Chichaklar Dance Company will be performing their own variations on Azerbaijani folk dances at the Turkic Festival on May 27 at the North Vancouver Shipyards.
“One of the first [goals] has always been to share the culture with the audience… we really wanted [to try] to be a little more innovative and outside of the box,” says Shalaleh Rismani, founder of Chichaklar Dance Company. “But in doing fusion choreography we want to make sure that we don’t disrespect any of the forms of dance – so we keep the integrity of it but that we still make something that’s creative and appealing.”
Reconnecting with culture
Born and raised in the East Azerbaijan province of northern Iran –
not to be confused with the northerly neighbouring country of the same name – Rismani was enrolled in dance classes in Iran at a young age.
The dancer and choreographer recalls taking her lessons to Canada, and finding an enthusiastic Iranian-Azerbaijani community to nurture her passion.
“At that time it was just dancing, not even performing but just like dancing in general,” she says.
But when people around her started to show an interest she started giving casual dance lessons.
“Every year I would go back to Iran to visit the family and take some dance classes with my instructor, and so at 18 they told me ‘you should just start teaching more formally’ [in Canada],” says Rismani, who came to Canada at the age of 13.
In addition to the enthusiasm of her peers, pupils, and her community, it was this nudge, says Rismani, that would lead to the birth of Chichaklar Dance Company.
Ghazal Nikjou, another dancer with Chichaklar who grew up in the northern part of Iran, describes how Azerbaijan and northern Iran share more than just a border.
“There are a lot of things that are similar between Northern Iran and Azerbaijan. I think over time it’s sort of changed, but the root of it all is this beautiful culture and all these traditions that we all share,” says Nikjou. “I think it’s very important to make sure that we put aside our differences, and it’s the art and culture of it that’s really beautiful and should be shared among everyone.”
Indeed, for Nikjou, dance proved a large part of keeping in touch with her heritage.
“I think that’s really what inspired me to keep in contact with my background,” says Nikjou.
Nikjou shares a similar story to that of Rismani, moving to Canada at a young age and finding a connection to her roots through dance. In fact, it was through Rismani that Nikjou was able to realize her passion for dance.
“I was only 8 years old [when I moved] and I always wanted to sort of keep in touch with my background, and my culture. I always loved watching Azeri dancing [a style of Azerbaijani dancing]. It was so beautiful and I always felt very connected to it, but I never had the opportunity [to dance]… And so I met Shalaleh on a family gathering, and she encouraged me to get up and dance with her… A few weeks later she started to host classes in her home, and that’s when I started going ,” says Nikjou.
Fusing traditions and modernity
The potential for fusion of Azerbaijani folk dance with contemporary dance has offered many new and exciting artistic opportunities to appeal to both new audiences and older generations alike. But for Rismani, it is essential to explore in a way that is both innovative and respectful of the traditions of the dance, both in disclaiming that their dance is no longer just traditional Azerbaijani folk dance, as well as in maintaining an important coherence between the music and the dance.
“Some of the values [of] this dance are like modesty, elegance, courage, that resonate in almost every single dance that you do in this form. If you pick a song that doesn’t speak to that, then it’s probably not a good idea,” says Rismani. “The voice and the message of the song is really important.”
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