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Skypedance

by ESTHER SUAVE in Berlin

29 Mar 2011 02:47Comments
DontMoveArticle.jpgTechnology helps convey what Iranian dancers are not allowed to express.

[ dance ] "Don't stick your bottom out and don't swing your hips that much!" instructs the woman on the screen. "Lower the arms, legs together! Close them, close."

The lissome, fluid movement of the dancer on stage transforms into a staccato, remote-controlled, mechanical sequence until the dancer collapses.

The woman on the screen is Iranian and prohibited from referring to herself as a dancer. Instead, she speaks of "rhythmic movement" -- the official, sharia-sanctioned description of dance in her native land.

A final instruction: "Watch your veil! Your veil is more important than your head." Then the lights are switched off.

We, the applauding audience, are 3,000 miles away from Tehran, at the Ballhaus Naunynstrasse, a backyard theater on a still-grungy street in the rapidly gentrifying Berlin neighborhood of Kreuzberg. Of the ensemble of eight dancers in Modjgan Hashemian's Don't Move, only four are physically present. The performers in Tehran are projected on semi-transparent, mobile screens.

Dance doesn't officially exist in Iran. Since the 1979 Revolution, all dance, except Iranian folk dance, is forbidden. The urge to dance is irrepressible and Iranians dance in the seclusion of their living rooms, at private weddings, and at illegal underground parties. But in public, you automatically control yourself -- your body, your expressions, your movement.

This separation between the public and private personas leaves a gap that a contemporary-minded artist seeks to fill only with the greatest trepidation.

Public performances have to pass state censorship. As a result, the scope of performance narrows. Ambition must be tempered by first calculating what is possible. The rules are not always defined, they are capriciously applied, and the penalties for those who cross the unseen line are unpredictable.

"Of course it was a long process for me, asking myself what pictures I would risk to show. I was always afraid of getting the dancers into serious conflicts," recalls Hashemian.

How these rigid circumstances constrict the natural language of the body and what remains after the state's prerogatives are accommodated can clearly be understood in the kinetic language of Don't Move.

Hashemian, born 36 years ago in Tehran, left Iran with her parents when she was eight years old amid the political upheaval that followed the Revolution. After studying choreography in Berlin, she returned to Tehran 26 years later to prepare her first piece in her homeland, Move in Patterns.

Iran was shaken by massive demonstrations just two weeks before the premiere in June 2009. The performance was completely sold out.

Even more inspired, she returned again last year along with German dramaturge Susanne Vincenz, who had already established a little network inside the Tehran dance scene during her participation in the German-Iranian coproduction Letters from Tentland. Together they elaborated Don't Move.

They connected four members of Tehran's underground contemporary dance scene with four dancers back in Berlin and used Skype to work out the performance. The choreography was fleshed out through a process of training and collective improvisation in front of a webcam.

"We call it the Skypedance" says Vincenz. "It means we considered the different characteristics of an Internet connection as part of the performance and not as a barrier."

The delayed and frozen movements, the pixelated and estranged faces come to symbolize the life the dancers are confronted with.

The Berlin team -- Maryam Nikandish from Sweden, Zhanna Serikbayeva from Kazakhstan, and Martin Hansen and Derrick Amantidis from Australia -- appear live on stage to amplify the aspirations of the Iranian dancers and bring to full flower, what they, in Tehran, are just allowed to hint at.

A young woman's hands dance along the cracks in a wall, gently exploring the uneven texture. Fingers widen the crack as if they would find freedom behind it. Playfully tracing the fine lines, the hands rhapsodize what the body is not allowed to express.

"In Iran, your body is just an object that you put into clothes," says the woman (the Iranian dancers asked not to be named for fear of reprisal).

"These bodies are stiff and shy, always alert. That's why I want to dance."

Copyright © 2011 Tehran Bureau

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