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Her Life as a Persian Ballerina

by CORRESPONDENT in Tehran

03 Jun 2011 10:50Comments
5519657700_d0528aaa90.jpgLonging for freedom of expression, in more ways than one.

[ dispatch ] After a four-hour drive out of the city and three shots of something strong, Newsha finally feels free enough to dance. "What is the English name for that big animal that lives in the water and flops its ears?" she asks as light elecrofunk undulates onto the terrace of a mountain villa. Then, she arches her back, sticks her belly out and thrusts her sacrum backwards in a circular motion.

"Hippopotamus," someone responds.

If a less coordinated adult attempted to mimic Newsha's moves, the effect would likely be farcical. As a trained dancer, her movements are full of beauty, even while impersonating a decidedly graceless animal. But this hippo dance is the full extent of what Newsha allows her friends to see of her talent. When asked about the possibility of seeing her on stage, she just looks down and bows her head, letting the curls of her waist-length hair hide her face. "Dance is just such a taboo here," she says apologetically. "I wouldn't want to compromise anybody."

Though contradictory to the nature of her work, Newsha considers reticence a necessary defense mechanism. As a ballerina in Iran, she fights with social conventions on a daily basis. While visual art, and, to a lesser extent, music, have won some liberties in recent years, dance remains marginalized by the restrictions of the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance -- especially if performed by females. Education is nonexistent, and opportunities to perform on stage are extremely rare. To survive as a dancer, Newsha finds ways to work within the narrow margins of what is legal here.

"We have so many limitations here, the things that we perform on stage are not really dance," she says. "You feel so constrained -- sometimes I feel like I am being choked."
Dance was always Newsha's primary passion, but pursuing it as a profession has been a struggle. She has learned mostly from her mother, who worked as a ballerina and folk dancer in pre-revolutionary times. Because there is nothing akin to a performing arts degree at Iranian fine arts schools, Newsha earned a degree in visual arts from the Ferdowsi University of Mashhad. "Before the revolution, we had ballet, folk, everything. Now we are so backwards," she says.

The fact that Newsha finds space to perform publicly at all is in itself an improvement over past decades, when dancing was deemed strictly immoral and banned. These days, Newsha is able to work with small theaters in Tehran, which occasionally allows her to dance on stage. After years of collaborating with a local company, she recently agreed to choreograph an upcoming performance, and now finds herself reinterpreting definitions. Female dancers are prohibited in theater, since it's performed for mixed-gender audiences. Instead, artists like Newsha engage in something called "harmonized movement" -- pantomimes and minimalistic routines stripped of sexual undertones. "There's no fluidity in it -- it's basically just poses," Newsha explains. "Any movement that's feminine has to be cut, because it's sensual. It would actually make people want to watch."

As a performer, Newsha had been accustomed to certain rules. Veiling her ears, neck and hair, concealing the contours of her figure, and avoiding close contact with male dancers have all been a routine part of stage discipline. Now, as a choreographer, Newsha has the additional responsibility of doctoring each movement to make sure it gets past ministry censors. "I have to consider the performer as an actor, not a dancer," she says. "You really have to think about what you can do, how you can express yourself so they don't censor it before you can go on stage."

While all theaters in Iran are subject to scrutiny by the culture ministry, performances that include dance -- or "harmonized movement" -- receive additional screening. When the choreography is complete, a special task force views the performance and recommends "cuts" to certain movements before approving it for the stage. Later, a different group of officials gauges the play's Islamic values before rubber-stamping it for public viewing.
The effects of such restrictions are sometimes perverse. Weary of self-censorship, many choreographers choose males to perform sensuous adagios rather than work with female dancers. "Boys can do more than girls, and because of that, Iranian choreographers choose them more. I know so many all-male groups," Newsha says. "But for women, anything that gets attention is forbidden."

Aside from her work with theaters, Newsha sporadically finds opportunities to dance more liberally for female-only audiences, which she admits it's "better than nothing." Ultimately, she would welcome an opportunity to dance professionally in Europe, but says her informal education, as well as a lack of exposure to modern techniques, places her at a comparative disadvantage to dancers from other countries. "I love to perform, but there are so few opportunities here. For me, it's not satisfying," she says.

Increasingly, Newsha finds fulfillment in teaching children's ballet and adult folk dancing. To her, dance as a human need is conspicuously absent in Iran. "Of course everyone dances privately at parties, but publicly, it's still forbidden," she says. "We are so rich in folkloric dances, but many Iranians don't know about it because they're taught that dancing is haraam. People become depressed and start having problems with movements and energy, because they cannot express it."

To test this theory, Newsha once conducted a two-year research project. In an attempt to discover the psychological effects of dance, she asked her children's class to paint pictures before and after their ballet lesson. "In the beginning, they would draw still figures, but after two years, they understand that the body has potential, ability. You can tell that the child is feeling movement and that it gives him or her a different view of life," she says.

It was Newsha's way of legitimizing her commitment to a beleaguered art form. "My question was, is dance necessary? And the answer is yes."

Photo by zed bazi-t via Flickr. Germany

Copyright © 2011 Tehran Bureau

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