Mahsa Ghafari on Force Majeure by Ulduz Ahmadzadeh

When a woman has no choice but to resist

Street noises, car horns, rallying cries and applause mixed with ominous sounds echo from the loudspeakers as three female performers walk purposefully on stage. They stop abruptly, as if held up by something invisible which they immediately confront in a fighting stance. They march in disorder with increasing speed, embodying determination and building an atmosphere of resistance. The transition to a ‘raghse khanjar’, an archaic ritual dance from Turkmenistan which traditionally may only be danced by men, is fluid. With steadfast looks, the performers provide the accompanying soundtrack by reciting texts vociferously in different languages. Goosebumps start to prickle as soon as they form a circle in a culmination of determination and take an oath while dancing. The sound of a gun being loaded and shots in the background create a confrontation with mortal danger.

Three strips of light demarcate confined prison cells and walls to symbolically run against. The trapped bodies start to vibrate as if perfused with a ‘higher power’ (‘force majeure’). With increasing intensity, as if they were being moved, and despairingly, as if they were not allowed to move. A somewhat uncanny transformation is taking place. One of the dancers, Cristina Sandino, nearly vomits in her cell and turns into an enormously powerful, wild being that replaces despair with unconditional resistance once and for all.

In the next scene, her colleague, Desi Bonato, has swapped her clothes for a corset made of thin strips of reinforcing steel that resembles a breastplate and develops a life of its own. According to costume and stage designer Till Krappmann, it represents both a protective framework providing support as well as the bars of a prison. It chokes the dancer at times and becomes a headdress at others, pulling her backwards. Bonato fights against it, works her way through again and again and appropriates the breastplate, moves with absolute elegance and twists her body, puts the corset down and seems to envelop it with her whole body for a moment as she sits in front of it with her legs apart like a woman giving birth. But then she crawls back into it again head first. Like in a cycle, she takes everything along and passes everything on, her fighting spirit, her convictions, her despair, her passion, her elegance, her trauma.

On the left third of the stage, two of the dancers walk slowly around a large, filigree iron structure resembling a merry-go-round. A milky, cloudy block of ice, a human head made of ice and a frozen heap of plants are positioned on the three ‘seats’. The dancers set the construction in motion with weights that have to be re-hung over and over again in an effort of Sisyphean proportions. A reverent mood can now be felt throughout the room, like a delicately woven web that registers everything receptively and strives for balance through resistance.

Cut. The three women are standing close together again; they embody solidarity, help each other stand upright, carry each other, pull each other away, turn into prison guards. Magdalena Chowaniec’s naked body appears to be numb and spiritless in their midst. The other two help themselves to her skin, her flesh in an increasingly interfering manner, and try to break her dignity and spirit by violating every physical boundary.

The combination of subtlety and ruthlessness in this scenic allusion only hints at the enormous scale of physical and sexual violence in prisons.

From offstage, information is provided about the first executions of women in Iran, and the voices of bereaved children can be heard as well as their mothers’ words from letters, recited by Emma Wiederhold: “So promise me to walk the streets that I used to love walking. Through fallen leaves under the trees and enjoy it, for me too. Laughter, contentment and the future, indeed life belongs to us. We want to dance in the streets. You will one day dance in the streets. It’s not an easy goal in a country where certain people like to ride on the shoulders of others.”

The child’s voice asks if it hurts to act ethically, making us ponder the lengths some people go to in their struggle.

Cristina sings a Spanish song, “Duerme, duerme … Mama va trabajar”. Her voice gradually peters out and she quietly falls to the ground, the other two ‘prisoners’ go to her and sit down next to her contorting body, hold her arms, press her body down, trying to stop her convulsions. For a few seconds, she dies Neda Agha-Soltan’s death[1], and the image of her wide-open eyes and her face covered in blood, burned into the collective memory of the Iranian people, comes to mind.

The three women go to the metal structure that strives for balance. They wash their faces with the water that has melted off the ice head, the milk that has trickled away and the water of the plants that have emerged from the ice. It seems like a healing, fortifying ritual that pays respect to the sacrifices made in order to then move on to the next fight. “You cannot save all the drowning children”, the child’s voice says. “You have to find someone who is going to stop the person that is throwing the children [into the river].”[2]

In Force Majeure, choreographer Ulduz Ahmadzadeh shows us the internal state of a resistant and imprisoned body. The three dancers convey concepts such as fear, trauma, resilience, ethics and ‘higher power’ directly, discernibly and, above all, tangibly. Collected by Ahmadzadeh and her dramaturge Johanna Figl in extensive research, the spoken texts played back during the piece serve to reinforce the anxiety that arises despite the performance being mediated through video. The point isn’t to provide answers to the most difficult questions, the piece isn’t even about the big questions as such but rather about depicting how these situations are being experienced: the inner turmoil, the struggles chosen and those that a woman has no choice but to fight in her search for a balance that may serve as an objective foundation for the concept of justice. Ahmadzadeh shows what these struggles do to our inner self, as well as their somatic aspect. “We make our collective trauma visible in order to transform”, says Ulduz Ahmadzadeh.

[1] Iranian national Neda Agha-Soltan was shot at a demonstration in Teheran in 2009. The video of her death went round the world and was one of the triggers of the major protests also known as the ‘Green Movement’.
[2] “Imagine seeing a child, who cannot swim, drown in a river. Of course, you jump in to rescue them and you will do so over and over again. But at some point, you will see that there are so many children that you cannot save them all. So you have to find out who is throwing them in and stop that person.” Quote from a Bahá’í who was imprisoned in Iran for five years, after Marshall B. Rosenberg, the founder of nonviolent communication, as quoted in Force Majeure.

Mahsa Ghafari is a human rights activist and an actress. Starting in her student years (International Development) she was involved in several civil society initiatives for social justice and against racist and gender-specific discrimination. Among  other projects, she co-founded the association Flucht nach Vorn, which was awarded the Ute Bock Prize for Civic Courage in 2015. Together with fellow campaigners, she appealed to the public to join the Global Women’s Strike in 2017 and has participated in numerous political discussions in recent years.