Sashar Zarif takes Sufi-Shamanic dance from stage to page

Award-winning performer and choreographer, York alumnus and contract faculty member Sashar Zarif (MA ‘07) is fully immersed in the dance traditions of the Caucasus, Middle East and Central Asia. They are the subject of his research, his popular courses at York and his practice – which Sashar Zarif. Photo by Dani Tedmuriincludes the world premiere of his latest work, solos of my life, running to May 14 at the Enwave Theatre as part of Harbourfront Centre’s DanceWorks Mainstage Series.

Right: Sashar Zarif. Photo by Dani Tedmuri

Solos of my life is a continuum of overlapping dances choreographed by Zarif and interpreted by him and other leading lights of Canada’s contemporary dance scene: York alumna Viv Moore (BFA ‘90, MA ‘07), Sylvie Bouchard, Marie-Josée Chartier and Katherine Duncanson. Many of the solos are performed simultaneously, in multi-layered duets and trios. The work is dramaturged by York theatre alumnus Soheil Parsa (BA ‘89), with lighting by alumnus Arun Srinivasan (BFA ’94) and music arranged by Eric Cadesky.

Rich in cultural references to his Azerbaijani-Iranian heritage and drawing on Zarif’s own experiences of conflict, displacement and migration, each solo tells a different story. Through these works, Zarif explores his past and links it to current realities and his dream of establishing a profound connection to the world he lives in now, while honouring the diversity of cultures that have shaped him and his art.

Inspiring and colouring this new work is a decade of intensive ethnographic field research that took Zarif from Mongolia to North Africa. He undertook numerous trips to study with local dance and music masters, observing their teaching methods and creation processes and interviewing them about their practice. His primary focus has been Sufi-Shamanic dance rituals and the role of traditional, contemporary and popular dance practice as a key aspect of a community’s identity and as a form of activism.

Solos of my life is the latest in a series of cross-cultural collaborations for which Zarif is renowned. They include his powerful solo work, In the Letters of My Name, co-choreographed with York dance Professor Holly Small, which won the 2006 Paula Citron Award, and his quartet Anar (pomegranate), which was performed by Small with her York colleagues, Professors Carol Anderson, Susan Cash and Terrill McGuire.

“I am mainly interested in dance and music practices that are part of the necessities, not commodities,” said Zarif. “These rituals function as a tool for expression rather than the means for entertainment; they are dances that have developed or merged out of social necessity.”

Zarif points out that the dance and music traditions he is researching are largely unknown in the wider world. “In some areas, dance is illegal and yet it is preserved by a robust underground movement. When I work in place where dance can be a political crime, I’m reminded never to take my art for granted. I’m very much inspired by the integrity of art practice in these regions,” he said.

With his company, Sashar Zarif Dance Theatre, Zarif creates, performs and teaches traditional and contemporary works across Canada and around the world. He is the recipient of the Azerbaijan State Artists for the People Award and Toronto’s New Pioneer Arts Award Skills for Change – both of which recognize him as an important cultural ambassador.

Zarif in performance. Photo by Dani TedmuriRight: Zarif in performance. Photo by Dani Tedmuri

Zarif was recently awarded a Chalmers Arts Fellowship that will allow him to revisit the areas in which his research is based. “My goal is not to study each region by itself, but most importantly to find the common threads between them – the common threads that exist in their Sufi-Shamanic beliefs and practices and that connect me strongly with them all,” he said.

In addition to gathering and documenting new material, he will re-examine and organize his existing research into a multimedia e-book which he hopes will serve as a resource for educators, ethnographers and cultural creators.

Zarif considers what he does in the classroom an integral part of his research and creation process.

“After I return from field research, preparing to teach makes what I have learned mature within my mind. I’m not simply teaching dance practices from these cultures – I’m introducing cultural practices through dance and movement,” he said.

From the classroom, Zarif goes into the studio. The dance sequences he demonstrates and sets on his students are experiments he continues when he is creating new work like solos of my life.

“I really appreciate the opportunity to share and teach others, not only about where I come from, but also where we can meet and where we can be in the future.”

Tickets to solos of my life are available by calling 416-973-4000 or through the DanceWorks Mainstage Series website.