In Arab and Iranian culture, ‘tarab’ happens when a body is gripped by music, and physical sensation is enhanced. This heightened moment, when the body and music unite, is a door to ecstasy and enchanted sensuality. In TARAB, the third part of a trilogy, Ulduz Ahmadzadeh / ATASH عطش contemporary dance company focus on unexplored, under-represented and in some places forbidden movement material, healing ceremonies and odd rhythmic patterns of Pre-Islamic, Middle Eastern cultural heritage.
The Iranian-Austrian choreographer explores dance and music material that have undergone multiple forms of euro-colonial and Islamic translations, and hence processes of alienation, during which women, from being the primary holders of these cosmologies, got either reduced to sexualised oriental entertainer-dancers or forbidden from practising them all together. TARAB is about the eternal friction between euro-modern knowledge and the ‘Other’/ ‘non-scientific primordial knowledge’ – legends, myth, magic, healing ceremonies, and non-euro-modern cosmologies. Accompanied by the complex rhythms of the virtuoso percussionist Mohammad Reza Mortazavi, seven dancers embody these millennia-old movement materials. TARAB is also ethically, reflexively and humbly imagining possible dialogues between those dance worlds and the contemporary dance language without shying away from the colonial dynamics between the two.
But TARAB is not only a story about displacement and suppression. It is about reviving ancestral memories, ancestral memories forbidden within the Islamic Iranian regime and downplayed by the West. It is about listening to all these Middle Eastern folks who keep reclaiming and dancing them in underground collective circles. The enactment of ancestral memories by dancing bodies is a powerful response and a form of resistance to both the Islamic regime and the ‘coloniality of perception’ (Tlostanova, 2017).
In all three parts of the trilogy, the focus has been placed on women socialised within Islam. In the current TARAB project, research and performance, Ulduz Ahmadzadeh / ATASH عطش contemporary dance company and seven dancers with different ethnic backgrounds delve deep into exploring the role of women in these ancient cosmologies and healing dance ceremonies. Women have lost their position as official community leaders in these shamanistic dance ceremonies. The colonial polarisation of genders, the commodification of female dancers’ bodies, the Euro-modern colonisation of art and aesthetics, and Islam displaced and dehumanised women. However, women in the Middle East and Eurasia have devised unofficial and underground ways to keep dancing and preserve or even develop this dance knowledge. Women’s bodies carry the multiple and messy histories of these dance cosmologies: the pre-Islamic, Islamic and contemporary-resistant to Islamic ones.
So, this time, Ulduz Ahmadzadeh comes with a bold and loud statement: STOP VICTIMISING US and STOP TRYING TO SAVE US or FREE US! We, Middle Eastern, neo-Orientalised women, have always been dancing for our freedom. We have been using dance and other art forms to resist the Iranian Islamic regime!
This effort comes with a great challenge, however. How can dancers unfamiliar with this original raw dance material that travels, as Iranian people say, ‘from breath to breath’ [سینه به سینه], can relate to them, re-imagine and embody them? With which attitude do indigenous people in the Iranian plateau dance? For whom? What do they hear when they dance? Which temperatures do they feel on their skin? What smells surround them? Which senses are stimulated?
In the process of engaging with such dance material, so interwoven in cosmologies alien to the modern subject, for both research and creating a dance piece, ontological and epistemological questions arise: what is a dance made of, and how should it be practised and performed? Who defines and demarcates the borders of the art of dance? What happens if every rehearsal starts with a collective ceremony that aims to lead to a state of trance, and dance ceases to be about the absolute control over the body and instead becomes about collectively breathing and sweating the control out? What happens when professional contemporary dancers are called to engage with cosmologies in which music and dance, dance and community are inseparable? How does it influence the quality, meaning and intention of the movement, the relationship of the dancers’ bodies to the act of dance, and the relationality and intimacy built between the dancers? Can the echo of such a process be transferred to the stage? Can it reach and touch the audience? What is the role of the audience? What happens when dances that are traditionally performed close to nature get to be practised and performed in an artificial confined environment?
The TARAB project crystallises the problem with the Western-modern dance canons according to which contemporary dance exists in its opposition, exclusion and negation of ‘other(ed)’ dances – the ones ‘assigned to an outside of the genealogy of contemporaneity, as an object of classification and exhibition for the ethnographic or the folkloric, or as a commodity for touristic consumption’ (Vázquez, 2020, p. 59). What happens when seven dancers from diverse ethnic backgrounds trained in contemporary dance are called to delve into odd rhythmical patterns for the western-trained ear and raw dance movements? TARAB aims to interrupt the linear colonial dance chronologies of dance that exclude, downplay and exoticise indigenous community dances by creating the space for the dancing bodies to host ancestral memories of movement and become dancing borderlands, enacting in this way a pluriversalisation of dance genealogies.
By doing so, TARAB becomes a sensual, sensorial, relational, processual, ancestral, and creative strategy of resistance to the colonial-modern aesthetic framework that disciplines and regulates the dance sphere and the subjectivities and bodies of dancers who are trained to obey, re-produce and perform them. It is, in other words, a corpo-political response to the colonial capturing of our senses, insofar corpo-politics is the ‘theory in the flesh’ – ‘the one where the physical realities of our lives – our skin colour, the land or concrete we grew up on, our sexual longings – all fuse to create a politic born out of necessity’ (Moraga and Anzaldúa 1981, p. 23), using ‘flesh and blood experiences to concretise a vision that can begin to heal our colonial wound’ (Anzaldúa 1999, p. 3).
The TARAB dance piece takes us on a journey during which dancers and audiences are invited to re-train their senses through raw affectivity, collectivity, listening and remembering. The Colombian artist and decolonial theorist Adolfo Albán Achinte (2017) considers reliving the ancestral sensations – the sounds, the rhythms, the smells, the colours, the tastes, the movements as a necessity and as an effort towards ‘re-existence’. It is not about performing indigenous dance movements or shamanistic healing dance ceremonies; it is not simply resisting but a possibility of re-existing through them – dancing to heal our wounds created by colonial, religious, gendered, racialised forms of Othering.
As this dance piece approaches creatively embodied ancestral memories, the modern technology and different objects will serve to emulate some of the natural movements and sensorial stimulations that are usually present when indigenous communities in the Iranian Plateau practice these dances. The cyclic movement of the sunlight, the wind, the spices, and the rice are all embedded in the staging of this dance piece. The dancing studio and the stage should not be considered static or solidified spaces insofar as they become the nodes connecting the different ‘dancing crossroads’ (Fabián Barba, 2019) and the organic elements with the modern technological digital infrastructures. In that sense, those spaces become vital parts of the enactment of those raw dance materials, the odd rhythmical patterns, and the indigenous cosmologies that are born and live in the Iranian plateau, Middle East and Eurasia.
We are as the flute, and the music in us is from thee;
we are as the mountain and the echo in us is from thee.
We are as pieces of chess engaged in victory and defeat:
our victory and defeat is from thee, O thou whose qualities are comely!
Who are we, O Thou soul of our souls,
that we should remain in being beside thee?
We and our existences are really non-existence;
thou art the absolute Being which manifests the perishable.
We all are lions, but lions on a banner:
because of the wind they are rushing onward from moment to moment.
Their onward rush is visible, and the wind is unseen:
may that which is unseen not fail from us!
Our wind whereby we are moved and our being are of thy gift;
our whole existence is from thy bringing into being.
Rumi (Jalāl al-Dīn Muḥammad Rūmī)
Masnavi Book I, 599–607
Adolfo Albán Achinte (2017). Prácticas creativas de re-existencia basadas en lugar: más allá del arte… el mundo de lo sensible, Ediciones del Signo.
Cherrie Moraga and Gloria Evangelina Anzaldúa, eds. (1981). This Bridge Called My Back, Writ: Writ.
Madina Tlostanova (2017). Postcolonialism and postsocialism in fiction and art: Resistance and re-existence, Springer.
Rolando Vázquez (2020). Vistas of modernity: decolonial aesthesis and the end of the contemporary, Mondriaan Fund Essay 014.
Maria Vlachou is a researcher in gender studies, particularly focusing on the intersections between decolonial feminisms and critical migration studies. Vlachou is a passionate advocate of collective, processual, creative, and slow research that takes as its entry point embodied everyday experiences and memory. Institutional affiliation: Linköping University, Department of Gender Studies, Sweden.