components: Othello and Desdemona love each other. Iago is deeply jealous. Othello falls into his trap and believes, without the shadow of a doubt, that Desdemona has been unfaithful with Cassio, his lieutenant. Cassio admires Desdemona but doesn't seem to love her. And Emilia, Desdemona's maidservant and deeply attached to her, loves Iago.

Tehrani neither provides psychological interpretation nor explicates the intensity of the feelings. The emotional and psychological components are presented at face value; physical movements demonstrate the perverse manipulation of Iago, whose jealousy leads inexorably to tragedy. Passion and fate, life and death, joy and horror -- these binaries fuel the drama of the wordless performance. The set is likewise conceived according to this Manichean vision: White geometrical structures, pillars and a stairway, oppose the black box that contained them. Black-and-white costumes complete the vision, creating a visual unity that could be taken to reflect an oversimplified understanding of the play.

Even though the plot is reduced to emotional relationships, those emotions veer widely, from extreme fear to extreme anguish. The music, by composers Amir Amiri and Saba Nazi Enjileh, is also very expressive. Except for a dynamic tango and a couple of melancholic duets for piano and cello, a chamber string ensemble provides most of the musical accompaniment, which is tense and convulsive. The atmosphere it creates evokes the German Expressionist music of the early 1900s, which expressed the uncertainty and deep anxieties of the era, as if its agitation presaged the apocalypse of World War I. Indeed, there are some musical gestures in Othello that convey melodramatic attitudes of fear, joy, sorrow, and so forth in a manner that recapitulates how those sentiments were expressed through stereotypical facial and physical expressions in Expressionist silent film. The composers build their score around these motifs just as the choreographer employs movement stereotypes like those that can be seen in such films as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. As a result, this postmodern Othello is a very strange combination of contemporary Western dance, Elizabethan theatre, and German Expressionism, with a body language inspired by painful memories and persistent nightmares, social pressures and restrictions, anger and rebellion.

This contemporary dance, the strange movements it comprised, struck me as both ridiculous and fascinating. If judged by Western codes, they would be laughable, ignoring as they do the whole legacy of contemporary dance and lacking in readily communicable content. Judged according to the context of my Iranian identity, I feel compassion for such tortuous contortions on stage. It was extremely difficult to judge without falling into a certain degree of Orientalism or condescension. Understanding this form of art may require the maintenance of a strict neutrality.

But is it possible to remain neutral? To put it bluntly, this dance deals with neither sensuality nor poetry. Forget notions of suppleness, flexibility, or grace, not to mention eroticism. This dance is tough, and movements with erotic implication are eliminated. Arms and legs move while the torso and the hips remain still, as if paralyzed, creating strange puppet-dancers, desperately moving upper and lower limbs detached from the the body's core. The arm movements are angular, broken, agitated, expressing relentless tension. Hands smack against cheeks, foreheads, shoulders, and knees, making noise as if the body needs to be heard as a concrete presence. Feet stamp loudly, repeatedly, the noise evoking anger and jealousy.

In general, bodies act out violently, with spasms and convulsions, and express themselves through slaps, falls, and crashes -- creating an astonishing concert. Not only bodies but voices are present as well, with grunting, loud laughter, cries, and long howls of furor. Male dancers fight, with limbs tangled, bodies rolling on the ground, climbing over one another, an endless variety of interlocking arrangements that imply the incipient creation of a single mass as if the performers must compensate for the cruel Islamic rules that forbid contact between male and female dancers. Complementing this movement style, faces and postures expressed passionate melodramatic clichés: fear, jealousy, anger, pleading, accusation, condemnation -- all represented in a series of paroxysms. Given the abundance of miming action, as if we were indeed watching a silent film, and the lack of sensuality, I began to consider the question of genre.

Was this essentially a dance production or a pantomime? I would have to say that it was a combination, a kind of theâtre dansé. The censors had determined that it was "body theater." I am not sure categorization in art is generally a wise thing, but here the question was legitimate because of the context: I am not sure whether Western dance has transformed into a kind of physical theater due to the Islamic Republic's restrictions or if modern Western dance manages to persist in Iran despite religious dictates. In the simplest of terms, can dance be found in the Islamic Republic of Iran? And do professional dancers have the right to perform it?

There has always been dance in Iran, though relatively little has been written on the subject. Much of my information on traditional Iranian dance in the modern era comes from the excellent article by Robyn C. Friend available at Encyclopedia Iranica. Each ethnic group in Iran's multiethnic society has one or more traditional dance forms, usually restricted to one or the other sex, that are considered crucial expressions of their collective identity. These nonprofessional dances are performed at national, religious, and cultural celebrations. In Azerbaijan, male dancers hold hands as they execute steps and kicks. In Kurdistan, men stand in line with fingers locked, moving forward and back while their torsos seem to form a unified mass. In Khorassan, men hold sticks or scarves while dancing with waving movements. Women perform the "rice dance" in the northwestern region of Gilan, holding flat trays in front of their bodies while imitating rice-cooking gestures. Women's dances, some involving scarves, are also to be found among the southwestern tribes. Dances of the Persian Gulf, deeply influenced by Arab and African cultures, are often accompanied by polyrhythmic drumming.

Besides these tribal dances, and the famous mystical trance dance of the Sufis, there is the loosely defined urban style known as Tehran dance (raqs-e Tehrani). Mostly a domestic form of entertainment, whether in Iran or the diaspora, this is a solo dance performed by any number of participants, male and female, dancing all together. It is considered a solo dance because men and women do not touch. Everyone performs their own improvised movements, creating their own personal dance styles while sharing some common gestures characteristic of Tehran dance such as holding arms, elegantly turning hands, and softly moving hips and feet.

What particularly interests me is the presence or absence of modern Western dance in Iran today. The Armenian dance teachers Yelena Avedisian, known as Madame Yelena, and Serkis Janbazian brought modern Western ballet to Iran during the 1940s and taught dance to the children of the elite. The first professional Iranian dance ensemble, the Revival of Ancient Iranian Arts, was formed early in the decade. In the 1950s, Cultural Minister Nejad Ahmadzadeh commissioned the creation of the Roudak Hall Opera House, and the Iranian National Ballet was founded in 1967. The choreographer and dancer Bijan Kalantari imported the Western pedagogic system and made the National Ballet famous for its performances of classical ballets based on Persian mythology, such as Bijan and Manijeh, choregraphed by Aida Ahmadzadeh, Sharzad by Georges Skibine, and Golestan by Maurice Bejard.

The Islamic Revolution put an end to this great modern tradition. Considered perverse, modern Western dance progressively disappeared and most dancers left the country. Some say that modern Western dance no longer exists in Iran, that the Islamic Republic's repression has practically killed it off. I think of Afshin Ghaffarian, the young dancer who recently left Iran and settled in Paris as a political refugee, and of the more established Sharrokh Moshkin Ghalam, who also lives in Paris while performing regularly in the United States. It seems that three decades after the Revolution, the new generation that has grown up with foreign TV channels and the Internet seeks out not modern Western dance -- it seems impossible to conceive of it in Iran in its current state -- but an alternative contemporary form that broadens the concept of dance and considers all kinds of movement, whether classical dance gestures or drawn from daily life, as part of a new dance vocabulary.

Afshin Ghaffarian explains that most of the new "dance movements" that form the basis of the work of young Iranian dancers are based on the physical theater developed by the Polish actor and director Jerzy Grotowski, and thus are not part of classical dance's vocabulary of poetic gestures. The art of Grotowski, who established his Laboratory Theater in 1959, is focused on the body of the actor. In his view, it is the actor's calling to offer everything on stage. Rather than a professional thespian who bases his work on a set of skills, the authentic actor was, by reaching the core of his soul, supposed to show his most intimate secrets. This philosophy was largely motivated by a reaction against postwar Poland's oppressive Communist regime. Fighting against the Judeo-Christian conception of the body and the severe censorship in his native country, Grotowski created a new dramatic form that he called "poor theater," centered on the relationship between the audience and the actor, and largely disregarding aspects such as set design, costumes, and lighting. To help achieve a communal experience between spectators and performers, he conceived a purgative methodology that helped his actors free themselves from their conventional education and received conceptions of their own bodies and go beyond, toward something that would reveal their inner truth in a mystical fashion.

Grotowski's influence on contemporary Iranian performance art is extraordinary. While he was invited to Shiraz Arts Festival in 1971 to perform his stage work The Constant Prince, he was soon essentially forgotten for a long period. Then a younger generation rediscovered him through two translations of his seminal 1965 book Towards a Poor Theater. Despite the fact they never had the opportunity to see Grotowski's work, they followed his path and tried to imagine a way they could use their bodies to articulate a protest against political and social pressures. Tehrani began her career with Black Narcissus, an experimental theater group led by Hamed Mohammad Taheri, that was developing an Iranian physical theater inspired by Grotowski. Tehrani subsequently founded her own company, the Indra Theater Group, whose members performed Othello.

Whether this is most precisely physical theater or dance, whether the Grotowski she has imagined is entirely real or not, Atefeh Tehrani has created a new body language that deserves a great amount of consideration. It is fascinating to see how the performers' bodies in her work relate to their social and political context and I have underscored the connection between the regime's restrictions and the body in this essay. Even though I consider this art form's conception of the body to be founded in a reaction to contemporary Iranian society, I believe it has the potential to be considered independently in the near future. I am not sure choreographers in Iran will have the ability to follow Grotowski's example and reach, after years of intensive training, a mystical, transcendent body language. Rather than a mystical from of physical expression, whose origins remain linked to the Christian body conception, I believe Iranian dancers feel the need to find an artistic language in which dance movements are detached from their context and become truly free.

And Tehrani, as she constantly strains at the bounds of censorship, creates a specific moment in which bodies escape from their environment and started to truly dance for themselves. I refer to an audacious, enthralling tango performed by several couples. The women use scarves to lasso men and dance with them. Even though they do not touch one another, the men -- scarves holding them tight, looping around their necks or hips -- dance with their female partners closely, intimately. As the emphatically rhythmic music evoked the tango, its movements and gestures were employed as well, generating brief moments of lightness, sensuality, and eroticism. This exceptional example gives us the opportunity to imagine the future of the Iranian body dancing. It offers the vision of an emancipated body that has the power to move beyond definition by an oppressive context, and become more directly expressive, become free, become free dance.

Copyright © 2010 Tehran Bureau

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