Choreographing Transnational Modernities: Imbrications of Race and Gender in Dance Performance and Spectatorship

Thursday, Feb 13, 2020 | 4:00 pm - 5:30 pm

691 Barrows Hall
Location is ADA accessible

Heather Rastovac Akbarzadeh of UC Davis discusses “spectator saviorship” in relation to Iranian dance post-1979, and Usha Iyer of Stanford University analyzes the making of the first “dancing girl” of Indian cinema in the 1940s, in a program centered on transnational circuits of dance, media, gender, and performance.

CRG Thursday Forums are open to the public and the location is wheelchair accessible. Light refreshments are served.

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Do Iranian Dancers Need Saving? Savior Spectatorship and the Production of Iranian Dancers as ‘Objects of Rescue’

Because of Iranian state-implemented restrictions on public dance performance, effective since Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution, diasporic spaces are often constructed as offering Iranian dancers the unconditional freedom to fully realize themselves as artists. In this narrative, Iranian dancers gain agential freedom – a dancer’s subjecthood – only through non-Iranian spaces. In turn, I argue that this account constructs Iranian dancers as what transnational feminist scholar Inderpal Grewal calls “objects of rescue.” I draw critical parallels between the militaristic imperative to “save” Muslim women at the start of the US-led War on Terror and the racialize discursive frameworks that position Iranian dancers as needing to be saved from the Iranian state, their families, or from Islam. Drawing on my larger book project, the presentation focuses specifically on dancer-choreographer Afshin Ghaffarian, who was granted asylum in France in 2009. I analyze the French reception of Ghaffarian’s live performances and the transnational reception of the American-produced biographical dramatic film, Desert Dancer (2014), a fictionalized account of Ghaffarian’s life as an aspiring dancer in Iran and his defection to Paris. In the case of Ghaffarian, the (neo)colonial formations of the male Middle Eastern body as always already feminized vis-à-vis Euro-American masculinities are enhanced by heteronormative perceptions of the male dancing body as queer or gender deviant. While Ghaffarian’s subject position as an Iranian male might construct him within Euro-American geopolitical paradigms as a prototypical terrorist threat, his position as a dancer (working in a medium paradoxically understood as an essentially human yet often gendered endeavor) prompts liberal human rights frameworks to establish Ghaffarian as an object of rescue. I develop a theory of what I call savior spectatorship, a multi-modal looking practice wherein discourses and images (static and moving) construct Iranian dancers as victims and their Euro-American audiences as compassionate saviors. As a pervasive form of twenty-first century cosmopolitan subject formation, I suggest that savior spectatorship is produced and sustained through historical and contemporary sociopolitical power relations and (neo)colonial saving enterprises. My theorizations of savior spectatorship complicate prevalent assumptions that hold active spectatorship and kinesthetic empathy as inherently politically progressive acts of engagement with dance performance. Instead, I interrogate how dance becomes a barometer with which to measure modernity, freedom, and humanity, and how savior spectatorship of Iranian dancers constructs a model of Iranianness that fits all too neatly within Euro-American geopolitical paradigms that position Iran as backward and pre-modern.

Heather Rastovac Akbarzadeh is a UC Chancellor’s Postdoctoral Fellow in UC Davis’s Department of Asian American Studies. From 2016 – 2018, Heather was the Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow in Dance Studies at Stanford University. She earned her Ph.D. in Performance Studies from UC Berkeley with a Designated Emphasis in Women, Gender, and Sexuality. Heather’s research, which extends upon two decades as a dancer-choreographer among Iranian American communities, examines the lives and artistic works of immigrant and diasporic Iranian dancers and performance artists residing in North America and Western Europe. Her current book project investigates how global War on Terror biopolitics construct Iranian dancers as neoliberal subjects of freedom. Upcoming publications include essays in the anthologies The Futures of Dance Studies (Univ. of Wisconsin Press) and Performing Iran: Cultural Identity and Theatrical Performance (I.B. Tauris Press).


Choreographing Corporeal Histories: Azurie, the Indo-German, Indo-Pakistani Dancing Girl

A woman to whom the famed Urdu poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz said “your mourners will find even your grave empty as you’ll come out of it to dance,” Azurie, little known today, has been described as the first dancing star of Indian cinema, one of its earliest “sex symbols,” and a founding figure in institutionalizing classical dance in post-Partition Pakistan. Born in 1907 in Bangalore to a German father and a Hindu Brahmin mother (her caste status foregrounded in Azurie’s accounts), Annette Gueizielor was re-christened Azurie by the Bombay film industry in the 1940s. This paper reconstructs Azurie’s clandestine training in “Eastern” dances through secret trips to movie halls and film studios, her production of a dancing girl persona in popular Hindi cinema of the 1940s, the persistent eroticization of this figure, her later role as cultural ambassador in Pakistan, her international dance ballet tours, and an eventual life of penury as she lived out her last days in a shabby hotel in Rawalpindi, Pakistan.

This narrative of a figure considered marginal to the history of South Asian cinemas – both, the generic character of the dancing girl, and the particular star text of Azurie – highlights resistance to contemporary gender norms, the articulation by film dance of persistent tensions around public female performance, and the socio-historical contexts in which the voices of female pioneers in the realm of entertainment are produced and circulated. As a mixed-race woman who emigrated from India to Pakistan, from screen to stage, dexterously managing her star text between being a sex symbol and an English-Bengali-Urdu magazine columnist demanding respect and funding for Indian/Hindu and later Pakistani/Muslim dance forms, Azurie helps us advance new histories of the female body in South Asian film and dance, corporeal histories forged relationally across axes of race, caste, class, and religion. Recuperating her role as a choreographer of new mobilities throws light on cosmopolitan, transnational dance networks that intersected with nationalist projects of modernity in South Asia during this period.

Usha Iyer is Assistant Professor in the Film and Media Studies program, Department of Art and Art History, at Stanford University. Her forthcoming book, Dancing Women: Choreographing Corporeal Histories of Popular Hindi Cinema (Oxford University Press), examines the role of dance in the construction of female stardom in Hindi cinema from the 1930s to the 1990s. Her essays have appeared or are forthcoming in Camera Obscura, The Oxford Handbook of Film Theory, South Asian Popular Culture, Women Film Pioneers Project, among others.

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