Dance ShahrzadFeature

Published on January 31st, 2014 | by Setsu Uzume


Dance and Diaspora: Persian Dance at the ODC Theater

I went to church to find God, he was not there. I went to the Hindu temple, to the ancient pagoda, God was not there. I went to the Kaaba of Mecca, God was not there. I crossed the wilderness and asked about him from Avicenna, the philosopher but he was beyond the range of Avicenna. With misery, I screamed and I turned and I danced and there, into my heart, in that place, God was there. He was in no other place.


This weekend, the ODC Theater in San Francisco is pleased to present the next installment of Dance and Diaspora, its biannual showcase celebrating the world of dance in the Bay Area. This month’s double bill runs Saturday and Sunday, February 1 and 2, and features work by Persian dance artists Farima Berenji and Shahrzad Khorsandi. The evening will showcase Middle Eastern culture through music, dance and poetry.

About Shahrzad Khorsandi

Shahrzad Khorsandi. Photo credit Juan Soto.

Khorsandi founded Shahrzad Dance Company in Berkeley, CA in 1996. Blending elements of contemporary dance with the refined aesthetics of ancient Persia, Khorsandi has created her own style of dance which she calls Contemporary Persian Ballet. The first piece Khorsandi will perform at the ODC, “Transcendence” (2009), is set to a recorded score composed by renowned Persian musician Mahmoud Zoufonoun with recited poetry by Omar Khayyam. This piece is a tribute to Zoufonoun who passed away in October of 2013. Accompanying Khorsandi are dancers Jennifer Shindelus and Marta Serra. Khorsandi will also perform a solo piece titled “In the Name of Grace”, set to live music composed and performed by Mahmoudi on santoor with accompaniment by Dehghani on daff.

Khorsandi’s performance, “Transcendence”, is an homage to Zoufonoun who passed away last year.

“He was such a master musician: accomplished and well respected and at the same time probably the most humble man I’ve ever met,” Khorsandi said. “He talked about things in such a down-to-earth way that you’d forget you’re sitting next to a master. To me, that’s a true Sufi.”

The music in Khorsandi’s performance layers Zoufonoun’s work and blends in the recited poetry of Khayyam.

The other half of Khorsandi’s performance, “In the Name of Grace”, is dedicated to women who have to act with grace and beauty even though they would rather express something else. This performance blends more modern and raw movements with the traditional, graceful flow of Persian dance.

About Farima Berenji

Farima Berenji. Photo credit by Carl Sermon

Berenji, an Iranian-born ethnologist and archaeologist, is also an internationally acclaimed performing artist and dance instructor. “Poetry in Motion”, the name Berenji has given to her own dance style, is an improvisational dance form that draws on Persian classical poetry and sacred teachings from Iran and Central Asia. For Dance and Diaspora, Berenji will premiere two solo performances: “The Persian Garden”, inspired by Persian miniature art, and “Dance of the Soul”, which explores conventions of mystical Sufi movement. Berenji will be accompanied by Persian musicians Samandar Dehghani and Saman Mahmoudi.

Berenji’s performance, “Poetry in Motion”, also incorporates Khayyam’s verses. Berenji explained that most of the movements in Persian dance vocabulary were formed from Medieval Iranian poetry; each artist seeks to capture the feeling that the author tried to describe.

“For example, the poet would go and sit by the river and observe the woman brushing her hair,” Berenji said, “or see the birds and the butterflies flying by, and then write down his feelings about that moment. Then the painter came and read the poetry, and he painted the Persian miniature art. The dancer would than look at the painting and wanted to bring this alive.”

“Everything in Persian dance is poetry,” Berenji said. “It describes a feeling, a story.”

Photo credit by Tatsuki Kobayashi

These stories also describe beauty, love and divinity, shown by the Sufi moving meditation: whirling. The subtle movements of fingers, facial expressions and whirling are Persian dance’s expression of ecstasy.

“You turn toward your heart, toward the left,” Berenji said. “By mimicking the orbit — the whirling of the universe — you create that karmic law. As humans, we often neglect ourselves. We don’t listen to ourselves. By turning, you begin to listen to your soul. This dance represents that.”

Berenji, who has an MA in Anthropology and Archaeology, has studied the roots of these movements and their relation to women’s agency in Iranian history. Her research is dedicated to understanding and reclaiming this lost history for Iranian women. Her “Lioness” project seeks to explore and spread the word about these studies.

“No one ever talks about them; no one talks about these great ancient Persian priestess, empresses, warriors, Amazonians,” Berenji said. “These ‘lionesses:’ they were strong. They had war dances and spiritual dances to give them power.”

She also studied the Elamite and Median movements, and posits that some of the beautiful, lyrical movements in traditional Persian dance are derived from archery and other war practices. The more she studies, the more it seems the universe is guiding her toward this lost history. While out on a dig, Berenji discovered a tablet of a woman dancing: a serendipitous event that was hard for her, as an archaeologist and dancer, to ignore.

“One of the village elders came up to me and said, ‘this woman was not lost, she was sleeping and waiting for you to find her. She wants you to tell her story.'”

See Khorsandi and Berenji on February 1 and 2 at the ODC Theater in San Francisco. Tickets are available Learn more about Shahrzad Khorsandi at Learn more about Farima Berenji at

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About the Author

Shot from New York like a bat out of hell, Setsu is a writer and collector of stories. She recently graduated from the University of Washington with a degree in Chinese Language & Literature. Her coursework included a stint at a monastery in rural China, where she studied swordplay and Daoist philosophy. Setsu is a co-founder of writing groups in Seattle and San Francisco, where new writers can take their first steps toward publication. She has dabbled in many arts, but only martial arts and writing seem to have stuck. Visit her blog at

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