Zahra Shahab: transformation and identity through movement

Photo by Lula Belle

Zahra Shahab, an artist known for blending visual art and choreographed pieces, will showcase a performative art piece at the University of British Columbia’s Museum of Anthropology (MOA) on Mar. 5, 2020 for International Women’s Day.

Shahab entered into dance in an unconventional way. As a graduate from the University of Calgary School of Creative and Performing Arts, she started with an interest in painting and ended up in the dance program and finishing her undergraduate there. She later moved to Vancouver to hone her skills with the Modus Operandi Contemporary Dance Training Program.

“I’ve always been interested in the potential for the fantastical to emerge through performance and through movement,” she says.

A parade of characters

Shahab will be performing an excerpt from her first choreographed solo, where the interplay between identity and transformation will be explored.

“The solo is about the multiplicity of characters inside my body and the idea of teasing those characters out through movement and costume,” says Shahab. “This idea that we are never just one identity, but our identity is ever-changing out of necessity and survival.”

She believes her exploration of self-identity resonates with the overall message of International Women’s Day, and that her piece reflects the idea of what it means to be a woman, how much is socially taught and how much is chosen. However, Shahab hopes to transform those ideals into something new.

“As I get older and realize what I have been taught, my natural impulse is to subvert those things because I want to create my own version,” she explains.

For Shahab, allowing a space to explore her identity led to the discovery of unknown parts of herself.

“I wanted to give myself permission to look at these freaky parts of myself that are maybe not normative or socially appropriate all the time, parts of my sexuality that are not seen in a mainstream way,” she says. “I wanted to see what would come out of me, what was to be explored and broken open. It turned out to be a catharsis, a parade of characters that wanted to come out.”

Movement and metamorphosis

Zahra Shahab hopes people can take up the space they need in the world. | Photo by Yvonne Chew

Shahab feels the movement of the piece captures the essence of identity metamorphosis: transformation coming both from the inside out and from the outside in. To achieve this message of external and internal forces, she is using choreographed movement in contrasting and distinct ways.

“I imagine I am moving through a thick body of water,” she says. “The way my spine is articulating through space is quite suspended and flowy. It is connected to how my tongue ripples when I speak.”

Shahab juxtaposes this part with another set of chunkier choreography to illustrate tension.

The materials she uses on stage are also a key piece in conveying her message.

“I am using this gold fabric as a veil, for me it is referencing the burqa. I look at it as a private space of transformation, as a barrier,” explains Shahad. “How can this veiled space be spiritual and holy? I am interested in the connection of secular and sacred.”

The piece is not just about her metamorphosis of characters; Shahab wants the audience to feel validated in their own self-transformation.

“My hope is that people watch and feel just a little bit more freedom in their expression of themselves, they feel the possibility that [they] can take up space in the world this way, can allow this aspect of themselves out more,” she says. “I want a little bit more spaciousness around the possibilities of who we can be.”

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