NATIONAL/ETHNIC IDENTITY: Silk Road, Central Asia ARTISTIC DIRECTOR: Sharlyn Sawyer First Appearance in SF EDF: 1986 Website: dancesilkroad.org
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.
DANCE ORIGIN: Persia/Iran GENRE: Contemporary Persian/Eurasian TITLE: The Persepolis Project ARTISTIC DIRECTOR: Sharlyn Sawyer 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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.