Behind the Tent

Dancing tents from Iran

düsseldorf — As the lights go down at the sold-out Tanzhaus, 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 my director.” 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 def- inite 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