Taking Persian Dance Mainstream

Photo by Sallie Deette Mackie”He's gone far beyond me as a choreographer,” Avaz International Dance Theater founder Dr. Anthony Shay says of choreographer Jamal, as the music roars and we watch a group of costumed zebras flick their triangular masks from side to side.

It's true: though iconoclastic, Jamal, IDT's energetic artistic director, uses space in his dances like a painter or an architect. He trained in both fields, and it shows: the pack of zebras moves across the stage like a defiant brush stroke. The groupings of the king, his harpist slave, and the tribe of zebras act like the building blocks of an image, defining boundaries.

Originally founded in 1977 by Shay (who is still founding artistic director), Avaz Dance Theater began as a folk dance troupe, focusing on traditional dances from the Baltic States and the Middle East. Yet over the years—especially since the single-named Jamal joined in 1990—it's turned away from strictly folk dance toward narrative and modern movement. Recent works include a Sufi piece and a piece inspired by Sept. 11.

Jamal's latest work, Golden Mask of Guran, which we're watching, brings Persian dance to an even wider audience.

“I wanted to reach out to the non-Iranian community, to attract them to my work, so the work has a Western approach to it, with original costumes,” he says later, explaining that the unifying factor is one that unites all Persians: poetry.

Guran, the story of Sasanian hunter-king Bahram-e Gur (A.D. 420-438), comes from pre-Islamic literature. It tells of a king renowned for killing two lions with one spear, and also for hunting with his lovely Roman slave girl, the harpist Azadeh, who rode behind him on his camel—until the day she complained about him killing all the animals and he had her thrown from the back of the camel and trampled to death.

Jamal's version—inspired by Omar Khayyam's quatrain and Firdawsi's written history of Persia from A.D. 1010—overlooks some of the king's more horrendous qualities, but it still presents Azadeh as an animal rights activist. It's the PG story of the mythical Golden Gur (Golden Zebra), who gives Azadeh a mask that enables her to see all of the zebras. The king seizes the mask in order to hunt down the Golden Gur, and mayhem ensues.

Jamal's experiments with dance mix authenticity and cultural collusion with its traditional role of social critique. His background in architecture and painting, his former Eastern European girlfriend, and his childhood in Iran create a terroirof sorts in terms of movement. As a result, the dance has folk, modern, and very traditional Persian elements. Set to original music by Ahmad Pejman, a well-known Tehran-based soundtrack composer, the harpist slave Azadeh uses very traditional stylized hand movements to accent her dance—which are created by rotating the wrist and layering the hands in front of the face. Meanwhile, the dying lions engage in something very tribal, pumping the sky with their fists—pharaoh-like—and somersaulting backward to exit the stage after they are pierced by the king's spear.

As the twenty-some African-American, Persian, Latino and Caucasian members of the group—”the UN of dance,” as Jamal calls it—rehearse, they seem intent, serious, and deeply cultural. Some wear Jamal's costumes: shimmering drapes of zebra print, garments with deep pleated strips that whirl out from the body; others hold up the wide pointy masks of the zebra. And as Avaz re-enacts this fable of the hunt, it has shards of the exotic, but more important, the rawness of humanity.


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