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SASHAR ZARIF

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CA: What's your personal practice, from your first experiences until now? What do you do and how has it changed your creative practice, your dance practice? How do you stay tuned for dancing and performing?

SZPic06SZ: When I was introduced to dance in my grandmother's room, it wasn't a warm-up session or a performance, it was part of her day. There was an introduction, there was breathing space, it became more dramatic, she would add drumming, and storytelling; she would draw the dance in a moving picture.

After I was imprisoned in Iran, for quite a few years I was phobic – I would get scared if someone would play music on a cassette, or dance – because they arrested us for that. It switched off for me. When I came here, I went to the Eastern High School of Commerce. I didn't go to second language school. My mother said, “You are a good student; you have lost three and a half years of study, so go to school.” I said, “But my English … She said, “Take math, take courses that don't require English, subjects you will understand by looking at them.” That's what I did, and after three or four semesters I was at Waterloo, doing engineering – so it was good advice.

When I went to Eastern High School, a school that was mainly Greek with people from Hong Kong, I became a member of the race relations club at the end of the first semester. They said, “You're the spokesman of racial politics.” And I couldn't even speak in English! In the second semester I started a club called the Eastern High School of Commerce Multicultural Arts Society. By the end of that semester I arranged the first multicultural festival. I begged all the teachers to wear a costume. The vice-principal, Mr. Smith, said he didn't have a traditional costume – his father came from Canada, his grandfather too. So I said “Well, where did they come from?” “My grandfather was Scottish,” he said. “There you go!” He found a kilt, and all the teachers came to school wearing costumes. I loved that gesture, for this boy, in his second semester. I would walk down the hall thinking, “This is my home!”

I did three festivals there – I got recognized by the Board of Education with the Trustee's Award, and other awards – and I'd been here for almost two years. That established a feeling of home for me. I felt welcome, I was part of it. Even during engineering school I participated in all the shows. I was teaching the girls to dance, and using curtains to sew costumes late at night which got me into trouble with my landlady. But I had no other choice.

In early 2000 I sat down and reviewed my life. I wanted to know what was important to me – there were so many things in my life I had left incomplete or half-finished, but never dancing. I always went to classes, finished my dance work – always. So I knew that this was something I could do.

During my training in Azerbaijan in 1993, my teacher was eighty years old – he was one of the best students of an Azerbaijani master of dance. The teachers came from a Sufi lineage – though in the Soviet Union they couldn't talk about it, they were underground. In the dance classes, he used a lot of life examples to explain technique. He would say – “If you see a beautiful girl, would you look at her like this?” The same for posture: “If you broke something at home and your father comes in, how would you look?” He always explained this way. The dance is embodiment of eagle and deer. When the drum starts, the blood rushes. Nobody warmed up; you could always just jump in. As long as the drum moves, you're on.

For years I was fine doing that. Dancing two-hour shows, dragging luggage around Europe. I pulled it off, no problem, until my late thirties. When I started teaching my courses at York, “Introduction to World Dance Practices”, I was okay. When I started working more with dance majors, teaching “Canadian Dance Mosaic” then I had to teach more consciously, with counts, to really explain it. I wasn't going where I was supposed to mentally with the dance – and then I started with my first injuries.

It's a different way of warming up – as if the bus is leaving and you have to catch it, you run, and you won't have a backache. Or running to catch a little kid, because they're in trouble. But if I tell you to run for nothing, then you'll hurt. Something has to intrigue your body, to warm it up – I'm sure it's physical. We connect to Azerbaijani rhythm when it's being played. Even now, with my non-Azerbaijani students, in all those classes, as soon as I play that rhythm, they get excited; something happens, and everybody reacts. And almost every single student I have loves the rhythm.

SZPic12

CA: In your training, was imitation the mode of instruction?

SZ: Yes, I learned from my grandmother. In Azerbaijan, they never explained; the teacher danced in front of us, we had to follow – if you had a problem, one of the kids would help. I had a five-year-old sitting in my class – she would come in early since her father was a musician in my class. She knew all the male dances. That is something that is missing from life now; we had the urge to stand on each other's shoulders to peek in the big studio when some of these great dancers were dancing. Then we would sit down and discuss, for hours, how they danced – we learned that way, by peeking. They would explain when it was crucial – but not until the end of the term. My teacher never told me that anything was good. He always said, “Not bad”. But I could tell, in his eyes, if it was good, or excellent, or not so good. He told me once, “Everyone thinks I'm a horrible man because I don't say, 'You're so good, you're a star in the universe'. I say 'Not bad' all the time. And I believe it's not bad, for who you can really be. You can always be much better.”

SZPic08I'm much more moderate now – I don't think one way is better than another – I think that the beauty of cultures coming together is to arrive to a more complete form, to benefit from both, not replace one with the other. We need to recognize both. We need stretches; we also need embodiment, to relate to dance on a different level.

I am at a very lonely place in dance. I don't have a dance family. I'm kind of an orphan. The dance in circulation in Azerbaijan, in Soviet countries, that has survived has become academic and has lost its essence because of communism. It has deteriorated and is in danger of being lost forever. It's horrible. No one comes to class, and the teachers don't care much. The dance has become strange, has lost its connection. You don't have to explain your roots on your forehead – but you have to have some kind of mature base that you're growing from. During the time of the last king in Iran, they brought in a ballet master and he went to the villages. He put a group together and that became the country's dance company. There was never a school of dance, really. For “Persian” dance, lots of people put flamenco movement with Persian music, or incorporated ballet movement, in the same way as people adopt fashion from Western magazines, in order to appear more Western.

In my professional practice, along with starting my MA, I started questioning why Eastern cultures are separate. Central and Western Asian cultures used to be one big empire and have a lot in common. They share a musical system, poetry, Sufi shamanic beliefs, and schools of Sufism. It's all interrelated and it doesn't matter whether one of them is Indo-European, one of them oriental or whether the language base is Turkish or Persian – they have so much in common when it comes to poetry and classical music and calligraphy, which is very important.

This happened at the Fishbowl (a former dance studio at Goldfarb Centre for the Arts, York University). I was writing this word in calligraphy – the name of the wine dealer in Persian – Saghi. She is the wine dealer in all the mystical poetry. She wanted the knowledge, so she brings wine to the mystics – she decides who drinks what. I was writing the name, in large letters so the students could see the name of the character.

As I was writing I realized … “I'm moving – this is movement!” I had always thought I had no reference for Muslims before – but I do. Calligraphy is a cultural movement. Then I started to think about calligraphy as reference to cultural movement, and the Sufi shamanic movements from all different regions. Bring them together, analyse and record the way they relate to gravity – the way they use space, the quality of the movement, why they use the arms so much. It's interesting, initiation of movement from the arms – it's so particular and so stereotypical.

When I did the research, I found that the classical music has beautiful, complex structure and the poetry has rhythmic structure. The poetry has 123 different rhythms. The content was communicated in Sufi shamanic practices through poetic metaphors, and set to these meters – to give them a heartbeat, to bring them alive, so people can memorize them and they can be transferred. Then the melody will bring inspiration, show a vision of that content. And the dance will let the monks practice that content … surrender and letting go. To let the knee joints go, to have a short freefall and continue – over and over – to experience surrender.

I realized that this is a trio ensemble - music, dance and poetry – and they all work in time – a time arts trio. Dance is so important because dance places time in this ensemble.

The name of this practice – which is also the name of the music style, is Mugham, which means “place”. It can be the place of the notes, the time of day or evening, the beginning of an engagement. I started to use the structure of the music, knowing I might have to change the musical structure because it evolved without the dance, so can't totally accommodate it. Then the rhythm and content, and connecting the form and content, and understanding the technique in the dance, and what the content relates to psychologically. (next page)

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