Islamic Form of CI at the Women Theatre Festival in Tehran
by Tina Kukovič, Berlin
In July 2008 I gave a 7-day CI workshop at the Women Theatre Festival in Tehran. It was my third trip to Iran in one year, yet this time my joy about the trip was interwoven with thoroughly overconscientious workshop because I kept asking myself “how do you teach CI in a country where dance is forbidden and a physical contact is socially entrenched only within male?”
Iran has been one of the most troublesome and awkward partner in the world’s politics which has restrained the exit out of the country for its own people, but greets warm-heartedly most foreigners. However, there are some social restrictions that must be accepted by everyone: alcohol is forbidden and you won’t find it in public restaurants or hotels, and it is strictly forbidden for women to walk around without a veil, which is “a magnificent reflection of a woman in Islam”, as it said at the entrance of my 4-star hotel. This is by many women, however, worn in all colors, loosely on the head. Men and women will be arrested if they touch in public. Dancing will be prosecuted. Despite the severe control of the state and all-round social restrictions, people will give you the feeling of closeness and affection. Of course, all these contradictions came into my workshop.
Iran has a long tradition of theatre where both women and men are active. There are many theatre halls, all supported (controlled) by the government. Actors’ theatrical presence is strong and overwhelming, but their bodies are often immobile, stiff, frail or even rigid. Body work is conventionally not practiced, and it is hard to find classes or workshops of martial arts, yoga, or any other body work. The Iranian government, on the one hand, has hindered the Iranians to focus on their bodies, but on the other hand, it finances and supports foreign artists to teach them how to use their body conscientiously. Yet, not enough artists come and the lack of continuous body training has marked slight physical awareness of majority.
It was the first CI workshop held in Tehran. The Women Theatre Festival authorized a closed room for me and the female participants (students and actresses) in my workshop. Men were not allowed to enter the practice hall, and the women could take off their veils and long clothes. It was not dance I wanted to teach. For this reason I constructed my workshop into three parts: physical contact, eye contact and dialogue. I focused on improvisation, observation, conscious and continuous movement and precise body work such as stretching, balancing, spiralling but also breathing and meditation.
In the country where touching is strictly forbidden I led women with their eyes closed into a contact with objects such as branches, paper, plastic etc. first. They deeply enjoyed different materials, though they touched mostly with hands. I explained physical contact with a simple example from our daily routine: if you want to create trust and friendship, you endeavour to create a stronger one. Invitations to lunch, cinema, or coffee can be transcribed here through our moving bodies where each movement of a different body part is an invitation. Second I interpreted our daily contacts, such as conflicts, support, help, blockade, falling, etc. in movements, which were used as help in improvisation. Third I asked them to explore the range of possibilities in different situations as mentioned above. Furthermore, I pinpointed a clear barrier between contact and solo and in this constant change they had to be attentive to their own feelings. Above all, I focused on creating trust within the group for which I used some group exercises.
The first two days of the workshop were to my surprise just like any beginner class in Berlin although women in Iran, because of their clothing and the lack of official support of physical awareness, are forced to use only the power of their faces and hands. Despite unbearable sore muscles, as they told me, they did not flee from further exercises. They found it hard not to talk while moving, discussing who will give and who will take weight. I guess there are two reasons for this. First there is no existent body language for them and the only way of communication is verbal and second, I saw many women at different workshops not participating, but sitting in the corner in a group and chattering all the time. The latter is an interesting phenomenon but I doubt we can relate it to Islam.
Similar to the European women some Iranian women found a wider range of movements through contact, some felt blocked and limited. I showed them the main lifts but mostly I led them into contact(s) and left them there to be. After my fifteenth “Shhhh!” and “Stop talking!” they began working harder on transforming their words into movements. After two days they relaxed so much they began laughing, joking with one another, trying what seemed to be impossible two days before: lifting each other, feeling strong and light at the same time, stepping over one’s own fear by entering the world of improvisation, the world of the great unknown. I was overwhelmed by watching their changing natural facial expressions of fear, surprise, astonishment, joy, tranquillity. My conclusion was that either all of them were born to be regular guests at the jams, or they knew this was probably their only chance to experience a workshop like this, and so gave themselves fully.
On the last day I wanted to explore how CI techniques can be used on the stage. We invited men to watch. A day before I asked them to think about different contacts or contacting situations from their daily life. Then these would be interpreted into the language of CI. In a short time we developed a 20-minutes performance (without talking) in which their suggestions such as conflict, apology, help, harmonic relationship and a student demonstration took place. Student demonstrations are a daily reality for young Iranians; one explicit way to challenge the present conditions. Men (directors and actors) were stunned about our performance. After just four days of work, women were present as a whole not just with their faces.
I returned to Berlin. Poring over the pictures of my Iranian women I am aware that what they were doing in my workshop could not be called dancing but communicating with a body. I remember them talking how amazing it felt that you can do CI with every person in a group, how surprisingly interesting this person suddenly became. I wonder how long will they be able to feel strong, light, soft, earthed with known and unknown people in different situations. A month, a week? For myself I can tell that it takes two days without CI class or jam that my body becomes stiff and tensed. However, I smile and tell myself how amazing that the western invention of CI can be convulsed and adapted in different ways, for different countries, for different social and religious systems. Even Islam.