From Uzbekistan to India, Turkey to Afghanistan, the Ballet Afsaneh Art and Culture Society brings to the stage the vibrant sights and sounds of the ancient route through Asia known as the Silk Road. Spark sits in as they rehearse Sharlyn Sawyer’s “Song of Generations,” a multi-generational collaboration with the Nejad World Music Daf Ensemble that celebrates Persian culture and history.
A crossroads of trade in ideas as well as goods, the 7,000-mile-long Silk Road connected the empires of Byzantium, the Ottomans, India, Persia and Mongolia with Western Europe for more than 2,000 years. Combining music, poetry and dance, Ballet Afsaneh’s performances offer a richly textured perspective on cultures that originate in modern-day Iran, Tajikstan, Uzbekhistan and Afghanistan — an alternative to the usual news about political upheaval and war in that region.
Founded in 1986 by California native Sawyer, Ballet Afsaneh’s repertoire spans the traditional as well as the contemporary, with colorful dances created by Sawyer in collaboration with the other members of the troupe. Sawyer’s training includes both Eastern and Western dance styles, and she focuses on preserving and presenting the traditional dances of women from the various countries that make up Central Asia and Asia Minor.
Lyrical, classically influenced dances like Barg e Behesht — with its expressive, twining arms and graceful movements under a canopy of blue silk representing the sky — evoke the elegant storytelling traditions of the Persian courts. In contrast, the company’s Uzbekh repertoire includes dances in the playful Bukhuran style as well as the softer, more emotional Ferghana style, which reenacts celebrations, such as weddings and festivals.
A troupe mainly composed of women, Ballet Afsaneh also showcases its members in the traditional folkloric and ritual dances of Afghanistan, such as the Loghari and Attan, as a response to the religious and political strife that has kept women from dancing or performing in public in Afghanistan during the rule of the Taliban.
The company, whose name comes from a Persian word meaning “fairytale” or “legend,” is composed not only of dancers but also of poets and musicians, most of whom come from a Central Asian background. Each member of the troupe, however, performs in a wide variety of styles, crossing over cultural barriers in the same way that migrating travelers have intermingled along the Silk Road for thousands of years.