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26.5.Billotte

In 2008, the Mexican playwright and director Raúl Valles and the Iranian dancer and choreographer Afshin Ghaffarian collaborated to produce LEMNOS­, an experimental adaptation of Sophocles’ Philoctetes. Using the original Greek text, LEMNOS was performed three times as part of the 2008 Fadjr International Theater Festival, Iran’s only annual theater festival. Each year in late June the festival draws theater practitioners from around the world to Tehran for a week of ground-breaking theatrical performances in country where religious authorities exercise extensive control over every aspect of artistic and cultural life. This control can be particularly felt in the performing arts, which have been governed by strict regulations since the Islamic Revolution in 1979. The most important restriction to the aims of the purposed paper is a de facto ban on public dancing. Iranian law calls for the authorization of any “staged rhythmic movement” by the Ministry of Culture. As one might imagine, authorization for most “staged rhythmic movement” is hard to come by. Thus, most dance performances in Iran over the past thirty-three years have occurred as part of the underground arts scene that thrives throughout the capital.

The Fadjr International Theater Festival could not be more different than the small illicit performances that constitute most of Iran’s contemporary dance culture. And yet, through co-opting the ancient chorus, Valles and Ghaffarian provided an opportunity for Iran’s normally hidden contemporary choreography to find (for a moment) an international stage. In this paper, I will argue that key features in the contemporary reception and perception of the ancient chorus allowed Valles and Ghaffarian to exploit it as a site of subversive performance in plain view of the Iranian authorities. Chief among these features is the extent to which the chorus has been viewed by many modern audiences and scholars as an embarrassingly obsolete feature of Greek theater. This, I will argue, was the view of the chorus taken by the government censors who, as a result of their confidence in the chorus’s old-fashioned character, did not notice the ways in which the chorus’s choreography in LEMNOS defied Iranian law concerning public dance performances. I will contend that for this reason in LEMNOS we see the possibility to reclaim the chorus as a site for ethical and political contestation within the theatrical experience. I will offer an alternative view of the chorus, not as an anachronistic appendage of the Greek theatrical tradition that must be either reformed or complete amputated, but as a vital and dynamic component of Greek theater that serves as a powerful tool for adaptation and commentary through these plays.

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