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  • Writer's pictureJen Norris

Review: Parya Saberi’s ‘Dancing with Hafez,’ September 16 & 17, 2023, Dance Mission, San Francisco

Updated: Sep 20, 2023

Parya Saberi’s Dancing with Hafez is an evening which I wish I could gift to many people. Saberi serves as Dancing with Halfez’s director, producer, choreographer and lead dancer. An immigrant from Iran with a background in classical Iranian and folkloric dance, experience as part of a mambo company in New York and a belly dance community in the Bay Area. Drawing from this rich tapestry of influences she has created an impactful compilation of performance installations in tribute to the women of Iran.

Art is meant to transcend cultural and language barriers, and Saberi’s offerings do so extraordinarily well. The seven sections unfold in different areas of the Dance Mission complex. Three different studio spaces, as well as the theater, are put to use. The audience moves as a unit from one space to the next, allowing Saberi and her collaborators to create specific stage environments and providing the audience much greater proximity to the performers.

Saberi was inspired by the poetry of 14th Century Iranian poet Hafez. Poetry assigned to each performance segment is included in the printed program in Persian and English. Per Saberi, “these verses have the theme of ‘garden’ both as a nod to the importance of gardens in Iranian Architecture and design, and because gardens are a metaphor for this world where one enters through one route and exits the next – as Hafez says.”

Artwork by Kimiya Salehi streams up the stair at Dance Mission part of Dancing with Hafez installation. Photo: J. Norris

As the sun set through the windows of the mirror-lined front studio, the audience, made up primarily of folks of Iranian descent, surrounds a corner of open floor. Some perch on the floor, others in chairs and many more stand shoulder-to-shoulder for ‘Garden of Mirrors.’ Saberi embodies Ahmad Shamlou’s verse “I place a mirror in front of your mirror.”

Surrounded by five women in black, Saberi in red sits, head bowed. Her finger cymbals sound like bells creating a polyrhythm with the goblet-shaped Tombak drum. In a dance drawing heavily from belly dance, Saberi rises to her knees; her body ripples, her head shifts back and forth.

Saberi spins like a dervish for a moment before approaching the women in black sequentially. They are a group whose overall disposition could be characterized as disapproving. The first woman brushes exaggerated red blush onto Saberi’s cheeks. The second adds roughly drawn red lipstick. The third shoves breast pads into Saberi’s top. The fourth adds a long blond wig. The fifth shoves Saberi roughly and then struggles to tie a kitchen apron around her waist as, undeterred, her cymbals keep beat and her hips swirl sensually. The black-clothed matrons overload Saberi’s arms with kitchen gadgetry, bowls, utensils, appliances, until she collapses under the weight. Satisfied that she has been put in her place, a grey drape is thrown over her huddled figure.

Moving to the theater, we experience a dance dedicated to the women and men who lost their lives fighting for freedom of the women of Iran in the 2022 Women Life Freedom uprising. Dancers Shahrzad Khorsandi, Aisan Hoss and Aliah Najmabadi created their performances after studying video of real-life fallen heroes Khodanour Lajai, Hadis Najafi, and Nika Shakarami. Elements of Iranian folkdance are present in the posture of the first soloist, who performs tight pivoting spins with one armed nested behind their back and the other raised in arcing triumph. The second soloist is clearly in distress. Her flirty dance quickly turning nightmarish, as she protects herself, arms flung across her chest. Contracting around her gut, rending her clothes, her spinning now has a disturbing sloppiness.

During bows, the cast of Dancing with Hafez invites members of the audience to join their dance. Photo: J. Norris

“Moonlight Garden” is a lyrical quartet performed by Parya Saberi, Rachel Duff, Kayla Hummel and Mela Amaiya in a new locale, a white draped room behind the stage. The vocalist Azadeh Farpour offers a traditional Afghani song, accompanied by the live ensemble of Ava Nazar (Keyboard), Clarrisa Bitar (Oud), Eleheh (Tombak) and Fain Foroudi (Daf). I particularly enjoyed a section in which the women join hands and move seductively toward us on the balls of their feet.

A powerful solo by famed belly dance instructor and practitioner Suhaila Salimpour follows. Dressed in black harem pants, and long-sleeved blouse with hood, only her face, hands and feet are exposed. Salimpour is known for how she marries traditional belly dance with contemporary themes. Her elegant fingers tell a story of pain and suffering as her hand goes to her forehead. We see her resolve to carry on as she presses her shoulders back and arches skyward, hands circling. And we cry with her as she articulates her heaving sighs with the notes of Farpour’s lyrics.

The fourth space we enter contains a large mesh cube upon which protest photos are shown. We hear a woman’s whispered prayers interspersed with the distant sounds of a marketplace. As the projection fades, lights inside the cube reveal a stooped, rocking figure. Trapped inside sheer fabric, a person extends their limbs, stretching the material with their struggle. Finally free, long dark hair now drapes over the face masking the figure’s identity. Slowly and violently Saberi is revealed. She prowls the edge of her mesh cage, peering out at the world through the fabric which separates her from it. It’s a gorgeous metaphor for the veil, which has long been weaponized by the State against women in a variety of cultures and time periods including present-day Iran.

The show wraps up in the theater. A half dozen dancers in full-cut khaki jumpsuits perform with jewel-toned, gold trimmed scarves as their focus. These women are united. Their hips swivel, shake and vibrate under the drape of their scarves. Scarves cover heads, then are drawn out tightly across faces to provide only a slit through which to see, before being lifted in swirling waves above their heads. They beckon to the audience. Concentric circles of cross-stepping dancers develop quickly as the audience joins in a defiant tribute to those who remain in their homeland, where dancing is illegal.

While I struggle to distinguish the styles of Middle Eastern dance on display, uncertain where the contemporary meets the traditional, I am so grateful to have been witness to this important and inspirational community gathering and passionate piece of social justice performance.

Review by Jen Norris, published September 19, 2023

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