2. DANCE AND MUSIC THEATRE
Iran has no indigenous tradition of formal dance, only folkloric, and never developed this art form even in the pre-Islamic period. Discovering the breathtaking variety of traditional and modern dance from around the world at the festival was therefore a unique and exquisitely novel adventure for the audience.
Classical Indian dance was presented in all its varieties, beginning with a Kathakali performance of stories from the Ramayana and Mahabharata in 1968. Among the foremost exponents of diverse genres and styles were Uma Sharma, Kathak (1969); Yamini Krishnamurti and Sonal Mansingh, Kuchipudi and Odissi (1970); and Shanta Rao, who performed Bharatanatyam, Mohiniatam, Bhama Nrityam and Kathakali dance. The opening program of the 1972 festival was a Kathakali presentation of Rostam and Sohrab, a fabled tragedy where the greatest hero in Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh, the 10th century Persian national epic, fatally wounds his son in battle, neither being aware of the other’s identity until it is too late. Sanjukta Panigrahi performed Odissi, her signature dance form, and Nritta In 1975. The 11th festival in 1977 featured Purulia Chhau, a ritual ceremonial masked dance-drama that is traditionally performed at regional festivals, especially in the spring.
A dazzling array of Indonesian dance and music drama also radiated throughout the festival. One particularly memorable Balinese dance was the opening event of the 1969 festival, the story of Rama’s struggle to rescue his wife Sita from the clutches of the demon Ravana. The dancers’ jingling steps and exacting facial gestures moving to the strange and hypnotic beat of the gamelan and framed by lush colors and elaborate costumes conjured an unreal, timeless and dreamlike dimension at Persepolis. In 1971, the festival hosted Ballet Sunda, the first performance by the artists outside Sunda, their birthplace in a region in West Java. Another stunning event aside from exquisite performances of Legong and the Barong was Kechak, presented by Sardono W. Kusomo at Naqsh-e Rostam in 1976 with a percussive a cappella chorus of men and boys from Bali hunched down around tight circles wearing nothing but checked cloths around their waists chanting “chak-chak” and throwing up their arms as they voiced a battle from the Ramayana.
The festival’s complement of dance and music theatre also included sacred and ancient Buddhist dances from Bhutan (Cham), Brazilian Capoeira, a ritualistic fusion of martial arts, dance, and music, both in 1974, and along with the Senegalese National Ballet in 1970, a number of African productions derived from indigenous traditions including Duro Lapido’s Oba Koso from Nigeria (1973) and Robert Serugama’s dance-drama, Renga Moi from Uganda in 1975.
Western modern dance was represented by several choreographers and dancers at the forefront of the avant-garde. In 1972, Merce Cunningham Dance Company performed his “Open Air Theatre Event,” described by a critic as “an incredible soaring of pure spirit,”15 followed by the World Premiere of his “Persepolis Event.” Carolyn Brown, one of the dancers remembers the experience as “marvelous” and “unforgettable.”16 The opening program of the 7th festival in 1973 was the World Premiere of Maurice Béjart’s Golestan at Persepolis, a work named after a Persian literary masterpiece by the 13th c poet Sa’di, who says of his own work, “A rose only lives for five or six days/The joy from my rose garden always stays,” and performed by his Ballet du XXe Siècle. The ballet was set to Iranian music and performed by members of the NIRT Center for the Preservation and Propagation of Iranian Music. After returning to Belgium, Béjart created Farah, a work inspired by Rumi and other Persian mystical poetry. He invited the Iranian musicians who had accompanied his Golestan in Shiraz to premiere the work in Brussels, and in 1976 presented it at the 10th festival. Other works by Béjart at the festival included two World Premieres, Heliogabale, and Improvisation sur Mallarmé III, a work based on music by Boulez.
The Nikolais Dance Company, led by founder and renowned American choreographer, Alwin Nikolais, gave the opening night performance of the 9th festival in 1975 with a program that included Temple, Tribe- Dance I & II, Suite from Sanctum and Crossfade. The same year saw a performance of Andy Degroat’s Rope Dance Translations, which was developed in Tehran with the participation of several actors and a musician from the Theatre Workshop in Tehran (Kargah-e Nemayesh).17 In 1977, the festival hosted the World Premiere of Carolyn Carlson’s Human called Being at Naqsh-e Rostam; Carolyn Carlson also performed Recital and arranged a special program for children at the Jahan-Nama Garden.