Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet, photo by Erez Sabag
Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet didn’t have to travel far for artistic director Benoit-Swan Pouffer’s latest installation, which opened Tuesday evening at the Chelsea Art Museum, just a few blocks away from Cedar Lake’s theater and studios on West 26th Street. But the museum’s current exhibition – and the inspiration for Pouffer’s installation – portrays cultural themes, gender issues, and political statements that stretch far beyond New York City. Iran Inside Out features the work of thirty-five artists living and working in Iran alongside twenty-one Iranian artists living abroad, all of whom are challenging conventional perceptions of Iran and Iranian art in their work. For nearly forty minutes, Cedar Lake’s fifteen dancers and vocalist Sam Bardaouil (who is also the exhibition’s curator) compellingly echoed the intensity, intimacy, and complexity of the artists’ photographs, paintings, and sculptures.
To the slow, recorded chanting of a woman’s voice, the dancers entered the space and cautiously assessed their surroundings. As the accompaniment shifted to Bardaouil’s authoritative voice and steady drumming, the performance started to reflect themes in each of the exhibition’s five sections – the most noticeable ones being war, politics, sexuality, and the quest for freedom and self-expression. Several dancers struggled to free themselves of barbed wire that was tightly wrapped around their writhing bodies, and a violent section for six men showed how camaraderie can turn to fighting amongst themselves, which was interspersed with the harsh shouts and chanting of Bardaouil. Later, a line of women moved stiffly in unison as they took turns in command. Other sections of the piece shattered the uniform, mechanical movements and cold atmosphere to reveal the hidden, suppressed identities of these seemingly obedient beings. Loose clusters of dancers and several soloists replaced the tight formations and clear lines. Men strutted in stilettos and women moved more expressively and liberally, conveying notions of masculinity and femininity that are examined in the exhibition’s second section, “From Iran to Queeran and Everything in Between”.
photo by Kokyat
Woven throughout the performance and scattered across the museum’s floor were pomegranates – a powerful symbol in Iran and a biblical representation of forbidden desire. Both the dancers and pomegranates underwent a journey that started with oppression and submission by gathering the ruby red fruits and solemnly placing them in Bardaouil’s large, shallow drum. As Bardaouil’s voice softened and the oppression weakened, several women, each holding a fruit in their outstretched arm, journeyed over a line of men on the floor. Their eyes focused on the pomegranate, with the goal of arriving at a liberated place. Elsewhere, Bardaouil voraciously bit into one of the fruits and took great pleasure in the juice dripping down his chin, with the pomegranate’s arils scattering across the floor. He gave into the temptation of self-expression that is often unwelcome in Iranian culture, and the dancers followed his bold action with distinctive movements of their own. In a tender and chillingly fragile duet, Marina Mascarell and Harumi Terayama delicately passed a pomegranate between their elbows, necks, and the backs of their knees, being careful not to allow the fruit to crash to the floor. The two dancers were mesmerizing and seemed to be seduced by the pomegranate and its significance.
Marina Mascarell, photo by Kokyat
Bardaouil was a driving force throughout the work as he interacted with the dancers, shifting between an ominous monster and a gentler, vulnerable soul. His powerful voice and presence left a lasting impact, as did the dancers’ ability to engage with the influential, thought-provoking artwork of the fifty-six Iranian artists.
Cedar Lake’s installation at the Chelsea Art Museum will be performed for the last time tonight at 7:30 PM. Tickets can be purchased at the door or in advance by emailing programs (at) chelseaartmuseum (dot) org with “Cedar Lake Tickets” in the subject line.
Iran Inside Out will be on display at the Chelsea Art Museum through Saturday, September 5th.
Sam Bardaouil with Cedar Lake’s dancers, photo by Kokyat