Dancing for freedom in Iran

Ballet performances are prohibited in Iran. In her film "1001 Nights Apart", director Sarvnaz Alambeigi documents the history of dance in the Islamic Republic.
Ballet performances are prohibited in Iran. In her film "1001 Nights Apart", director Sarvnaz Alambeigi documents the history of dance in the Islamic Republic.

Ballet performances are prohibited in Iran. In her film "1001 Nights Apart", director Sarvnaz Alambeigi documents the history of dance in the Islamic Republic. By Fahimeh Farsaie

الكاتبة ، الكاتب: Fahimeh Farsaie

Even under the Shah in the 1970s, ballet and opera were frowned upon in Iranian society. Although the Iranian National Ballet Company had been founded in 1958 by the culture ministry, most of the population struggled to acquire a taste for the art form. The ensemble, latterly made up of around 50 dancers and guest dancers, was only able to stay afloat thanks to state subsidies. In the 21 years of its existence, the company staged numerous pieces from the classical and modern ballet repertoire.

But in 1979, after the toppling of Shah Mohammad Reza, the Islamic Revolution ultimately put an end to the activities of Iran’s only public ballet institution. The last ballet to be performed on stage by the best-known and most respected of all dance companies in the Middle East, at the Roudaki Hall (now the Vahdat Hall), was Tchaikovsky’s 'Sleeping Beauty'.

Rare archive footage

At the start of her documentary film "1001 Nights Apart", filmmaker Sarvnaz Alambeigi reviews this story in the presence of 10 young dancers. She had previously discovered rare film footage and photos in the archive of the old National Ballet. With joy and reverence, the young dancers watch the footage, learn about their predecessors and discover that the founders of the National Ballet were Nedjad Ahmadzadeh and his wife Haydeh.

The young group of dancers in the film meet in a concealed subterranean room somewhere in Tehran and develop small-scale choreographies that they dance without any professional direction. Speaking off-camera, the filmmaker explains that it was the aspirational group’s enthusiasm that gave her the idea of bringing together the old and new generations of Iranian dancers. And this is the starting point of her search for the once internationally respected dancers forced into exile after the Revolution. The Tehran dance group knows little about the diverse history of Iranian dance: today, the subject is taboo.


Secret rehearsals

As the group, in its hidden studio in Tehran, learns short choreographies addressing issues of sexuality, faith, society and feminism and dances its interpretations of the pieces, the film team attempts to track down the exiled dancers abroad for a possible cooperation with the young generation in Tehran.

To achieve an authentic telling of these two storylines, Sarvnaz Alambeigi makes use not only of the old photos and films from the archive, but she also draws on bare facts, interviews and narratives in the accompanying commentaries. With her camera, she observes their graceful, sometimes even terrifying movements in the dance group’s spartan space. There aren’t many props in the room. The dancers use chalk to mark out possible movements on the floor. "I’m not a dancer," says one member of the group. "Our dance isn’t ballet. They’re just body exercises."

Above all, they are seeking to express their sheer rage in physical terms; to scream their frustration from their very souls. And they manage it effortlessly.

The present

They are all very aware that what they’re doing is forbidden. But they delight in it. "Our work may be covert, but we’re not unhappy," says one of the girls from the group and adds: "We’re not victims, we’re strong fighters and full of energy." And another voice says: "I don’t believe that life should be simple."


So why do they dance at all? "There’s a story that absolutely must be told," says a man and points to the group: "And these people here are that story."

Sarvnaz Alambeigi then goes on to talk about the lives of two members of the dance troupe; a woman and a man. The woman comes from a strict religious family: "My sister will soon be eight years old. My father wants her to begin wearing the veil," she says. And of course, she keeps her dancing a secret from her family.

The young man comes from Kashan in Isfahan province and was raised in a family of ordinary working people. In front of the camera, the veiled mother sits on the floor, the father sits on a white chair as a demonstration of his superiority. He thinks it is bad that his son is a dancer. But that son is not interested in his father’s opinion: "I want to lead a self-determined life," he says.

The end of the story

Finally, among the former exiled dancers contacted by the director, there is one who shows an interest in his brave fans back in Tehran. He works as a stage technician at the famous Scapino Ballett in Rotterdam and convinces the Alambeigi to invite the youngsters from Tehran to the Dutch city. As the departure day approaches the group is beside itself with excitement. But then the U.S. assassinates the Iranian military commander Qassem Soleimani and their visas are not granted.

Sarvnaz Alambeigi works with long takes, few edits and off-camera commentaries. The film’s score serves as both atmosphere and background. The physical movements of the group of dancers, who bend left and right without music as a way of expressing tedium and repetition, create a sense of visual rhythm.

In short: the appeal of "1001 Nights Apart" is its candour – a true dance for freedom.

Fahimeh Farsaie

© Iran Journal 2023

Translated from the German by Nina Coon