Anthony Shay is into women and party games.
But the women that the director of the Avaz International Dance Theatre is concerned with are the women who live segregated lives in non-Western traditional societies. And the party games, which will be included on a program called "A Persian Spring" to be danced Sunday at the Irvine Barclay Theatre, are one of the ways in which those women can achieve self-expression.
"In the West, housewives can go to a shrink," Shay said. "In Iranian cities, women have developed a body of folk material--dance, mime and rap-like verse--to deal with their pain and problems. 'Play party games' are still played in communities where dance and music are traditionally considered sinful but playing games is not.
"The games are both entertainment and psychodrama, and they can get really down and dirty and bawdy. The women don't have to pretend they're demure any more--they're with other women. We thought it would be relevant for Western women to see how other women deal with these issues. But when the older Persian women see them, they just go nuts. It brings back such memories!"
Bazi-ha-ye namayeshi-- also called "theatrical games"--provide the framework for one of a dozen traditional dances in "A Persian Spring." The concert will feature violinist Loghman Adhami, who will play selections from the Persian classical music tradition known as radif, and Avaz principal dancer Carolyn Krueger.
One of 12 performing arts curators for the L.A. Festival scheduled for Aug. 21, Shay has also included the games as part of a work for the festival's opening night called "Eastern Women's Voices." Other sections of the suite incorporate cabaret (belly) dancing and Islamic dances from the Philippines that explore how a woman should walk.
For someone who likes to think of his art as "nonpolitical," Shay certainly manages to stay in the thick of things. The Gulf War scuttled his bookings two years ago, and he was inadvertently premiering Armenian, Kurdish and Bosnian dance suites when each of those recent crises broke. He calls his company "the CNN of the arts."
"In people's eyes, we used to do 'quaint,' " said Shay. "But artistically speaking we've moved right into the public interest. Instead of a two-dimensional newscast, people can see three-dimensional human figures (performing) art. They can see the region's aesthetic."
Though the concert is devoted to the Iranian cultural world, Shay considers Iranian to be a linguistic term that goes far beyond modern political borders, stretching from Turkey to China and including such current political hotbeds as Azerbaijan. "Scholars refer to (the formerly Soviet) Tajikistan and certain enclaves within China as Outer Iran," he noted.
Born and based in Los Angeles, Shay, 57, has championed Iranian culture since his college days; his own heritage is French and Anglo-Saxon. "Just fascination, no genetic links," he said. He recently retired as a senior librarian for the Los Angeles Public Library after almost 30 years.
Shay was a dancer for many years, but he will not dance in "A Persian Spring." He was also co-founder and artistic director of the Los Angeles-based Aman Folk Ensemble before founding Avaz in 1977.
Whereas many ethnic dance companies think that gymnastics or acrobatics of a sort are necessary to "sell" traditional dances, Shay said that he shies from gratuitous technical displays.
"I'm anti-virtuoso per se," he said. "I'm glad if people are entertained, but this is a serious art form. If it's a circus, it's another choreographer's concern.
"But some of these dances are very athletic for the men--like the Russian kicks at ethnic weddings. And in the Persian Gulf region, where Arab-African presences created a wonderful melange, you see the body shimmies, a stew pot of movement, really hot, opposite to the foursquare rhythms of the north."
According to Shay, ethnic arts continue to grow in popularity because they are ever-evolving.
"Many forms of modern art, music and dance, as well as rock 'n' roll, have reached the end of what can truly be considered innovative," Shay said. "Dance is still Martha Graham, a lot of music is John Cage. But improvisation is absolutely inherent to traditional art, just as it is for blues and jazz, so there's always room for development.
"People (in the West) have run out of wellsprings. Meanwhile, traditional art moves forward--there's never been a time like the present, socially and aesthetically, for Persian music and dance. Something a critic wrote after a performance by Cambodian dancers in the '70s really impressed me. Watching a group like that, he said, forces you to reassess what art is really all about."
* The Avaz International Dance Theatre will present "A Persian Spring" on Sunday at 8 p.m. at the Irvine Barclay Theatre, 4242 Campus Drive, Irvine. $15 to $25. (714) 854-4646.