Saturday, May 14, 2011

Searching for Identity: Sashar Zarif Dance Theatre

Katherine Duncanson, Sashar Zarif, Viv Moore, Marie-Josée Chartier, Sylvie Bouchard (Photo: Mahla Ghasempour)
The lights dim, the theatre fills with darkness, smoke and the sound of a hollow wind banging a door against its frame. A figure emerges from the shadows, moving slowly into view. With his hand he touches his open mouth before pushing the hand forward, palm-up, as if offering up to the audience the words he softly sings under his breath. With this simple gesture, Toronto dancer and choreographer Sashar Zarif sets the stage for his Solos of My Life, presented in conjunction with Toronto independent dance producer Danceworks whose three-performance run at Harbourfront’s Enwave Theatre in Toronto ends tonight. The title is misleading as the hour-long piece isn’t a solo, but more a series of danced vignettes performed with (in alphabetical order) Sylvie Bouchard, Marie-Josée Chartier, Katherine Duncanson and Viv Moore, women meant to embody the people he has known, loved, maybe even feared in his life: dance as memoir.

Sashar Zarif (Photo: Mahla Ghasempour)
Story-telling in dance has a long tradition, with mime and song often used to give meaning to the wordless art of the body. In telling his personal history, basically a narrative exploring his forced migration from his Persian homeland and the subsequent search for identity, Zarif goes further, employing a self-created form of gestural language that pulls from ancient Indian dance traditions as well as from the modern dance: Think deep-seated second-position plies meshed with percussive Kathak-inspired foot stomps and dancing eyes. Add bum-jumps, crab-crawls and sky-writing and you get the point. Almost.

Sashar Zarif (Photo: Dani Tedmuri)
While there’s much to admire here – the commitment of the individual performers for one, not to mention the evocative sound-score featuring created and partly performed live by Zarif with a heavily costumed Duncanson in collaboration with the always-fascinating Eric Cadesky and Arun Srinivasan’s dramatic lighting design – Solos For My Life come across as movement experimentation that lacks a clear idea as to how its results are to be ingested, analyzed, interpreted by the viewer. As such, it’s a personal journey that very much remains personal, rarely succeeding in striking a chord of empathy with the viewer as a result of being ultimately unclear about what it is trying to say. To compare it to a written narrative, what the so-called stories embedded inside this work might be served by, this is an imaginative recreation of a life that is richly atmospheric and populated by interesting characters – not the least being Zarif, a compelling performer with an empathetic stage presence – but whose weak thematic core undermines a sense of focus and relevance, qualities that might have prevented the piece from drifting without an evident conclusion: a work with too much beginning and middle and not enough end.

True, Solos for My Life, as its title suggests, is a work based on a life’s journey. Given that the choreographer himself is only 42 (and judging by his on-stage vitality is still very much with us), an argument could be made that the ongoing story of his life is still open-ended, a serial novel, if you will. But for something to happen next, something ought to be happening now. As it stands, the work appears to be all about what happened then – a series of vignettes rooted in memory – without a clear connection to the present or indeed the future, objectives Zarif outlines in his program notes when describing his “collection of personal stories” as the means by which he can move on in life. On stage is what looks to be a makeshift rug-making loom, a symbol of Zarif’s roots in Azerbaijan, an ancient carpet-weaving centre. Frequently, and throughout the piece Zarif, retreats there to knot strings while the others dancers perform their “scenes.” Each tie seems to indicate a passage of time, and as the dance progresses the loom fills up, but without a clear pattern, more a collection of loose ends: talk about symbolic.

Bouchard, Zarif, Moore (Photo:Ghasempour)
Maybe the problem lies (and it’s awkward calling it a problem, considering the cumulative strength of the talents involved) with Zarif inviting other dancers into his choreographic kitchen, particularly dancers as individually inventive in their own right as these four women, veteran performers all. Each brings to the piece her own vivid personality, giving the impression that the work is as much her creation as his. Chartier, for instance, is characteristically impish and delightfully mature-woman sensual, rolling her hips and exhaling audibly when punctuating the air with arms whose sharp pivots and open circles described a semaphore of her own making. Zarif dressed her in a sparkling olive green coat dress he created himself, as if to anchor her somewhere on the Silk Road he travelled in his past. But the choreography, a post-modern pastiche of ethno-dance traditions, wasn’t transporting enough. Chartier was more a mesmerizing dancer of her own design, and less a creature of his imagination.

Something similar can be said of Moore, a relative newcomer to the local indie scene and trained in a variety of dance traditions, including ballet and ballroom, who presents what looks a memory of her own dance past: teetering on demi-point and fluttering her arms like a Dying Swan, but at the same time looking pained as she does so, as if all those hours in the studio is something of a bad dream. Bouchard has her own dance signature, an usual balancing act involving her repeatedly lifting one leg so she can glance down at the sole of her foot. Letting go, she gracefully unfurls across the stage, undulating like a scarf in the wind, a picture of serene dance beauty. In one instance she joins Zarif to re-enact what looks like a horse-and-buggy ride recalled from the choreographer's past, a charming bit of dance-theatre involving both dancers sitting side by side on the stage floor and simultaneously scooting forward on their haunches, enjoying together the imagined surrounding scenery as Zarif chatters happily in a foreign tongue.

Sashar Zarif, Katherine Duncanson, Viv Moore, Sylvie Bouchard (Photo: Mahla Ghasempour)
Duncanson is intentionally an enigma, a cloaked figure who shuffles around the periphery of the main action dressed in an ethnic costume design, perhaps Azerbaijani, that sang each time she moved as a result of the myriad of coins sewn into it. At one point, she dances solo alongside a chanting Zarif chanting, her costume providing the music. When she's done, she retreats back into the shadows, going as mysteriously as she came. Zarif soon follows, sinking back into the darkness, back exactly where he started, with those of us watching none the wiser for having witnessed the circuitous journey.

Deirdre Kelly is a journalist (The Globe and Mail) and internationally recognized dance critic. She is also the author of the national best-selling memoir, Paris Times Eight (Greystone Books/Douglas & McIntyre). Visit her website for more information,

1 comment:

  1. watched the performance tonight and found this article totally apropos ...Thanks