The dance of one thousand years

Katha Dance Theatre fuses Indian and Persian artistic traditions to bring centuries-old Persian poetry to the stage.

Katha Dance Theatre dancers moving in unison.

Courtesy of Rita Mustaphi

Katha Dance Theatre dancers moving in unison.

Robb Larson

“Life in a Day” is a millennium in the making.

The Minneapolis Katha Dance Theatre is performing an original production inspired by Persian poet Omar Khayyam’s “Rubaiyat.” The original piece is  an 894-year-old work of visionary poetry, and the inspiration behind the music and dance for the theatre’s newest production, “Life in a Day.”

The Katha Dance Theatre practices the centuries-old tradition of Kathak, a form of classical Indian dance that uses elements of Persian dance.

“When the Muslim rulers and Mughals from Persia invaded India, they fell in love with Kathak dance and wanted artists to come and entertain them,” said Rita Mustaphi, who is Katha Dance Theater’s director and choreographer.

Because Kathak was a sacred tradition to Indian artists, they did not want to perform it as entertainment. Instead, the Persian royalty brought in Persian dancers to learn Kathak dance and perform it in the royal courts.

Mustaphi wanted to bring out the Persian elements of Kathak dance through Khayyam’s legendary “Rubaiyat.”

“The vision came about three years ago when I was going through the history of Kathak dance,” Mustaphi said. “I had [‘The Rubaiyat’], but I really didn’t get into it until four to five years ago. As I grow more mature, I understand both the philosophical meaning and the layman’s interpretation of what it means.”

Mustaphi contacted composer and vocalist Maryam Yusefzadeh, whom she had collaborated with in the past, to compose the music for “Life in a Day.”

“We really loved working together,” Yusefzadeh said of her relationship with Mustaphi. “We found a lot of similarities in our work and decided that we should come up with another project.”

“The Rubaiyat” was originally written in Farsi, a language spoken mostly in Iran and Afghanistan. And although many English translations exist, Mustaphi and Yusefzadeh decided that a new translation was needed for “Life in a Day.”

“In Persian poetry, the poet uses nature and elements of life as an expression of the wisdom he’s talking about. They are never literally talking about what they are trying to say,” Yusefzadeh said. “It needed to be translated by an Iranian who could speak English well enough to translate it accurately.”

Yusefzadeh collaborated with actor and musician David Jordan Harris to create a translation that was faithful to both the meaning and rhythm of the poetry.

“We would go through each one of the lines, each word and what it meant. The next day, I would try to translate it into English,” Yusefzadeh said. “What David did was take what I had given to him and create a narration that he could actually use for the show.”

“The Rubaiyat” is written in four-line stanzas, or quatrains, with specific rhythmic structures. The music for “Life in a Day” is composed around the rhythm of the quatrain.

“In Persian music, we start with the rhythm of the poetry and what it’s intended to say,” Yusefzadeh said. “That defines the mode and the key for the melody, and also the rhythm it should be played in.”

Mustaphi and Yusefzadeh designed the show around the arc of a person’s life over the span of a single day.

“It begins with a solo as a dawn is unfolding. You will hear a ‘Rubaiyat’ poem being recited in Farsi language,” Mustaphi said. “[Then] it moves into the next piece, which is about childhood.”

Mustaphi hopes the performance will encourage the audience to reflect on the fleeting nature of life in each day.

“Dance is for the moment. When you read the poems, they talk about a day, they talk about a life,” Mustaphi said. “Do what your heart is telling you to do, because you don’t know what tomorrow is going to be.”

 

What: The Rubaiyat – Life in a Day

When: 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday.

Where: The Cowles Center for Dance and the Performing Arts, 528 Hennepin Ave., Minneapolis

Cost: $10 student rush