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'The Persian Cry' and the Burden of Rebellion

by ARTS CORRESPONDENT in Paris, Tehran Bureau

Artistic expression versus the need to inveigh against oppression.
[ dance ] On October 23, the young Iranian dancer Afshin Ghaffarian celebrated the first anniversary of his freedom with his inaugural French production at the Centre National de la Danse in Pantin. He departed Iran exactly a year ago, leaving behind a personal and political nightmare -- as with all other artists in his medium, he did not have the official right to dance in his own country.

Ghaffarian, a noted figure in Tehran's underground contemporary dance scene, along with Atefeh Tehrani. While Tehrani continues to work in Iran, trying to negotiate the government's restrictions, Ghaffarian decided to settle in France. The story of his journey from Tehran to Paris is quite remarkable, and it could not have been accomplished without the help of Sharrokh Moshkin Ghalam, another Iranian dancer who now resides in Paris.

Much has been written about Ghaffarian's departure from Iran, so I will offer only a brief sketch of the most important facts: After the Iranian presidential election last year, he was invited to perform in Germany as part of an Iranian theater troupe. This was his first trip abroad and he didn't want to miss the opportunity it afforded. As the performance ended, he staged a protest against the Iranian regime while waving a green tissue. The scandal that erupted effectively prevented his return to Iran, where he risks arrest and torture. Moshkin Ghalam, with whom Afshin was regularly in touch from Tehran, came to Germany and brought him to France. He contacted leading journalists and told them about Ghaffarian's dilemma. The story of his life attracted widespread attention from the French media and the government accepted his request for political asylum a few months after his arrival.

It is interesting to observe how the French media covered his life. An Iranian dancer enmeshed in politics brought back memories of Nureyev and Baryshnikov who, a few decades ago, left the Soviet Union in similar circumstances. The brilliant and charismatic Ghaffarian, who has a surprising command of French, introduces himself as an artist who uses dance as a weapon for democracy and freedom, and constantly reminds us that his art is political.

But shouldn't artists leave political slogans behind and reach for soulful artistic expression, following personal intuitions and inner aspirations? I often feel that Ghaffarian's political views overshadow his artistic abilities. Meanwhile, he knows that he must move beyond his rebellion. He is aware that metaphors are more powerful than overt political references that can sound like propaganda, and I wondered if his first French dance production would herald a new artistic orientation.

In my last essay about dance in Iran, "Dancing with Othello," I explored the connections between dance and its political context, and I offered the fleeting vision of an emancipated body that could dance freely, without fear of constraint or censorship. This new dance project offered me a chance to pursue my investigations: How does an Iranian dancer dance once he has the right to dance? Will his approach to performance stop being politicized in the way it has been? In other words, after years of fighting a totalitarian regime and crafting a physical language that expresses protest, how can a dancer express freedom once he has the opportunity?

Tehrani and Ghaffarian have both followed the path of Polish theater director Jerzy Grotowski, who conceived a new physical language liberated from Judeo-Christian conceptions of the body: The actor surrenders his ego and offers instead the absolute nudity of his soul. In Grotowski's theater, the insistence on freedom through an intimate physicality was also considered a rebellion against communist censorship.

Inspired by Grotowski, Tehrani and Ghaffarian imagined an Iranian performance mode that would combine theatrical attitudes and dance movements. But their body languages are very different: Tehrani's style is heavy, with feet stamping the ground and hands slapping the body, while Ghaffarian's appears both extremely light and painful. It is no easy matter to categorize his idiosyncratic style because his movement vocabulary does not derive from the formal syntax and its effect is unlike that of either classical or modern Western dance. Elements such as spinning evoke Sufi and some Persian traditional dances, while at other moments his work seems related to American performance art. In sum, there is probably no more accurate term than simply "contemporary" to describe his personal blend.

Full of grace, on stage Ghaffarian's supple and fragile body repeatedly collapses, as if it were the victim of unbearable tortures or traumatic visions. He collapses as he walks, he collapses as he spins, he collapses as he runs -- his persistent falls express uncertainty and fear. His expressionist patterns of movement are fragmented, with sequences of screams and spasms. His seemingly battered body conveys cramps and pain. The broken movements of his limbs make us reflect on human suffering. Strangely, his unstable body appears as light as a feather. Even though he falls with all his weight, he maintains an astonishing degree of control. Lost in the whirl of his chaotic movements, he appears like a wandering faun eternally falling and rising, as if nothing can ultimately thwart his desire to be free.

Ghaffarian also uses color, especially green, color of Iran's democratic movement, and red, color of blood and martyrdom. He splashes colors on his breast and beats it loudly. These artistic gestures have their roots in American avant-garde performances of the 1960s and underscore the political aspects of his dance.

For his new project, The Persian Cry, a dramaturge conceived a plot based on Ghaffarian's idea of a symbolic confrontation with the four elements: earth, water, air, and fire. A narration dealt with autobiographical elements and universal mythology alike: The confrontation with elements symbolized both the birth of mankind and the birth of the dancer as a free individual. The dancer's political allusions were thus metaphorically transformed, and sophisticated set and lighting design brought new dimensions to a poetic vision of a symbolic struggle. But Ghaffarian did not renounce the red pigment on his breast, nor did he forego green lights, nor did he abandon his shouts of rebellion against the rulers of the Islamic Republic.

Despite all his efforts, I realized how difficult it was for him to escape his past. For all his suffering movements set to hypnotic underground electronic music, his graceful falls across the gorgeous set, and his body with its delicate lines beautifully sculpted by light, he failed to transcend certain political attitudes that have become virtual clich├ęs in his work. It was opening night for his new project and his tension might have awakened a survival instinct that brought back old habits. He seemed unable to avoid well-known references, his emotions looked exaggerated, and sadly, he gave short shrift to the poetic aspect of his choreography. One could conclude that, for now, his anger is stronger than anything, and allow that he is only 24 years old and can hardly be expected to restrain or sublimate his need to speak out.

All of this is understandable and I am not dismissing his work, for I believe in his tremendous talent. I am sure that the manner of performance I saw is not set in stone, that he will slowly learn to dance more freely without being haunted by old fears. But there is something else: This seemed to be another piece of evidence that political art is the only artistic expression many Iranians recognize.

So much of what young artists are creating is born from a rejection of Islamist values and government censorship. Afshin Ghaffarian is a child of the Islamic Revolution. He has grown up in a profoundly politicized environment and it will take him time to conceive a dance production that finds an equitable balance between his aesthetic aspirations and his political views. For the moment, this brilliant and ambitious dancer privileges loud protests, as if he hadn't found yet an inner space for free creativity -- one ruled neither by oppression nor the resistance to it, but by intimate reflection, individual authenticity, poetic truth.

Copyright © 2010 Tehran Bureau
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