Dancers in Flight
A Sufi poet’s words merge with our stories of migration
In residence March 19-25, choreographer Wendy Jehlen gathers an international ensemble of artists at Jacob’s Pillow to create The Conference of the Birds.
Friends and professors read poetry aloud to her and translated it on the wing. As a student at Brown and as a dancer in Cambridge, Wendy Jehlen heard Sufi expressions of longing and wonder. She has loved Persian language and verse since her college years; this spring she is translating them into movement.
As a choreographer, Jehlen travels the world, working with dancers and musicians from many traditions. In March, she will gather an international ensemble of artists at Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival in one of the new year-round residency programs to create a new work, The Conference of the Birds.
Jehlen grew up in a world of South Indian classical dance and has studied Persian poetry and Sufism, religion and performance. In her new work, she has shaped the dance around a Persian epic poem that follows a migration—and around the stories of people who have travelled from many countries to find new homes.
In Pittsfield last fall, she held a storytelling workshop with local people who have come from countries around the world. They responded, she says, with raw emotion. Narratives have emerged from her workshops—people are talking, drawing, writing poetry about their lives. Here, in Pittsfield, people were shaken by a need for touch. And the workshop centers on touch. She designed it around an exercise she has created in working with people who are blind and deaf, to let them experience dance directly—to feel someone dance, and then to move with them. In the Berkshires, the experience of moving close to someone, sharing physical contact, brought out deep feeling.
Many people here had left family behind in their travels—some left everyone they knew. Jehlen talked with two young men who reached this country in their late teens, all alone. Dancing gave them sense of connection, something missing in their lives.
That connection is central in her new work, Jehlen says. The poem, The Conference of the Birds, by Sufi poet Farid ud-Din Attar, tells the story of a flock who set out on a quest to find a mythical being called the Simurgh. They go on an intense journey, and it brings them together, as though they become one being.
They learn to let go of—the word in Arabic is nafs. She translates it as “the thing that makes you see yourself as separate from other people and from God.” The birds need to let go of isolation, to come close, as close as a shared soul.
Jehlen has wanted to work with this poem for years. As a choreographer and director of Anikaya Dance Theater, based in Somerville, she has collaborated with artists in many countries. The Conference of the Birds will bring together Luciane Ramos Silva from Brazil; Marcel Gbeffa from Benin; Mohammed “Shika” Yousry from Nubia, southern Egypt; Kae Ishimoto from Japan; Danang Pamungkas from Indonesia; Tara Murphy from the U.S.; Sarveshan Gangen from India and South Africa; and Yasin Anar from Turkey. Jehlen has traveled to work with several of them in their own countries, but they will come together for the first time at Jacob’s Pillow, March 19 to 25, 2018 to finish the work. It will premiere at the Boston Center for the Arts on April 5, and Jehlen expects more performances will follow.
Her choreography and her partnerships, like the poem, bring creative souls together to become one. They map the intimacy of a human community. “The poem is a metaphor for people traveling together,” Jehlen says, “and they find that the divine presence they have been looking for is a combination of all of them. That’s true and very necessary now to remember. Islamophobia is creeping out of the cage it’s been in, and this is a message coming out of Islam, a very beautiful message, and it is important now.”
It is important, she says, to give a deeper perspective on Islam as a faith and a culture. It is and has been a rich source of music, theater and art, and of tolerance and humanity. In Persian culture, poetry is a daily pleasure, she says. Every home has a collection of the poems of Hafiz, and no one will ever rest another book on top of it; they honor it as they honor the Quran.
Jehlen will honor that soul of poetry, philosophy and music in her work. Alongside Shaw Pong Liu, the lead composer based in Boston, and Parisian composer Eric Raynaud (Fraction), Iranian composer Shahou Andalibi, who lives in Canada, will compose a section inspired by the ceremony of the whirling dervishes. They circle without turning, walking a circular path and removing their outer clothing to reveal white robes. They wear tall hats to symbolize the grave, and as they walk they turn and pause and move into groups.
Andalibi also will perform on the Iranian reed flute, the neh or ney. Rumi writes about the sound of it, Jehlen says. It becomes the lead instrument in the dervish ceremony, and in poetry it represents the yearning of the lover for the beloved, as the reed lifts its voice in longing for the reed bed where it was cut.
Jehlen’s dancers will celebrate the ceremony as a coming together, a coming home. And they will perform it as birds in flight. Dance often interprets birds, she says, but rarely in the air. She has studied the movements of flight, the way the wings lift and the body shifts, and she respects the strength it takes. Her dancers will fly.