World Arts West
SF Ethnic Dance Festival


Ballet Afsaneh Art & Culture Society

First Appearance in SF EDF: 1986

Founded in 1986 by Sharlyn Sawyer, Ballet Afsaneh melds ancient art forms with modern dance and theater using an imagistic approach ranging from glittering fairytale to cutting edge, thought-provoking work. The company’s reputation for artistic innovation is informed by a traditional repertory including folkloric and classical art forms of Iran, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Armenia, Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan, China and India. Ballet Afsaneh seeks to promote positive visibility, by drawing on cultural heritage in the creation of artwork that resonates with universal ideas.


GENRE: Contemporary Persian/Eurasian
TITLE: The Persepolis Project
CHOREOGRAPHERS: Aisan Hoss, Sharlyn Sawyer
COMPOSERS: Neema Hekmat, Diana Rowan, Moses Sedler
DANCERS: Caroline Hamel, Aisan Hoss, Robin Nasatir, Neela Reed, Marta Serra-Marti, Jennifer Smith, Annie Spirka, Oona Wong-Danders
MUSICIANS: Sonja Drakulich (vocals), Neema Hekmat (santur), Diana Rowan (harp), Moses Sedler (cello), Katrina Wreede (viola), Sarah Jo Zaharako (violin)
RECITATION: Leila Aliyari, Eve Bradford


From the Iranian diaspora, Ballet Afsaneh stages The Persepolis Project, a premiere performance honoring ancient beliefs of Persia and Eurasia. It is offered for the well-being of humanity and our fragile ecosystem.

Around 8,000 BCE, Persia’s early societies had a sophisticated relationship with the land, which was developed in the centuries that followed by the prophet Zoroaster, who codified the human relationship to nature and called it Mithraism. At the heart of this cosmology was the importance of balance, and the desire of human beings to live with compassion for others and for the Earth. These concepts traveled from Central Asia/Persia into European thought, as reverence for cycles of nature; the eternal struggle between light and dark forces, both in the greater universe and within humanity; between truth and chaos, hope and despair, and the connections between the material and spiritual planes.

The dance choreography is grounded yet ethereal, reflecting both an earthbound and mystical point of view. It begins with a soloist alone in the vast universe, a mote of stardust, the originating universal spark. Then the dancers symbolize matter coalescing: the universe takes shape as galaxies, stars, and planets, the cells and strands of life. Next arrive chaos and destruction, the struggle between the light and dark forces in the universe, in Earth’s environment, in every human soul. The next section is based on Bani Adam, a 13th century Persian poem by Sa’adi engraved at the entrance to the United Nations, that emphasizes the interdependence of all people—comparing all of humanity to a single tree where if one member is afflicted with pain, all members will suffer.

Artistic Director Sharlyn Sawyer researched background for this dance with teachers in remote areas of Central Asia. She developed the choreography with Assistant Director Aisan Hoss, using traditional and contemporary vocabularies. She says, “When we began this trajectory in the early 2000s, we had no idea this theme would be so relevant today. The ancient Persian relationship with nature, this yearning to live in harmony, has long been an element in our work.”

This piece was made possible, in part, by the Creative Work Fund.


AfsanehTITLE: Roya (The Dream)
GENRES: Nouveau Classical, Folkloric
CHOREOGRAPHERS: Miriam Peretz, Sharlyn Sawyer
DANCERS: Claire Ajideh, Farima Berenji, Emelie K. Coleman, Mariam Gaibova, Nina Gonzales-Silas, Rachel Greer, Juliana Hebenstreit, Sage LaCroix, Masha Loukianenko, Lina Nazar, Miriam Peretz, Lucia Riera, Hannah Romanowsky, Leila Sadeghi, Kristen Sague, Roz Samimi, Chantal Schoenherz, Marta Serra Marti, Manami Takashina, Lisa Tilton, Carolyn Uno, Parousha Zand
Sonja Drakulich (vocals), Mehran Ebrahimi (daf, dahol), Mohammad Ebrahimi (doumbek, sorna), Neema Hekmat (santur), Pourya Khademi (violin), Moses Sedler (cello)

Rest yourselves, while I tell you a story about our people . . .

Roya−The Dream, is a celebration of Persian dance. The performance begins with Qashqa’i—a traditional dance of celebration from the nomadic Turkic Qashqa’i of Southwestern Iran. The essence of this dance is participation: it is a unified dance with simple steps. One of the women begins to tell an Afsaneh, a familiar and beloved legend from ancient times, a shared dream-like reverie. In a Persian art dance/nouveau classical choreography, a scarf becomes the wind-lofted dome of the heavens, and candle flames recall Zoroastrianism’s eternal fire. Magical figures appear, with fairy-like pari, soloist Mariam Gaibova performs the dance of the peacock−Raqse Tavus, and Miriam Peretz performs a solo to haunting music, “Chahar Mezrab”. The Afsaneh story is centuries old, but the dance genre originated in Iran in the 1960s, inspired by images and iconography from Persian decorative art, medieval paintings, and classical literature.

The dancers’ colorful skirts are everyday Qashqa’i wear: they liven up Iran’s landscape as women herd animals and perform daily tasks. For Qashqa’i, a strident sorna horn and dahol bass drum chase away malevolent forces: with a volume set for Qashqa’i outdoor celebrations. The Afsaneh section is danced to delicate and ethereal music from Persian classical tradition, hundreds of years old.

For this performance, Roya−The Dream comes full circle. In 1994, the Festival commissioned a work from Ballet Afsaneh showing the full diversity of dance in the Bay Area Iranian American diaspora communities. The stunning suite has since traveled the world as a jewel in Ballet Afsaneh’s repertoire, ever-evolving in collaboration with dancers, ethnographers, musicians, and members of the Persian and Central Asian community in the U.S. and Central Asia.


Title: Parwaz (Fly Free)
Miriam Peretz, Sharlyn Sawyer
Farima Berenji, Emelie Karen Coleman,
Shideh Dashti, Ayesha Anne Hasan, Lina Nazar,
Miriam Peretz, Rebecca Prather, Jade Rabyn, Nooshin Razani, Hannah Romanowsky,
Leila Sadeghi, Kristen Sague, Roz Samimi, Kirra Swenerton, Lisa Tilton, Carolyn Uno, Parousha Zand
Salar Nader (tabla/dahol), Homayun Sakhi (rubab)  

Ballet Afsaneh honors the beauty and dignity of Afghan culture in this uplifting suite of Afghan dances. This presentation also celebrates the strength of Afghan women. A sampling of women’s dances for happy occasions, the suite finishes with the national dance: Attan. The performance is unusual, as Afghan dance is rarely staged for theater, and women rarely perform dance publicly in these conservative times. The choreography incorporates vocabulary representing the diversity of the Afghan people, with elements from Pahstun, Tajik, Hazzara, Uzbek, and various nomadic groups. The ending Attan also includes some turns and athletic movements more often reserved for men.  

Because Afghanistan has long been situated at the crossroads of empires, its music and dance is interwoven with elements from many regions and peoples of Eurasia—from Persian, Indian, Greek, Chinese, Arabic, and Turkic travelers along the Silk Road. Now, from valley to valley, the art and dance forms of Afghanistan are as diverse as its people.

Some movements are related to devotional whirling dances of southwest and central Asia, where dance and music evoke a state of “mast” or spiritual intoxication. Attan, a popular dance at community gatherings, sometimes includes dance circles of more than a hundred people. Some styles use clapping; others use scarves to accentuate spins; others reverse direction while spinning. Various forms of this dance were originally developed as Pashtun tribal war dances.

The embroidered dresses, some weighing up to thirty-five pounds, represent designs from many regions of Afghanistan. The style is everyday wear for rural nomadic (kuchi) groups, but those most heavily decorated are worn for special occasions. Embroidered, mirrored, and beaded motifs honor nature and give protection from malignant forces.

Afghan music shares links to Iran, North India, Pakistan, and other Central Asian countries such as Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. In this performance, Kabul-born Homayun Sakhi, outstanding Afghan rubâb player of his generation, plays the twelve-stringed, lute-like rubâb. Salar Nader plays tabla. Salar is a disciple of world-renowned tabla master Zakir Hussein.


TITLE OF PIECE: Safar-e Zamaan (Time’s Journey)
DANCE ORIGIN: Tajikistan
GENRE: Traditional (Kolyabi & Badakshani)
Sharlyn Swayer, Aliah Najmabadi
DANCERS: Renata Andrade, Wan-Chao Chang, Viviana Diaz, Jessica Ezra, Sahar Hojat, Jade Itiene, Claire Kimmel, Liza Matlack, Shadan Mirabedi, Aliah Najmabadi, Tara Pandeya, Miriam Peretz, Rosa, Rojas, Hannah Romanovsky, Parousha Zand

The smallest nation in Central Asia, Tajikistan is a rugged landlocked country spread with vast steppes sheltered by snow-covered mountains looming 10,000 feet above sea level. The name “Tajik” comes from the word taj, meaning “crown” and refers to the crests of the Pamir mountain range that dominates the southeastern portion of the country. Continuously inhabited since 4,000 BCE, Tajikistan has been ruled by various empires, most dominantly the Persian Empire, and later the Russian Empire.

Evidence of Tajik performing arts is found on ancient rock petroglyphs and medieval wall paintings. Due to its geographic location along the Silk Road, Tajikistan performing arts have had a myriad of influences and in turn have influenced other dance traditions from the Mediterranean to South Asia. Some consider the Silk Road as the precursor to globalization – a phenomenon as influential as the Internet for transmitting culture and ideas.

Dance in the mountain regions of Tajikistan retains a vital link with spirituality. Danced at births, weddings, funerals and seasonal holidays such as spring, harvest, equinox and the New Year, dances are connected to domestic life and religious rituals. Many movements refer to forces of nature and the geometric iconography of the cosmos. Since Tajikistan’s independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, Tajik heritage is actively being reclaimed through the performing arts. One outcome of this process is the Tajik Dance Initiative, an ongoing cultural exchange program between Ballet Afsaneh and local Tajik artists and scholars to preserve and develop the performing arts in the remote Pamir Mountain region.

Ballet Afsaneh’s dance Safar-e Zamaan – Time’s Journey, evolved directly out of the Tajik Dance Initiative. Synthesizing traditional and contemporary elements, the dance derives inspiration from the Kolyabi and Badakshani, two distinct tribes living on either side of the Pamir Mountains. The robust Kolyabi dancers are depicted in bold red costumes embroidered with iconographic motifs, while the sublime Pamiri dancers are dressed in white to evoke the purity of the snow-covered mountainous peaks – a symbol of the human spirit reaching towards the heavens. Safar-e Zamaan pays tribute to the dynamic creativity and spiritual heritage that has enabled Tajik dance to meet the challenges of changing times.

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