A Touch in the Dark: Movement Archives from Iran
Updated: Jan 25, 2021
I woke at 6:30 in the morning with a heavy heart, and a tired mind. An intense year had passed. My whole life had turned upside down. The future could not have seemed less clear, and I had no energy to face it. I pulled myself out of bed while the alarm still rang and closed my suitcase. I then took off to one of the most unexpected and powerful adventures of my life.
Istanbul, city of my passion, where I had settled after descending from London, sliding through Grenada. It never ceases to surprise. At the time of my departure, most of the roads were closed that day and there was no way of finding out which way the bus would take to the airport. I chose to bargain with Mustafa the cabbie. In the hour’s drive, we grew quite fond of each other. Talks of Italy, Russian women, alcohol, Turkey and life.
I would say roads are more beautiful when they’re empty. At an impasse, I had a vision. I saw beyond the unfortunate, simply connecting to the moment and to the people that life placed on my path. It was a lesson that grew for the next two weeks in Tehran, a netherworld now deeply engraved in my consciousness.
The plane rode smoothly. I watched a movie that had just come out I, Tonya. There is a scene where Tonya is sentenced in court, forbidden to step on the ice ring ever again. It has a very slow buildup. At the beginning the judge lists various fines, but as we get to the end, she realizes she may never skate again. I felt my stomach grip, as tears pushed through my eyelids. We started to pour our desperation out at the same time, Margot Robbie and I. Someone lost a part of herself there.
That’s why I went to Iran. My friends and family were pushing me not to go. I would go and share my movement practice in a country where it is forbidden to dance. I could really feel what it was, not being able to do what you are here to do, losing what makes you feel alive, forced to abandon that which makes you who you are. I did not completely know it then, but I would learn it very quickly.
Tehran is dusty and cream-colored. Tall, snow capped mountains rise on its side, like giants, everlasting, ever-present. I walked through the streets of the Persian capital, smelled scents I never knew existed. I walked through big, green avenues and blissfully tasted and savored a new variety of pleasures, discovering.
It all had a mix of sour, aromatic hints, creating a whole new symphony in my mouth and in my eyes. Only two hours after arriving, and I was faced with a beautiful truth; women in this country have another strength, a dignity that I have not witnessed anywhere else. Their faces are beautiful, unapologetic, fierce. They appear to have seen so much. It’s not mere self-expression, but some silent scream of self-empowerment.
Between waves of profound respect for the women passing by, wearing their Hijab almost as a statement rather than an act of submission, I saw how they struggle to identify themselves with such a statement (as Persian women their cultural heritage comes from another source). These women are not afraid of claiming what is theirs and what is not, not afraid of what they know, of what they think.
And they are the most charismatic women I have ever encountered. But it is not easy and the Man bites hard. Later, when I delivered my classes, I found myself trying to reach out to this dignity and strength, in order to reach for their hearts, both the women and the men, as we were supporting each other in freeing ourselves from our fears, reminding ourselves of our power, dignity and beauty. We were one.
Their bodies struggle to take the space around them, as if they’re trapped. I try to find a way in, to make us all connect with our breath, with our source of life. Life is motion and motion allows us to be. Therefore dance is a moment of pure freedom, of unfiltered perception. It is being alive, being who you are even if you do not know it yet. Blissfully shifting through space, present. Aware.
I met Sunny. It was, yes, on a sunny day. That was back in Istanbul, during a friend’s dance class, when she approached me and started talking in fluent Italian. She had studied at the Italian High School in Tehran, and had just arrived in Turkey. She would spend seven hard months trying to absorb and learn anything she could about Contemporary Dance.
My memories of her are still striking. She was one of the most committed and hardworking people I had ever met. “In Iran we have nothing like this,” she told me. “There are no teachers, no schools and it is forbidden for us to dance.” I tried to get the concept into my head. At first, I refused to accept it. And then it began. A couple years later she started poking me with emails and texts, to organize a Contemporary Dance Workshop in Tehran, from scratch.
She had no studio, no support, a few students and a lot of will power. On top of it all, dance is illegal in Iran. I was not a bit skeptical that we would succeed. We would probably never have a high number of students, which was necessary to sponsor the event. Nevertheless, I had faith in Sunny.
I sent her a couple of videos for a low-profile advertisement. The response was immense.
I started to receive emails from people who were buying flights from other cities and missing school to come to my workshop. I felt incredibly humbled and did not quite understand what was going on. Quickly, we ran out of space. I decided to add more classes to my schedule to get in as many people as possible.
I ended up giving class all day, everyday, from morning to night. I stuck to a very strict, ‘sleep-eat-dance’ cycle. It helped with the actual physical and mental stress I decided to my body through. Who was I to say, ‘I am tired’? Encountering such a passionate response, I wanted to satisfy and share my experience with as many people as possible. If this is not the purpose of what we are doing, what is?
A student emailed: Dear Signorina Ugolini,
Now that I'm writing you this, it's 7 in the morning and I spent last night discussing the necessity of action against thought. Went to bed 4 AM and woke up today with an urge to dance which I haven't had for a while.
So many people might not understand the concept of dancing in your underwear with an unwashed and incredibly sleepy face but can you ever say no to it when it demands you to get up?
Miss Ugolini, dancing in Iran is either non-existent or insulted. I used to live on that non-existent island. No one around me knew anything about dancing at all. But now I've faced the more tragic truth: people who call themselves a dancer, but still have no idea what they're talking about. A bunch of show-offs that just need to throw their money somewhere, in order to buy pride.
Years ago, when I was in high school, my biggest certain wish was to go to an actual ballet class which I couldn't find anywhere around where I live. Today, having been through all I went through, I learned to look in places I never did before. And now I'm standing here, questioning the essence of every move that I may make and its honesty.
If you've known a young, thirsty mind like mine you will definitely have the kindness to feed it. I need this class. Even though it sounds selfish, I bet I need it more than anyone else who's got into it. I need to watch you move and hear you speak. I need a teacher and I need it right now. If I should only sit in the corner of the class because I couldn't sign up soon enough for my space to work, I will! I am eager to meet you and I hope you would lend me a helping hand.
Impatiently waiting to hear from you,
It was not about me. It just was about them. During our first class in our tiny, underground studio, I looked in their eyes. I saw a variety of emotions, from fear to trust, from shyness to playfulness. I made a big circle. Everybody was dressed in their best, with colorful leggings and sport’s bras. I wore a man’s pajamas with a whole between my legs. I had not touched my hair since I got out of bed.
Why should they trust me? Who am I to lead them? These thoughts went on in my mind. I decided to ignore them. We started bouncing together in a circle to connect to our heartbeats and to create a new energy, to build a new space together. “It is a safe space,” I told them, “our safe space, where nobody comes to see you, where there is no judgement, where you can let go and simply exist, and be who you truly are.”
My responsibility was to share with them the necessary tools in order to use their bodies in the healthiest and safest way and to create the right frequency through which they could liberate and trust themselves. It sounds easy, but when you have forty-eight ladies in the room who struggle to open their legs to create a X shape on the floor it is a different kettle of fish.
During my training and career, my relationship with Dance evolved constantly. I started at a ballet class in my town’s school. I was five years old. I went from dreaming of becoming a ballerina to giving up everything in order to pursue academic study. I could never get rid of it. Dance became like a philosophy of life in the awareness that movement IS life.
Descartes will have to excuse me but my motto is ‘moveo, ergo sum’ (I move, therefore I am). While in school, I was clearly obsessed with perfection and technique. The first big step I took in my life was to realize that perfection lies in the imperfections and that technique is just a tool for us to learn how to connect deeply with our bodies. Our physical selves serve us in the safest and most sophisticated way possible in the act of performing.
I have known a lot of dancers (including myself) who were stuck in the idea of reaching a technical ideal of perfection and in doing so, simply forgot to dance. Technique, discipline and hard work are essential, because they allow us to be able to express and to work with our bodies at our peak, but that is not everything.
As I move along on my path in dance and in life, it seems more and more obvious to me that the whole point of dancing is actually to be and to celebrate the possibility of existing, connecting and communicating. Dance is a celebration of Life and human connection. It allows us to be deeply rooted in the moment,to pulse along with our heartbeats, to feel the strength in our muscles and surrender to the flow of the blood in our veins.
Movement creates energy as life does, and at the same time it is fueled by this energy. During the workshop in Tehran I uncovered the ultimate proof. As the days went by, I had an epiphany about everything, a kind of physical theory of everything. I realized what we were dealing with in those classes. It was not Contemporary Dance Techniques but Life itself.
We started to dance in the name of identity; our own identity, the one that is unique to each one of us, making us all diverse and in this, exactly the same.
The essential part of being an artist is to be able to peel back your outer layers, to uncover your identity, whether consciously or not, whether you like it or not. I could not see that then. When you dance, it is you. You cannot pretend to be anybody else. If you try, you get caught in the delusion that you so desperately want to make the world see. It never works.
As in life, the act of pretending causes dysfunction. You always need to be honest in dance, to create something true and pure, between you and the person watching you. That is the whole point of it, unfiltered communication, connection, co-existence, and finally, celebration. I saw these issues manifest fully for the first time in this workshop.
I knew I had to wear a hijab in Iran. It did not seem such a big deal to me. It was just a piece of cloth that I had to put around my head. But the psychological implications of this act are enormous. I remember clearly a sense of constriction, but also of protection. It takes a lot of guts to be who you are and to state it in a social environment. This piece of cloth around your head somehow helps with that, so that you do not have to deal with it. But there is a price to pay.
I walked past windows, shops, occasionally glancing at the reflection. I could not recognize that figure. It had no shape, no form, no characteristics, no identity. I did not know who that was. It was only at the end of the workshop that S., the organizer, without whose work, effort and dedication none of this would have been possible, told me about a couple of girls who said to her that every night they were crying out loud on their way home because for the first time in their life they were beginning to understand who they were. They were beginning to find their suppressed identity.
These women (and one brave man) suffered a great deal in their lives and they still are as they cope with a regime that is strange to the customs, uses and precepts of the culture they are actually identified with (Persian).
On the last day I had agreed to create a little performance for the workshop participants, and although the conditions were everything but ideal, the realization that we were serving some higher purpose made us endure. To prepare for this final show, I had asked the participants to create a few movement sequences of their own.
While watching them perform their small creations, I was extremely touched as they were totally committed to what they presented, without question, without judgement, without retaining anything; they granted me with the incredibly sincere gift of their performance. Figuratively speaking, they stripped themselves naked in front of me. It was pure beauty.
As we approached the (absolutely informal) performance day, I had more and more people coming to me with a great urge to dance and perform in front of their loved ones, but somehow they were so scared and insecure that once the time came they started to hide behind excuses. A lot of people came to me and told them that they did not feel confident dancing because they were not professionals and they basically did not “look good”.
It was very important for me to hear this because then I had another eureka moment. I saw how there are two types of dancers in the world. One is in love with being a dancer and with all that comes with it, the life, the applause, the status, the tours, the creations and the artistic aura. I do not despise these dancers, I truly admire them and totally understand them. I was like that once too. And then there is basically the rest of us. They are the dancers who are in love with Dance.
It is not only about the ones who have been through so many sacrifices, who even when they truly want to let it go can not, those who do not even turn it into a profession. They are the dancers who are in love with Dance. It could be you, your mum, your hairdresser, your dentist, the IT engineer who gets out of work at 8pm and practices until midnight in a country where dance is forbidden. “These are the true dancers,’ I told them. “You are the true dancers. It is not a degree that makes us who we are. It is what we love to do.”
They got ready to go onstage and when I finally convinced them of how beautiful and powerful they were, the owner of the small black box where we performed came in knocked on the door. Surprise, surprise. ‘I cannot allow women to perform in front of men in this building! Especially without their headscarves!’ he shouted.
Although I did not speak a word of Persian, I understood enough to know that something was wrong as S. courageously got the situation under control and managed to find a way. Still a couple of girls danced with their heads covered. I encouraged them to do what was comfortable for them. Even forcing to do what I thought was right would still be an enforcement, and in that way I would not be any different from the Regime that I so passionately despised during my trip.
I wish the West would be aware of this detail too. We managed to get our show done. Everybody danced their souls out and it was magical to see these people transcend their bodies and their technical ability to make something real happen onstage. It was a true gift to witness.
I came back to Turkey with ten kilograms of gifts in my suitcase, with a warm heart and a purpose in life again. Thank you Tehran. Thank you beauties, you know who you are.
Melissa Ugolini was born in Italy in 1989. She graduated from the Northern School of Contemporary Dance in Leeds (UK) in 2011 with a First Class Honours Degree, and was granted the Award for Outstanding Achievement. After graduation, Melissa worked with numerous international choreographers like Akram Khan, Anouk Van Dijk, Andonis Foniadakis, Aakash Odedra, Nicolas Cantillon and Laurence Yadi, Annabelle Lopez Ochoa, Barak Marshall, İhsan Rüstem, Bruno Caverna and Beyhan Murphy, while performing both new creations and repertoire works with Companhia Instàvel (Portugal), LamatDance Company (Spain) and James Wilton Dance Company (UK). In 2013 she moved to Istanbul, Turkey, where she became A full-time member of the national company “Modern Dans Topluğu” for the Istanbul State Opera and Ballet. Since 2017 she's been involved in several choreographical collaborations as a performer, choreographer and rehearsal director alongside Aakash Odedra, fellow dancer Evrim Akyay and the Italian musician Jacopo Mariotti. Beside sharing her practice with workshops throughout in Italy, UK, Turkey, Iran and India, Melissa is currently a full-time member of the Aakash Odedra Company (UK) and of Compagnie 7273 (Switzerland). In 2012 Melissa performed at the Opening Ceremony of the London 2012 Olympic Games alongside the Akram Khan Company and she is currently part of the new ensemble at the Münchner Kammerspiele (Germany) performing in Falk Richter’s new production Touch, in collaboration with choreographer Anouk Van Dijk.