from the freaky in-between
It’s late April, 2019. Dance artist Zahra Shahab emails me with a proposition. She has been selected by Made In BC for their BIPOC emerging artist residency and showcase. She is working on a new solo dance work entitled thaw, and is looking for a fellow artist to write a reflection alongside her process. Zahra and I don’t know each other well and this makes me feel flattered and frightened by the invitation. Her email catches me at a time when I am transposing my dancing and choreographic investigations into the practice of writing. So I leap at the opportunity.
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It’s June when I’m first in the studio with Zahra. She greets me at the gates of WhatLab, out of breath and warm with sweat. She has been upstairs preparing for today’s informal studio showing for an audience of three— her project mentor, Tara Cheyenne Friedenberg, myself, and another mutual choreographer friend of ours. She tells us she’s going to try some stuff for the first time. Zahra begins, heading to her laptop to run the audio between sections of explosive movement, charactered embodiment, and negotiations with a giant balled-up sheet of plastic. I watch intently while grappling with what it means to accompany an artist in their process. I scribble notes:
I experience your joy of movement
The spine as the engine of your vehicle, snake-like and languid
You dance with socks on
Zahra sits down for feedback. I try to say as little as possible. What stays with me is her downcast gaze during the discussion. I relate to the anxiety and treachery of opening up to feedback when early in the sorting, trying phase. Regardless, she receives the feedback with great interest and openness. After, we head out to chat at a cafe.
Zahra says two things that stick in my mind:
I’m in love with my dancing right now
I like to include inside jokes for myself in my work
She tells me she is investigating what arises when she is in the studio alone, and is open to letting whatever happens, happen.
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It’s mid-July. I leave on tour to Winnipeg the day after seeing Zahra perform an in-progress showing at WhatLab at the end of her Summer residency. I recall a moment during the piece where she is standing centre-stage, clad in white. She slowly drops her gaze at what sounds like the end of the music track, only to look back up when the music glitches in and repeats the denouement. The audience erupts in a laughter that seems to surprise them. At the time, I wonder if it is surprising to her. Now, I wonder if it is one of Zahra’s little jokes for herself.
While sitting at a cafe to work on this written reflection, I unexpectedly descend into a long piece of prose named after Zahra. It is a raw, mournful love poem. After a couple of weeks, I get the courage to send it to her. The poem has some uncanny similarities to the piece Zahra is making: shape-shifting celestial beings, portals that fold spaces over like cake batter. In hindsight, it reminds me of Zahra’s interest in creating characters and states that abruptly dissolve, just as audiences become comfortable with them. Each time the veil is dropped¹, Zahra hopes to confront the audience with a reminder of what they are witnessing— a performance. An act. Given her intentional pattern of creating illusion and breaking it, I become curious whether this is an additive or a subtractive gesture. Are we layering or are we shedding? Does the work leave us stirring with multiplicity and accumulation, or do we depart on a tone of nakedness after all layers have been peeled away? The fact that the performance ends with (spoiler alert) Zahra disrobing and a brief moment of her exposed shoulders, nudges me towards the latter².
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Checking in every month or so, I observe Zahra move through different phases. It’s August and we meet on Commercial Drive to catch up over organic omelettes. She appears at peace, letting the work delight, letting it stump. She mentions that, as a way to make sense of creating, and by extension, existing, she has been thinking of life as a dream and that she is just bearing witness. She has this juicy analogy of feeling like a baby being pushed in a stroller. On more than one occasion, we talk about dreams and she tells me about her practice of visualization as a choreographic technique. We joke about how cost-effective it is. I notice that every time we meet up to discuss the solo, Zahra uses the word freaky. I begin to have a sense of what she means— an energetic queering of creatures and states, and the sinewy spaces in between them.
Zahra speaks to challenge, sharing about days where she showed up to the studio with overwhelming resistance. Days where she napped. I think of my Fitzmaurice Voicework instructors who encourage students to sleep in class, pointing out that the body is able to learn and absorb information (perhaps even better) if the nervous system is resting when it needs to. Rest allows the brain to process and the body to come home to itself. For me, it is an essential part of accessing creativity. We talk about how to work when you are loathing the process, which happens for most artists, I imagine. We share similar sentiments about letting creation be informed by the fluidity of who we are. About acknowledging and giving space to the range of emotion and sensation experienced along the journey of creation. This is not only a more humane, sustainable, and anti-colonial way to work, but I think this is the only way forward. With an earth that is broken, divided, and reeling with grief, there are many things that dancing and dance-making can offer us about how to exist in the world, with one another, and with ourselves.
Zahra talks about failure, about the rehearsals that are flops. I’m relieved by this. It is popular in contemporary dance to fetishize perfection and the myth of the contemporary dancer as machine. Although the discourse around this culture is shifting, much of dance education and the dance profession continues to celebrate this ableist and capitalist view of strength and professionalism. It is refreshing to hear about the days when Zahra finds herself unable to work past the resistance, and packs her bags to go home.
Respecting myself on days when I cannot overcome the resistance allows me to give respect for the days that I can.
Zahra mentions that rehearsals this month were paused briefly for a visit to her family in Calgary, which she says is always a rigorous exercise in knowing her boundaries and expressing them. After the ten-day emotional workout, she came home with an emboldened capacity to tackle being in the studio alone. All of a sudden, the work feels easier, and now she’s starting to have fun.
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By the time Zahra performs thaw at KW Studios in late November as the culmination of her MiBC residency, it is her eighth performance. The solo has already premiered at Calgary’s Fluid Festival where she performed for her hometown crowd, family, and former dance instructors. I scribble notes in the dark:
the absurd is refreshing
colours bring us places
when I hatch, I think about water
For Zahra, these showings have been less about audience response and feedback in order to revise the work, and more just a continuation of Zahra’s research into these creature characters and what it feels like to inhabit them in front of others.
After watching Zahra perform, I feel a bit sheepish. I don’t feel like I have built intimacy with her process, and I know because it is palpable that she has. I see it in how she sees the audience see her, and I’m struck by the difference between Zahra’s first performance in July and what I’m seeing now. I jot down one last sentence:
you know we are here but you don’t really care
I write this, not from a sense that I, as an audience member, feel abandoned and neglected. Instead, it is testament to the unapologetic fierceness with which I am seeing Zahra wield her queer brown mischief.
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It’s December when we meet over coffee for a final debrief in Chinatown. At this point, Zahra has spent ten days in a research workshop of my own³. We feel closer—laughing about one of us having had romantic relations with the cafe barista— and from this proximity, I glean more nuance when listening and watching her articulate her thoughts. The original intentions and priorities Zahra had for the work have not wavered. She talks about cultivating and investing in knowledge-creation that is from her spirit, from this— she gestures towards her solar-plexus. We talk about mentorship and the valuable contributions of others who have been in the room, including her two mentors Tara and Elizabeth Milton. Still, I hear Zahra’s focus on centering and legitimizing the logic, desires, and ideas that stem from her own brain-body. She contrasts this with a recounting of herself in dance school, a young brown girl in Calgary beginning to train at the ripe age of eighteen, and the experience of only being able to look outward and upward for approval. With a great deal of compassion for that teenager, Zahra is no longer interested in building a performance practice that relies on acknowledgment from the outside to exist or to thrive.
I realize that what Zahra has been cultivating, in asking herself to show up day in day out, audience or no audience, recognition or no recognition, is spiritual resilience. Zahra is masterful at her own pleasure, an avid fan of her own experiences and curiosities. Although she jokes that the self-confidence that drives her practice may be naive, what I see is the burgeoning of a steadfast, sustainable career in the arts, one that is grounded in self-honour. The process of coming to one’s own power is a different journey for everyone, and my own is a slow and tedious one. However, within the context of global neocolonial-capitalist tyranny that feeds off the disempowerment of BIPOC, and similar enduring, insidious legacies within contemporary dance that ask bodies of colour to divorce themselves from their own wisdom and stories in order to survive, I sit with what it means for Zahra to champion herself. I reflect on what it means for her, what it means to me, and what a gift it is to our community.
¹I mean this both figuratively and literally. Reflective of Zahra’s background as a visual artist, much of her body of choreographed works features the use of plastic and fabric as prop, set, and costume. thaw is a clear continuation of this research.
²After taking more time with this, I have since become disinterested in my previous desire to muse about the work’s affect on me, or on its audience, in binary terms. It is more poignant and in the spirit of Zahra’s preoccupations that I sit with the gestures of layering and shedding as simultaneous truths.
³Since 2018, I have been leading various research phases to workshop a new project, was it the smell of solitude, with my company, Hong Kong Exile.
Edited by Sadira Rodrigues
Commissioned by Made in BC