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Choreophobia (image courtesy of Lucy Anderson)

LONDON — Two women dressed in black sit on a wood floor, staring into each other’s eyes. On either side of them, two long, black braids rest, acting as the borders to their stage. As music projects from a speaker, the women begin to move. One waves her arms at her counterpart in swift motions, while seconds later her twin mirrors her, marking the beginning of British-Iranian artist Lilian Nejatpour’s latest performance piece, Choreophobia.

In 1999, dancer and choreographer Anthony Shay wrote Choreophobia: Solo Improvised Dance in the Iranian World (Mazda Publishers), the first full-length study of Iranian dance. The text chronicles the Iranian history of solo improvised dance — a once popular mode of expression that has been banned in public in Iran since the 1979 Iranian Revolution — and acts as the inspiration for Nejatpour’s performance. Despite state disapproval, dancing is an integral part of celebration in Iran; it still takes place, though usually in private. In Choreophobia, which Somerset House will stage in late September, Nejatpour uses the dancing bodies of Eva Escrich and Lauren Stewart to reflect on how her own dual East-West upbringing has interfered with her understanding of gender, sexuality, and male bodies.

Choreography suggests movements that have been designed and pre-meditated; thus, the term “choreophobia” implies a fear of planning dance. Nejatpour was born in the UK in 1994 and grew up in northern England. She holidayed in her parents’ native Iran every summer. The way in which she uses her female performers transforms dance into a struggle and illustrates the difficulty associated with not being able to openly dance in Iran, in contrast to how easy it is to do in Britain. The dancers grapple with each other in masculine, sumo-like stances, but there are still signs of affection for each other as they also glide across the floor, gently becoming one synchronized pair in a visual display of East and West coming together.

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Choreophobia (image courtesy of Lucy Anderson)

The work moves cyclically, like wrestling — the most masculine sport in Iran — in which men “perform” in a circle, and women are not allowed to take part. Choreophobia positions Nejatpour as a male body through two female dancers who recreate actions typically performed by men. The performers rotate their wrists and swivel the pelvis in a traditional “feminine” manner, yet also make more animated, violent, and visceral movements, evoking the Shi’ite actions performed by Muslim men during the mourning month of Muharram, when some men take part in self-flagellating in a reenactment of the Hussein’s struggle to safeguard Islam. By juxtaposing softer gestures with more aggressive ones, the performance also reminds the audience of an era before the 1979 revolution, when Iranian men danced in an effeminate manner.

Performed to an intense musical score that climaxes and then comes back down again, the relationships between masculinity and femininity — and also between Eastern and Western experience — are illustrated through the mirroring bodies that appear to be in a constant state of flux between friendship and antagonism. Choreophobia’s soundtrack mixes sounds used during Zār rituals — ceremonies that exorcise demons and are usually performed on traditional instruments like the tanbura — together with the garage west-Yorkshire baseline tracks that Nejatpour grew up with. As the opposing musical styles pull to and from each other, the dancers mimic magnets, with bodies and sound coming together then repelling each other.

The overall performance is raw and visceral. Dressed in identical black costumes, each performer has her hair stripped back in a French braid, wearing a black sports bra and trousers with a black, apron-like piece of material stitched on top. The clothing is shapeless, echoing the black chadors that Iranian women must wear on top of their clothes in public to hide any hint of femininity. At times, the two women even pull on each other’s garments, wrestling with their fabric facades in a bid to reveal what might lie underneath.

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Choreophobia rehearsal (image courtesy of Lilian Nejatpour)

In its finale, Choreophobia ends with the women lifting up their aprons and covering their faces, completely separating themselves from one another and hiding inside a cocoon. The resulting image is intensely phallic, but also reminiscent of Sufi whirling, a form of meditation that involves spinning the body in repetitive circles in the aim of reaching a divine source of perfection.

Male dance has now disappeared from the public sphere in Iran as a result of growing homophobia in the country; thus, the struggle of these two women who move from dancing to wrestling to dancing again illustrates a dichotomy in which a desire to express themselves publicly must be masked by another form of movement. Choreophobia puts a female perspective on what it means to be masculine. While the work explores a dual British-Iranian heritage, it is gender, and more specifically social norms concerning sexuality in an Iranian context, that comes through most strongly.

Choreophobia first took place on August 4 at Chisenhale Studiosand as a work-in-progress. A follow-up performance will take place at Somerset House (Strand, London WC2R 1LA) on September 25.

Choreophobia is curated by Lorén Elhili and Nora-Swantje Almes of curatorial collective To Whom This May Concern.

Lizzy Vartanian Collier is a London-based writer and curator. She runs the Gallery Girl website (www.gallerygirl.co) and has written for Canvas, the Guardian, Harper's Bazaar Arabia, Ibraaz, Jdeed, ReOrient,...