- The movie “Desert Dancer” ends with your arrival in France. Tell us what it was like for you when you first arrived in Europe?
Afshin Ghaffarian: In fact, I arrived in Germany first, then I came to Paris. I remember when I arrived in Europe, the first thing that I remarked in the new country was a kind of “calmness.” I remember I wrote somewhere in my diary these words: “ Here I see calmness surges into other’s eyes. It makes me feel good, but at the same time this calmness scares me! ” The calm was what I deeply needed in that time.
- Do you plan to stay in France permanently?
Afshin Ghaffarian: I don’t like planning my life too much. I just try to live every instant of my life. Now a days I have my company “Reformances” here in Paris, and I live in France. I don’t like the notion of “staying permanently” in one place. Maybe that’s why I chose theatre. I like the life on stage because the stage changes, and new performances begins every day. I will be where I can be on stage. In fact, the stage is my real homeland; it’s where I can reinvent myself over and over again and express my own world each time—to be born anew.
- Can you describe how the last five plus years since you left Iran have impacted you as an artist and as a human being?
Afshin Ghaffarian: As Edward Said reminds us, Exile is strangely compelling to think about, but terrible to experience.
A baby leaves the body of her mother and is condemned to exile outside of the maternal body, but that doesn’t mean the the newborn baby left her mother. She just lives her relation with her mother in a different way. In the same way, when I left my motherland five years ago, I created a new relationship with my country.
It is very difficult to describe the last five years of my life in a few sentences. I’d have to write a book about that. But I can say simply that this period of being away from Iran had allowed me to deepen my thoughts and my vision about life and my relationship to Iran. The distance provided me with a much needed perspective– in order to see things clearly and, perhaps, far more accurately than if I were still back in Iran. I’ve been able to resolve pent-up anger and frustration. Exile was a privilege in that it allowed me to review my narrative and to objectively look at my country in its totality. Exile allowed me to sharpen my observation of the world and my place within it.
- Your dance company is called Réformances—“a portmanteau word made up of the French words “réforme” (reform) and “performance” (performance).” Your own personal choreography is quite unique. What of your culture and upbringing influence your dance style?
Afshin Ghaffarian: I carry my culture and my history in my own body. My way of expression is kneaded with my lived experiences, which is in constant contact with other cultures across the world. The way I express myself on stage should be seen in a larger context and not only confined to a certain geographical or cultural latitude. In fact, I first wrote the word “reformance” in my diary in Iran many years ago. At the time I never imagined that this word will become the name of my dance-theatre company.
So I am still fighting for my passion– even here in France, only the context is different. I am continuing what I started in Iran. I remember as a theatre student at University in Tehran, my friends and I were interested in and inspired by Grotowski’s theatre in Poland, Antonin Artaud in France, Julian Beck and Judith Malina in America , Eugenio Barba in Denmark, Tadashi Suzuki in Japan, etc. Through email, I was in contact with some great theatre figures, like Richard Schechner at NYU, and Eugenio Barba and Julia Varley from the Odin Theatre in Denmark, among others. I remember one day, Eugenio Barba and Julia Varley sent me a package of books and DVDs that we couldn’t find easily at the time in Iran to developpe and enrich our work. And two years ago I met them for lunch in Paris. We had a fight over the bill, but they didn’t let me pay. My experiences have always been linked to other artists from around the world, and I am eternally grateful to be connected to these artists. In my company, I work also with French sociologist Baptiste Pizzinat, and we wrote a book together in 2013 titled “ Café des Réformances,” which is available in French. It’s a reflection on dance and society in general, an attempt to put words on our experiences. Sometimes we have to dance out our thoughts and vice versa!
Reformances– or to be a Reformancers– is a state of being an artist—a powerful will of the artist to fight against any kind of inertia or habit. It’s about a different way of looking at art, artists, and their relationship to society. It’s about conceiving art as something united with our daily life—an active art that transforms us and does not reduce itself to simply decorative or entertainment functions.
- What influenced your work in the piece “Too Loud a Solitude” with Réformances?
Afshin Ghaffarian: “Too Loud a Solitude” is my latest piece adapted from a Czech novel with the same name by Bohumil Hrabal. I read a translation in Farsi of this novel for the first time in Iran. In this work, we question the relationship between modern humans and machines. It’s a duet between a human and a popcorn machine. I don’t want to tell you more because I prefer my audience meets me and experiences the piece in the theatre.
- What’s the state of dance in Iran? Is dance officially banned or is there more to the story than that?
Afshin Ghaffarian: Dance is not banned in Iran– in the sense that there is no precise law that forbids everyone to dance. For a series of historical cultural and religious reasons, dance has been sidelined and ignored in the official environments. But this doesn’t mean that dance doesn’t exist in Iran, or that all forms of dance are illegal. In fact, dance exists everywhere in Iran, and it has a very rich vocabulary. I have come to realize that we dance more often in Iran than we do here in France. In Iran, people spend hours and hours dancing at private gatherings (weddings, birthdays, family togethers, etc.) In France, often, dance seems limited to the nightclubs, maybe a limited time during celebrations, etc… But at the same time a lot of Iranians maintain an ambiguous relationship to dance, one that is combined with love and reluctance. They love dance in private gatherings, but when dance is in the public space with people they don’t know, they become reluctant to dance or to recognize dance as an art form. Anthony Shay studied this ambiguous relation among the Iranian community in California in his book, Choreophobia, which is a term that he uses to characterize the widespread ambiguous and negative reactions to solo improvised dance—the most popular dance form in the Iranian world. He shows how an Iranian modulates his solo improvised dance based on the social context in which he or she executes the dance. An Iranian can dance differently among family than among friends. We can see that the problem is not only rooted in the political sphere, but also within Iranian socio-cultural construction.
In my opinion, the problem is not really about dance itself but about the bad connotations which weighs down the word “dance.” In Iran, dance exists even in the official and public environments. It’s just not called “dance”– it is part of “theater,” or “rhythmic gymnastics,” or “aerobic sports” when it comes to dance forms such as hip hop the like. Unfortunately the word “dance” is linked with “vulgarity,” “ prostitution,” “exhibitionism, ” “nudity,” etc… which does not comply with the values of the Iranian society writ large. For instance, in Los Angeles dances like C-Walk or Crip Walking are banned in most high schools because of their gang connotations. Similarly, in Iran, some forms of dance are treated in the same way, but at a larger scale, motivated by a similar fear, but obviously within a very different cultural context.
- What are some of the biggest misunderstandings you’ve seen in the West about artists in Iran?
Afshin Ghaffarian: There’s a strong tendency in the West to show only the dark side of Iran. News about Iran is often about “repression” and “censorship.” These are used as a pretext to disqualify the political entity of Iran as a legitimate and rational political entity and to demonize it systematically. In my opinion these narrow assumptions hinder a more logical and realistic understanding of the not just the artistic realities in Iran, but also a political one.
In some media, the Iranian society is divided between the good guys and the bad guys, which is totally erroneous, and it shows us Iran in a very deformed and caricatured way. Iranian artists have a dual challenge: inside Iran, they must fight for their rights and to improve the conditions of their artistic lives; in the West, they have to fight against the myriad of clichés about their country.
- How do you see your role as an artist in creating a bridge that transcends geographical and cultural misunderstandings?
Afshin Ghaffarian: As artists, we all (Iranian and otherwise) have to work hard to create greater mutual understanding amongst peoples and cultures. For me, this means taking great care to explain myself and my life story accurately. The opportunity to answer your questions and expand on my views and trajectory– in relation to a film inspired by my life–is one way to do that.
One of the most important tasks of any artist is to try and contribute to a bridge that extends over our differences, allowing us to meet each other. We must help the narrative of those who believe in constructing the bridges instead of joining directly or indirectly to the warmongering narrative of those who just believe in war and destruction. We also have to be careful not to fall into the trap of portraying cultures that are deemed “exotic,” just so that we can capitalize on the fantasy version of that culture.
- Looking back on your first dance group and the performance you put on in the desert, how do you feel about those 6 years on?
Afshin Ghaffarian: The desert performance, which in fact happened in 2007, was an artistic adventure meant for the desert. Obviously, we couldn’t show this performance in an official or conventional setting, but that was also not our desire.
In fact, during that time, we didn’t recognize our performance as dance, per say. We thought of it as physical theater. Later on, we came to understand what we were doing as contemporary dance.
Interestingly, now I have come full circle. I question the difference between what we call “dance” and “theater.” I see no real difference between these two, just categories.
In many theatrical traditions, especially in Eastern cultures, there is no difference between theatre and dance, actor and dancer, and even in many cultures we use one word to address them. Here in the West, theatre and dance have a different history; they are performed in different spaces; they even have different audiences. I let my audiences call me whatever they like: actor or dancer. It doesn’t matter really. I’m just a doer.
- When you first arrived in Europe you took part in many festivals and performances where you used dance as a weapon of protest. How has your style evolved out of protest art to what it is now and why the shift?
Afshin Ghaffarian: It depends on what we call Protest art!
There is no shift in my style, just a natural evolution of my life which is also reflected in my art. Being an artist is being a protester, regardless of where one is born or the environment one lives in. When you are satisfied of the status quo, you have no place on stage!
I’m no longer 22-years-old. My art, and the form of my expression takes, is naturally more complex, simply because I have had more life experience to draw from.
- How do you feel when you perform? Does the feeling differ now from when you first practiced underground in Iran?
Afshin Ghaffarian: Of course the context is different but the essence of my art hasn’t changed. I practiced my art underground, but also in an official capacity. I remember the year after the performance in desert, I participated in an official joint production between Iran and Mexico, in a performance as part of the the International Fadjr Theatre Festival in Tehran.
In my experience, the “underground scene” and the official one are not necessarily separated in Iran. They coexist and artists continuously pass through both to create and to push the limits, to change conditions in a positive way.
For example, for a long time Iranian hip hop didn’t comply with the cultural politics of Iran, despite the thousands of independent studios and rappers that had emerged in the underground scene. Recently, one of the scene’s stars, a rapper named Yas, convinced the cultural authorities to publish the first “official” rap album, and henceforth Iranian hip hop/rap has its own official category among other recognized forms of music. It’s called “Goftâvaz.” We can find many such examples in the contemporary socio-political establishment of Iran.
- Tell us about your style of dance and how you express yourself today. Who are your influences today?
Afshin Ghaffarian: My career as a performer began back in 1999, as a short film actor. I then went to the university to study theater and performed in several productions in Tehran. At 20, I translated a book about Grotowski into Farsi.
In France, I studied contemporary dance at the National Center of Dance and founded “Reformances” in 2010. Now I’m a student of political science at the Sorbonne. Frankly, I don’t really know how to define my style. I am a doer, a reformancer.
I am less interested in categories; instead what’s important to me is to do art, to perform, and to have a real challenge when I’m on stage.
- The dance performances in Desert Dancer are choreographed by Akram Khan and based and inspired by your own style and story. How do you feel about Akram Khan’s interpretation of your work AND the performances by actors who had no prior dance training? Separately, what was the process like for you?
Afshin Ghaffarian: I think we have to work together someday. I really appreciate the work of Akram Khan in the film. But it’s important to point out that even though I feel some affinity with his work and the dynamic of his choreography, it’s not my work. I also really appreciate the work of the actors and actresses of the film. As performers, we share something important—the tenacity and courage to work on ourselves and on our bodies, and the courage to explore the unknown reaches of our expression.
I didn’t participate in the process of their training.
- What do you want audiences to take away from the film?
Afshin Ghaffarian: That no matter who we are and where we are, we have to continuously create. Through our creations, we have to invent the world we want to live in, despite all the difficulties. We have to search out new solutions of being in the world. As Pina Bausch said, “to create is the only way to be in the world.” In order to exist, we must resist– and to resist, we must create. It should be a permanent struggle for all of of us in order to create a better world together.
- How does it feel to see so many people around the world, from many different countries, connect to the film and the message of free artistic expression?
Afshin Ghaffarian: It reminds me that art can break down barriers and pass through any border. That we can only expand freedom of expression by expanding the horizon of possibilities before us, and by the act of expression in the face of obstacles. It reminds me to never surrender to any form of power that threatens our artistic existence, no matter where we are in this world.
The fight for freedom of expression is the role of the artists themselves. I caution against those who would use this fight to push a political agenda, cloaked as advocacy.
- How has your life changed since the period portrayed in the film?
Afshin Ghaffarian: My situation has changed dramatically, as has the situation in Iran since 2009. I’m no longer an angry young artist, but more a mature man who seeks solutions. Instead of cursing the darkness, I try to light a candle now. I have continued my studies while in exile. I have read a lot, and been exposed to many more viewpoints than before I left Iran. This has transformed my views on the world.
- How has your views on Iranian politics evolved since 2009 and leaving outside of Iran?
Afshin Ghaffarian: In 2009 I didn’t vote, and I didn’t put my vote in the ballot box. Back then I was influenced by the narratives propagated by certain media that portrayed the Iranian government as the singular cause of every problem in Iran, the region, and even partly in the world, writ large. Today I regret how I wasted so much time listening to these groundless arguments. Sadly, this narrative is still being purported about Iran. Of course the Iranian political system is by no means flawless. Nevertheless, the Islamic Republic is the legitimate political entity of Iran, and I am a citizen of this country. In 2013, when I was in exile, I decided for the first time in my life to participate in the democratic process of my country by voting for President Rohani. In 2009 I didn’t vote, so I cannot really ask about my vote. But today I have voted, and I defend my vote.
As an Iranian artist and a student of political science, I can’t accept the oversimplified narrative that portrays Iran as a form of dictatorship and a part of the so-called ”axis of evil.” Iran is one of the rare countries in its region with robust democratic institutions (even if it’s hard for some people to hear it, and I used to be one of those people). Of course, this is a different form of politics than the Western models of democracy. But we have to remember that it is still a very young system and of course it has to be developed more. But it is unfair and incorrect to confuse the Iranian political system with its authoritarian neighbors.
- We understand you were recently able to return to Iran to visit family, were you nervous to go back? Did you receive any assurances that you would not be arrested?
Afshin Ghaffarian: I renounced my status as a political refugee in France and recently went back to my country after five years for a visit without any problems. I returned to my country the same way that I left my country five years ago. It was a personal decision which I dared to accomplish. Once again I dared to realize my dream by myself.
- What was it like for you when you went back after so long?
Afshin Ghaffarian: I was afraid I wouldn’t recognize my country anymore, but after being at home I quickly realized that I have an even deeper understanding of my country and culture after five years of exile. I was also a much calmer person, than the 22-year-old who left Iran five years ago to put on stage that Strange But True performance…
- What is your hope for the future of artistic freedom for those living in Iran?
Afshin Ghaffarian: I hope to contribute to a new understanding of modern dance-theatre as an art form in Iran. I believe that it is possible to define this art form within the current political order by pushing for a more precise legal interpretation that respects the the values of Iranian society. This is necessary so that the young generation can begin to develop and ultimately transcend this art form within their own cultural heritage. I hope also to share my experiences with others in Iran, and to once again work with my colleagues whom I left on stage in a not-so-responsible manner five years ago in Germany.
We must never forget that freedom is not a product. Once acquired, it is not forever. Rather freedom is a daily practice and struggle for everyone all over the world including Iran.
- What are your hopes for the future?
Afshin Ghaffarian: That the world will belong to emerging generations with new ways of thinking and new perspectives.
Thanks to BoomGen Studios.