CHOREOGRAPHIES OF MIGRATION By Sashar Zarif Dance Theatre, featuring Zarif, Holly Small and others. Presented by Danceworks at the Enwave (231 Queens Quay West). Today (Thursday, March 6) through Saturday (March 8) at 8 pm. $27, stu/srs $17. 416-973-4000. Rating: NNNNN
As a teenager, Sashar Zarif left a refugee camp in Turkey to come to Canada. He had already lived in numerous countries, separated from his parents because of political strife in his homeland, Azerbaijan. His mother could only offer him advice by phone.
“She said living in a new culture would be like swimming in a river,” remembers Zarif, “and that I should make sure not to swim against the flow. Just keep swimming and stay on the surface.”
Now the buoyant Zarif’s autobiographical quartet of pieces, Choreographies Of Migration, employs elements of his traditional dance in a way that can be universally understood.
He began exploring his life through dance when he met dancer, teacher and choreographer Holly Small while pursuing his master’s degree at York University.
“I speak five different languages, but I have accents in all five, so I realized I should really work on my identity,” laughs Zarif.
With Small’s guidance, he obtained a Dance Ontario commission, and together they choreographed In The Letters Of My Name, a solo based on his 38-letters-long name.
“For the first time, I told the story of my journey to Canada, of running away, the war, the revolution and living here alone in my teenage years – all the funny and sad things, the sweet and bitter moments.”
The work earned him awards and recognition, and Zarif embraced its therapeutic effects and created Wait, a tribute to his grandmother, who raised him in exile in Iran.
“She was 90-something and could not walk, but she was a beautiful storyteller. She would tell me stories of Azerbaijani culture and add music and play her hand drum. Since she couldn’t get up, I would act as her legs. She would do her upper body dance and I did the lower.”
Eventually, he inherited her drum, which travelled the world with him and will be on display as part of a pre-show gallery exhibit.The third segment, Anar, is named for his 16-year-old cousin who was executed in Iran.
“This piece is a healing ritual for me,” says Zarif. But it’s also a tribute to other women he admires. “I chose four legendary ladies to dance it (York profs Small, Carol Anderson, Susan Cash and Terrill Maguire) since they’re my idols.”
For the final part, Life Is The Feeling Of A Migrating Bird, Zarif appears alone again.
“It has been a very difficult journey,” says Zarif, “but ultimately the final solo is about me carrying my past and going forward.“My grandmother believed we carry two things with us until we die: our father’s home and our mother’s spirit.”
And in Zarif’s case, a grandmother’s hand drum for following his own beat.