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Persian poet Forugh Farrokhzad’s verse drives B.C. dancers Arash Khakpour and Alexis Fletcher

Arash Khakpour in show premiering at Chutzpah Festival
Arash Khakpour entwines himself in Alexis Fletcher's calves in their upcoming duet. Photo by Peter Smida.

Vancouver dancer and choreographer Arash Khakpour smiles as he recalls the first time he read poetry by Forugh Farrokhzad.

Over Zoom, Khakpour reveals that he was around 11 years old when he furtively removed one of the Iranian writer’s books from a box in his older brother’s closet.

This was when they were living in Tehran, prior to the family moving to Canada three years later.

“I can’t remember which poem it was,” Khakpour says. “I just remember opening it and I was just glued.”

Even though Farrokhzad died in a motor-vehicle crash at the age of 32 in 1967, her work still spoke so directly to Khakpour decades later. This illustrates the power of art to connect to other people’s experiences.

Former Ballet BC principal dancer and choreographer Alexis Fletcher discovered Farrokhzad’s poetry in a different way. And like with Khakpour, she also felt it mirrored her experiences.

Fletcher came across an English-language translation at the height of the pandemic in 2020, courtesy of a friend, visual artist Nargess Jalali Delia.

“I actually had a very similar experience in North America that Arash had,” Fletcher reveals in the same Zoom connection. “I started to read her work and I just felt it had this…deep connectedness to my own life. I felt really transformed and touched by it. As someone who also writes, I was just incredibly inspired by her mastery and her craft, as well.”

Now, Khakpour and Fletcher are collaborating on a contemporary dance creation, همه هستی من آیه تاریکیست | All my being is a dark verse, which has been inspired by Farrokhzad’s poetry.

Alexis Fletcher and Arash Khakpour
Alexis Fletcher and Arash Khakpour invited the poetry into their bodies. Photo by David Cooper.

Chutzpah! Festival premieres dark verse

Delia, whose visual art has also been influenced by the poet, is advising the two dancer-choreographers on translation and the cultural context of Farrokhzad’s work.

The duet will premiere at the Chutzpah! Festival on November 9. In addition, Delia will premiere her new visual-art presentation, Forugh’s Poetry-Art Collection, at the theatre during the performances.

“We are allowing the poems to come into our bodies and then get translated through,” Fletcher explains.

She emphasizes that the performance is not told in a literal or directly narrative way. However, she adds, audience members could find stories that are are very specific to them—in terms of what the two performers are experiencing.

“Just as a poem, is open to interpretation, based on whoever is reading, I feel like this piece is also a poem in that way,” Fletcher says.

Khakpour reveals that amid the music and movement, they’ve also included Farrokhzad’s voice to bring her spirit into the show.

The poet’s work is “full of life, love, and longing, yet full of death”, according to Khakpour. It also had a “forbidden” quality, in part because Farrokhzad challenged binary notions about gender roles in society.

“As I was growing up, I have felt that similar feeling of defying the norms about myself. In terms of pursuing a dance career at all, as a man, which has many stigmas attached to it in my culture,” Khakpour says in the news release accompanying the show.

“I feel the same now as an artist at times,” he continues. “Forugh awakens the courage in us to be courageous.”

David Cooper photo of Arash Khakpour and Alexis Fletcher
Elika Mojtabaei designed the costumes and Victoria Bell oversaw the lighting. Photo by David Cooper.

Art alleviates news-driven anxiety

Naturally, this raises a question about how it feels for Khakpour and Fletcher to be performing a duet inspired by Farrokhzad just as Iranian girls and women are rising up against the regime. They’re often paying a terrible price for their resistance.

Khakpour replies that many Iranians abroad, as well as those within the country, are experiencing tremendous stress nowadays. Processing pain, anger, and frustration takes a toll on the body, he adds. Then he notes that there have been reports this year of Iranians experiencing more heart attacks than normal.

To him, experiencing art is a way to counter the stress. It’s about finding some time to sit and breathe for a while without being constantly distracted by the news or fearing for the fate of relatives in the home country.

“We’ve got to be present with ourselves to be able to get through it somehow,” Khakpour says. “A piece like this that’s so close to a leader’s voice, like Farugh, allows us to bring that energy into the present moment, which is what we’re doing with dance. What we’re saying is not separate from the world.”

As for the dance itself, Fletcher says that she has “rarely felt this amount of artistic kinship and connection with a partner”.

“It’s been beautiful to see us inspire each other as movers and to learn from one another and share practices,” Fletcher states. “So, I think that’s something that is just in the piece without necessarily having to describe it so much.”

In a sense, their bodies are naturally carrying all of the things that are happening in the world as well as Farrokhzad’s verses—and this is what will be shared with audiences.

“A lot of the choreographic language in the work came very organically out of this long period of time that we’ve been in a room, just the two of us, diving into this language and allowing that language to come into our bodies in different ways,” Fletcher adds. “So, I think there’s a lot of dance in the work for the people that are really hungry for movement. It has been made in this very organic process between the two of us, really in this equal partnership.”

Khakpour then elaborates by noting that we’re living in a time when it feels like the world is falling apart with all the wildfires, migrations, war, and pain.

“I hope all of us artists and audiences can integrate all of this pain, and actually find ways to be together,” he says.

The Chutzpah! Festival will present the world premiere of همه هستی من آیه تاریکیست | All my being is a dark verse on November 9 and 10 at the Norman Rothstein Theatre as both a live and livestream performance. For tickets and information, visit the Chutzpah! Festival website.

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Charlie Smith

Charlie Smith

Pancouver editor Charlie Smith has worked as a Vancouver journalist in print, radio, and television for more than three decades.

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We would like to acknowledge that we are gathered on the traditional and unceded territories of the Coast Salish peoples of the xʷməθkwəy̓əm (Musqueam), Skwxwú7mesh (Squamish), and Səl̓ílwətaɬ (Tsleil-Waututh) Nations. With this acknowledgement, we thank the Indigenous peoples who still live on and care for this land.