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An Evolving Form

As the helm of the Middle Eastern folk-dance troupe Avaz changes hands, the goal will be to link the contemporary with Iranian tradition.

October 29, 2000|VICTORIA LOOSELEAF | Victoria Looseleaf is a regular contributor to Calendar

The single-named Jamal can claim a wealth of talents: architecture, costume design, painting and, increasingly over the last decade, choreography.

Since 1995, the Iranian-born artist has been co-director of Avaz International Dance Theatre, L.A.'s leading Middle Eastern folk troupe, with its founder, Anthony Shay. Now, as Avaz prepares for its 25th anniversary next year, Shay is stepping back and Jamal is assuming the reins of the company. When the troupe performs Saturday at Japan America Theatre, it will still carry its founder's name (Anthony Shay's Avaz International Dance Theatre, for legal reasons), but the torch, in effect, will have been passed.

"Tony wants to push me out from under his shadow," says Jamal, 48, who emigrated from Teheran to the United States in 1975 to study architecture and visual arts at Oklahoma University, eventually getting a master's degree in fine arts and environmental design at Cal State Los Angeles. "I will be doing more choreography," he adds, "and Tony will spend most of his time writing."

Shay, who is 63, characterizes the shift as a natural evolution. Jamal joined the board of Avaz in 1990, and his earliest contributions were in costume and set design. Now, Shay hopes that his colleague will infuse Avaz's original folk-dance vision with contemporary energy and yet keep it tied to its Iranian roots.

"The one basic thing we share," Shay explains, "is that the dance traditions we do--no matter how contemporary Jamal chooses to express them--are always based in Iranian and [other] authentic movement practices. And that is our aesthetic tie, one to the other."

Jamal, who sports a thick mustache and has dark hair flecked with gray, first choreographed "Shateri" for Avaz in 1993. He choreographed the dance, originally a solo male piece performed in cities by the lower classes, for women, dressing them in men's outfits and spunky fedoras. It was, in fact, the first time this urban dance had ever been staged. Since then, he has continued to push the choreographic envelope, having created more than a dozen pieces for the 16-person troupe.

"I want to take the company to a level that has international appeal to a mass audience," he explains, "yet keep it close to tradition and give a contemporary look to it. My new work is basically a takeoff from folk, and because I lived [in Iran] for 25 years, I'm doing the urban dances through my memory.

"Areas that I have seen, things that I have seen," he adds, "will be in the dances, but with the facilities here--like staging, lights and all the other elements--that will help [make] the work contemporary."

His impulses seem on target. A Times reviewer, writing about one of his pieces in 1999, cited his vision of Iran as "approaching a postmodernist sensibility." More recently, another reviewer noted that the traditional Iranian dances Avaz presents have "proved a matrix for the company to explore new choreographic and staging ideas."

Jamal insists too that he wishes to showcase Persian dance as the art form that he and Shay firmly believe it is.

"I grew up and am dealing with a culture that, as Tony says, is 'choreophobic.' Dance is either banned by the rulers in Iran or banned by society itself. They don't consider dance [an] art form. We have been thinking, 'How do we change this attitude toward dance?'

"When you look at other dance forms--flamenco or tango--everybody has an easier time to understand it," he continues in his lightly accented English, "but not too many people know about Iranian dance. We understand every aspect of the urban and Iranian folklore genre, and are capitalizing on this to make Iranian dance more appealing and getting it noticed by non-Iranians."

While the Iranian emigre community has always made up Avaz's biggest audience, the desire to branch out is strong. Shay, who has choreographed more than 200 works for the company and will continue to contribute on a smaller scale, says, "What we're out to do is make it a preeminent art form [in the wider world]."

Shay, who recently earned a doctorate in dance history and theory from UC Riverside, spent the first five months of this year in Greece, Turkey and Egypt, doing research for "Choreographic Politics," his latest scholarly book, which is about state-sponsored national folk-dance companies and is slated for publication next year from Wesleyan University Press. While he was away, Jamal minded the store, so to speak.

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In choosing Jamal as his successor, Shay says he wanted a director with a strong vision. "Jamal is an artist who would be able to expand on [what] I first created, and he brings that sense of space he has in both his architecture and his painting to the stage in a unique way. He's [already] given a whole new look to the company."

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