Staging of 800-Year-Old Persian Poem Unites Cultures on 9/11 Anniversary

Dancers specializing in India's kathak style (left) perform next to Afro-Brazilian dancers in "Conference of the Birds" (Prabhakar Subrahmanyam)

In December of 1972, Helen Mirren and a coterie of other actors openly worried that Peter Brook had gone “mad,” and they had a point: The famed British theater director had decided to take the troupe on a 100-day tour across the Sahara Desert and West Africa in four-wheel-drive vehicles so they could perform an interpretation of a 12th-century Persian poem called The Conference of the Birds.

Nothing like it had ever been attempted. But Brook was committed to staging Farid ud-Din Attar's parable about birds who struggle to find a higher truth about the divine and their place in the world.

And now Vinita Sud Belani and Usha Srinivasan – directors of two Bay Area arts organizations – are committed to staging Brook's version of Conference in San Jose. The show will unfold Friday, Sep. 9 - Sunday, Sep. 11 at the Mexican Heritage Plaza. This time, however, the directors are putting much of the focus on dance, as well as giving many of the birds portrayed in the piece cultural specificity.

Belly dancers (left), an Aztec dancer (center) and hula dancers share the stage in the San Jose production of The Conference of the Birds (Prabhakar Subrahmanyam)

The production reads as a veritable avian United Nations. Mexican folkloric dancers represent the herons, Chinese dancers, the phoenix and peacocks, Hawaiian dancers the ducks, and belly dancers the partridges. Dance traditions from India, where Belani and Srinivasan have roots, characterize the parrots and exotic birds, while a Persian dancer plays the Simorgh – a Persian bird of mythical origin that’s a God figure in The Conference of the Birds.

Actors and singers also portray birds, including the hoopoe, which organizes the gathering because it sees the world under such stress. “I see nothing but quarrels, desperate fights for a scrap of territory, wars for a few grains of corn," the bird bellows in Brook’s version. "This can’t go on.”

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When Brook staged Conference in sub-Saharan Africa, the Vietnam War was at a desperate stage, and violent conflicts were fresh in Northern Ireland, Germany, and Burundi. Belani and Srinivasan’s version of the work coincides with the 15th anniversary of the 9/11 terror attacks. Belani, who is close friends with the French co-writer of Brook’s production, Jean-Claude Carriere, whom she met during her years living in France, says the timing of the San Jose production is deliberate. The performances will begin with a moment of silence.

“What we’re trying to show on the anniversary of 9/11 – in this period of so much hatred all over the world, so much desire to go back to nationalistic tendencies – is an example of how beautiful it is to live together and celebrate each other’s goodness, rather than trying to find the bad,” says Belani, who is founder and artistic director of the Bay Area-based South Asian theater company EnActe Arts. “Art is only successful if it makes people talk, and it brings up subjects that should be breakfast and dinner table conversations, and asks questions.”

Like Rumi’s poetry or Shakespeare’s plays, Attar’s epic has found new audiences with each successive generation, and Conference is regularly performed in the U.S. Both in the Persian original and in a variety of English translations, Attar’s phrases are rhymed. But Brook and Carriere created a more accessible narrative from the Sufi work – though it retains the original’s scale, where love, death, longing, and resolve are key elements of the birds’ search for answers.

Srinivasan, who directs the organization the Silicon Valley-based, multi-disciplinary performing arts organization Sangam Arts, says too many Bay Area arts events happen in “cultural silos,” where a cultural group presents work before an audience comprised mainly of the same cultural group. Like preaching to the converted, these events become isolated happenings, Srinivasan says.

Belani has witnessed this cultural isolation first-hand here in the Bay Area. “The Bay Area is one of the most diverse communities in the United States, and it seemed that people were living together, going to school together, working together, but nobody was really creating art together,” says Belani. “I went to the San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival once, and there were all these amazing dance companies, and they were dancing one after the other – and nobody was interacting with anyone else. This was Mexican culture. This was Chinese culture. This was Indian culture. There was a gap between each of them."

With their reimagining of Conference, Belani and Srinivasan are mixing cultures on stage. And they want the audience to be as broad as possible -- to reach people, like Brook did, who may never have heard of the work, nor of the great Persian poet behind it.

"The play as we’re doing it is just a very raucous, joyous celebration of what the Bay Area looks like today," Belani says. "We’re trying to show that we can live as neighbors, go to school as neighbors, but we can also do art together. And the sum total of the art we create is so much more than the one-plus-one, individual art forms.”

The Conference of the Birds runs Friday, Sep. 9 through Sunday, Sep. 11 at Mexican Heritage Plaza in San Jose.

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