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LETTERS FROM TENTLAND - video stage for dance performance

“Letters from Tentland” is a dance performance (concepted and directed by Helena Waldmann, video stage by Karina Smigla-Bobinski and Anna Saup), and at the same time an intelectual process as well. After the conception and development phase in autumn 2004, two public performances took place in Tehran at an important theatre festival in January 2005.The stage performance consists of dance choreographies and monoloques, framed in video projections and music, that turns into a room of actions and picture, at the end of the play, while the actresses invite the female part of the audience to conversation behind the curtain, turns into a communication area.

Avisual methaphor of the tents, in which 6 iranian actresses stay during the whole play, remains effective on the spoken level as well. In Persian language, "Tchador" means a shroud that covers the whole body, which women have to wear due to a decree, and also a tent. If an Iranian woman desires to stay a while on some public place, she is obligated to use a small tent she takes along all time .

In the metonymy of the project "Letters From Tentland" originally titled "Letters From Tehran", owing to the Iranian censorship, had to be renamed and thus became more profund and essentially felicious title involuntarily, these small foldable one-(wo)man-tents would be staged as a symbol of social sytuation. The play visualize this sytuation not in a documentary way, what would make a performance in Tehran, because of political reasons not possible, but decodes it in dancing motions, in pictures of impressive power that melt together with the video projections. After the introducing sequence of photos projected on the shut curtain showing woman-tents all over the country (among them, at the end of the sequence, appear several shelter tents of erthquake victims, without the sex separation, as a laconic coment on the limits of the religion-political controling power) the tents come into sight, with their non transparent, spooky corporeality, groping with cautious motions prove in a group-choreography their potentialities. Then, one of the six female performers stepping forward makes in her first monoloque the ambivalence of being shrouded, the powerlessness and the strength of the invisible, perceptible tangible. This is the start. This interplay of choreography and programmatic monoloques form the primal rythm. The astonishment about the silent body language of the tents that returns time and again, mixt with real emotion, when hands appear from the side slits in tents and behind their net windows faces emerge and then at the end, as an ambivalent main point the tent really opens.

Apart from the music, connecting the tradional motives with electronic sounds, the video projections by Karina Smigla-Bobinski and Anna Saup play a leading role. Set mostly contrapuntually , the still pictures as well as the film or animated sequences appear on the shut curtain or on the static stage situations. As the motion changes with the spoken parts, so consists the projections repertoire of image and text. They act as aframe producing a topographic-cultural background. They summon the Iranian world on the stage using pictures of tents or Tehran panorama, enlarged pictures of tent netwindows and shrouds, interiors of shelter tents or Farsi scripts. This causes a concrete change of the play location. One thing remains different anyhow: the sequence with the dancing woman that can be seen as a white hazy silhouette. It is illusionary.It bings in a sketch what is not permitted (a dance, not to wear Tchador), it fetches out volatilely and immaterially, what during the whole play gets encoded by elaborated symbol language. Consequently this sequence fell victim, in both Tehran's performances to the censors.

"Letters from Tentland" is more than only a dance performance. Aside from a book edition and a website with its forum making messages from Iran accessible, there is also video documentation by Karina Smigla-Bobinski, made during the try-outs before the premiere in Tehran. In this production Smigla-Bobinski focalize only on the theatre recordings. She uses no other material, no coments, no talks or interviews. Particulary not with the six Iranian actresses, who would run a risk of political persecutions. Instead of this only a withholding reproduction of shown stage play. The long-shots show the group chreographies and the whole-stage video projections, the close up views picture the monoloques in the tents, the interactions between the performers are shown by means of the semi long-shots. This self-restraint sends a clear message: what counts at this project is the fact of its coming into existence. This existance is a foregather of European and Iranian artists, threatened by many outer pressures and using these pressures into the creation process, and had its culmination in two pageants in Iran.

© Letters from Tentland by Thomas Huber


As the lights go down at the sold-out Tanzhaus in Düsseldorf, a friendly voice announces in German, "From my recent trip to Iran, I've brought back a few mementos to show you. The tents." A slide show appears on the stage curtain, showing images of nylon tents pitched on roadsides, on beaches, and outside mosques; families cooking outside tents, children playing in
tents, tent flaps closing to the photographer.
The voice belongs to Helena Waldmann, forty-three, a name in Germany?s experimental theatre and dance scene. Last year, Waldmann was invited by the director of the Dramatic Arts Centre in Tehran to give a workshop there.
She didn't know much about the arts in Iran - that dance has been forbidden since the revolution in 1979, or that no Western woman had ever before been asked to work in an Iranian theatre.
On arrival, Waldmann was given rehearsal space on the seventh floor of the arts centre. The director presented her with fourteen of Iran's top actresses, the closest thing to dancers he could offer. In lieu of dance, the Islamic Republic permits "rhythmic movement" - variations on folk dances in which contact between men and women, exposure of the female body, and provocative positions (as defined by a censor) are forbidden. But Waldmann was not interested in folk dance. With the door closed behind them and uniformed men standing guard outside, she asked the
women to line up along a wall-length window and, facing their city, to compose a letter to someone who was important to them. The first woman began her letter with "Dear God," then the others continued until they had drafted a collective plea that culminated with "Please God, come back from holiday." Waldmann had her motif. Beyond the guarded doors, expressing such thoughts was proscribed. When the ten-day workshop concluded, the group had come up with something that, in Waldmann's view, was worthy of a performance. "Letters from Tentland" opened the International Fadjr Theatre Festival in Tehran in January 2005, then toured Brazil and South Korea, before making its way to
Europe and tonight, Düsseldorf.
The curtain rises to reveal six pyramid-shaped tents in yellow, white, rust, beige, red, and dark blue on the darkened stage. A lamp lights up inside one and silhouetted fingers begin to snap. A maraca responds from another tent, then both are joined by clucking from a third tent and trilling from a fourth. The chorus ends with a proclamation: "I act in the spirit of mydirector." Absolved of responsibility for what may come, the tents begin to
move. For a good hour, they rock, run, twirl, roll, leap, cartwheel, and flap. Some attack, others submit; some cling together, others lurk on the margins. Their contents remain hidden, though occasionally a bare arm reaches out to grab, pull, or resist another tent. Through small, screened windows, figures in glittering pyjama-like outfits can be glimpsed now and again.
When the women finally position their faces squarely in the tent windows and stare out into the audience, Waldmann's metaphor becomes clear (chador in Farsi means both tent and veil).
As they move, video images of life in Tehran are projected onto the tents. Persian surtitles race from right to left as translations run in the opposite direction. At one point, a white shadow dances across the tents to the haunting sound of a woman singing alone. The rest of the music is instrumental, oriental, sampled.
Throughout, the tents carry on a dialogue with their director and the audience. Beige says, "We are protected. Our privilege is not to be identified. Your problem is how to identify us." Red, after whirling around the stage, yells, breathless, "I hate the skin of this tent. It makes me sick to touch it. I even hurt myself, punish myself in this tent. It's suffocating me." Blue says, exasperated, "You change the rules every day! Shall I dance? Yesterday no, today yes. I'll stay in my tent, I'll do my own theatre." And all the tents stand on their heads. At the end, only the dark blue tent remains; it has swallowed the others. The tent fly opens and a young woman looks at the audience with an expression of blank curiosity. She speaks in Farsi and waits, then translates: "Voulez vous visiter ma tente?" There's an awkward stillness. The tent fly opens further and the faces of the other women appear. "Please, come and visit our tent!," one of the women beckons. In Brazil, the actresses later tell me, women stormed the tent, crowding in
to complain about the pressure they feel to expose their bodies. In South Korea, no one budged. Here in Düsseldorf, the heart of Germany's extroverted Rheinland, a man strides confidently onto the stage. After some scrambling, he is granted entrance and the zipper closes behind him.
Helena Waldmann cheers loudly from the back of the theatre.
During rehearsals in Iran, the censors had come and gone, a silent presence at the back of the hall. Waldmann assumed she was on safe ground until the dress rehearsal, one day before the festival opening, when eight bearded men appeared. As they conferred afterward, Waldmann, unable to bear the suspense, walked up and asked what they thought. Why tents, they wanted to know. A new dance began. Waldmann described with wonderment her first impression of Tehran. Nomads, victims of the Bam earthquake, people offering provisional services - all living in or working out of tents. The censors accepted this explanation, but had two definite objections to the performance: the singing (Iranian law prohibits women from singing alone)
and the tight clothing and erotic movements of the dancing shadow. Waldmann was able to negotiate twenty seconds of singing, then, to fix the projection, had her video artist spend the night at the computer dressing the shape in pyjamas and making its movements jerkier more in the limbs, less in the chest and hips. The next evening, Tehran saw a slightly clumsy digital shadow instead.
The actresses know that the Iran they will return to would not have tolerated their show. Since the "Letters from Tentland" tour began, the country has elected a new, conservative president and the director of the Dramatic Arts Centre has been fired. Some speculate quietly about the possibility of landing in jail when they go back. Sara Reyhani, twenty-five, takes long drags of a cigarette. "In Iran," she says, "we lead two lives, one inside and one outside. Here in Europe, it's all outside. The freedom you have here is probably more natural. But maybe the hardship we suffer in Iran makes us focus on the important things." She looks down, admiring the cowboy boots she bought earlier that day.
Later that night, Reyhani and some of the other actresses go out on the town. They walk through the streets of Düsseldorf in the rain, stopping at a snack bar to eat German fries and watch all the people. It's past midnight and they are outside.

© Naomi Buck Febr 2006 Buck is a Toronto-born writer who lives in Berlin. She is the editor of the online magazine signandsight.com.

Letters from Tentland

from and with > Zoreh Aghalou, Pantea Bahram, Mahshad Mokhberi, Banafsheh Nejafi, Sara Reyhani, Sima Tirandaz

concept and direction > Helena Waldmann
dramaturgy > Susanne Vincenz
light design > Herbert Cybulska
video > Anna Saup und Karina Smigla-Bobinski
stage > Helena Waldman und Narmin Nazmi
composition > Hamid Saeidi, Hans Schiessler und Reza Mojhadas
assistant to the director > Rima Raminfar und Shabnam Koshdel
assistant stage design > Ali Reza Biraghi
Iran consultant > Farhad Payar

Technical Specifications

description > video stage for dance performance
components > video, tents, white stage screen, projector
> variable, most: 10 m long x 6 m wide x 7 m high
premiere > January 2005 Fadj Festival Tehran (Iran)
try-outs > Sept 5, 2004 Hannover (D) and Nov 6+7, 2004 Munich (D)

Production of Goethe-Institut and Dramatic Arts Center Tehran

Supported by Hauptstadtkulturfonds, in collaboration with the Goethe-Institut

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> Letters from Tentland
> Helena Waldmann