Niayesh Nahavandian is a young, Iranian female performing artist that has lived and worked in Italy for five years. She has performed and studied with various Italian theater companies including Teatro Tascabile di Bergamo and Teatro Caverna, and ran a workshop and theatre laboratory in Accademia Susanna Beltrami as a student project. Physical theater is a dominant part of her work, which is influenced by her training at Eugenio Barba’s Odin Teatret and her early carrier in Iran. In Tehran, her performance in Hippolytus that was directed by Farzād Amīnī, was truly an exceptional example of Vsevolod Meyerhold’s Biomechanics. The show was also performed in Bergamo. Her work is becoming more intercultural due to her collaboration with different theater companies in Italy. She also took part in various theatre and contemporary dance festivals such as Créarc: young European theatre in Grenoble, France, and Find Danza in Cagliari, Italy. She is currently studying at Academia Susanna Beltrami, one of the most prominent contemporary dance schools in Milan, Italy.
Niloofar Mohtadi: Tell us about yourself, your background, and your reputation in Italy?
Niayesh Nahavandian: I’m an Iranian performer but have been living in Italy for five years now. Although I studied urban planning at first, I had a passion for performing arts from a young age. Following my decision to live in Italy, I decided to pursue what motivated me to perform. I’m currently attending Academia Susanna Beltrami for performing arts and contemporary dance in Milan.
NM: Your acting has different layers, but physical theater techniques are more visible. Your moves are a mixture Meyerhold’s Biomechanics and Indian classical dance, so how do you handle narrative from a text?
NN: I believe in the actor as a researcher. Over years of observation and practice, I’ve come to know that my body and mind are like a machine. They receive different information and techniques and develop them into movements. In early years of my work, I used movement to create phrases for the text. Later on, Biomechanics have become an approach to explore a wide range of physical actions. I then became interested in theories that enriched physical expression. Years later in Italy, I had an opportunity to study at Teatro Tascabile di Bergamo, established by Italian theatre director Renzo Vescovi, whose work is similar to Eugenio Barba and Jerzy Grotowski. Teatro Tascabile participates in the big conferences on experimental theatre, organized and directed by Eugenio Barba around the world. These events profoundly changed my view about theatre and the performing arts. I had the opportunity to observe the techniques and daily rehearsals of Eugenio Barba and other instructors in these Italian theater companies. Since then, I have started to practice and learn more about Asian dance techniques, especially Indian classical dance. I came to known that I cannot depend on the text, and that primitive elements of dramatic literature can be freely represented by masks, movements and gestures.
NM: As a performer you had quite a journey, from playing in theatres of Iran to dancing and performances in Italy. How did you transition between the two and what were the differences between acting techniques in Iran and Italy? How much did they affect each other?
NN: There are many differences between my approaches to theatre in Iran and Italy. There is an obsessed precision in the Italian academic world in training an actor or a dancer. This preparation takes years. Students are expected to dedicate a lifetime to learn only one technique, such as one version of classical Indian dance, ballet, or contemporary performance, and there are a lot of workshops for people interested in learning more about theatre. I have several performing experiences in Iran including Love in the Time of Cholera and Hippolytus plays directed by Farzād Amīnī, that I have become more familiar with theories of Grotowski and Barba during rehearsals. Constant physical and voice training was the most important part of the process. The goal was to guide your body and voice as two main expressive instruments. In terms of experimental theatre in Iran, I think body movement and choreography still have a lot of space to be developed. For me as an Iranian, it’s very important to always keep in touch with my society and culture. Iran and its representative poetic ambiance is a hugely profound part of my existence. I started by playing in black boxes and little stages in Tehran, and then my curiosity to learn more grew. I wish there could be a direct collaboration and shared training experience without borders between countries. Not to create something international, but to enrich the vision of an artist more transparently.
NM: How was your experience at Odin Theatre and Eugenio Barba’s workshops in Italy? He held a workshop during the International Fadjr Theater Festival in 2016. Was there any mention of his interaction with Iranian students and theatre performances in Tehran?
NN: For me, having the opportunity to observe, talk, and explore more about this historical theater company, which is one of the primary sources of experimental theatre in the world, was an enlightening journey. It was an intense program of training, talks and sharing ideas between artists and researchers from around the world. The highlight was becoming more familiar with theatre anthropology and taking a personal journey through the discipline of Odin, Teatro Tascabile di Bergamo and Asian artists. It was like being on a historical journey with Jerzy Grotowski and his explorations of Asian art, at the heart of Europe. Displaying mixture of Asian and European physical theater techniques together was overwhelming for all of us. The method of any individual is not only to train to become an organic performer to act on stage, but also to know how much one person is ready to sacrifice for what they believe about art, humanity, and society. I have little information about the Eugenio Barba’s participation and interactions in the Fadjr festival. But I believe in its delightful impacts and approaches that anyone who was interested could have experienced.
NM: You also had a conversation about Meyerhold’s Biomechanics and your performance in Hippolytus with Jonathan Pitches, a Professor of Theater and Performance at the University of Leeds.
NN: Yes, as I mentioned before Biomechanics not only functions with the body but also with voice training. During rehearsals in Iran, this method became a daily routine. In the process of creation, what amazed me was the relationship between these techniques as foreign instruments, and the Iranian soul. My conversation with Professor Jonathan Pitches was about his studies and research into Meyerhold’s techniques, his interest in the role of experimental theater in Iran, and the performance of Orghast by Peter Brook in the Shiraz Festival of Arts in the ’70s. He also introduced me to online courses on one Meyerhold’s slap techniques. Professor Pitches kindly sent me his book Vsevolod Meyerhold. It was very informative, and I’ve learned more about the theories and how they work in practice.
NM: What techniques do you prefer to use? Do you like to improvise more, or go with a certain method?
NN: Techniques are a necessity in any profession, but the ability to give an individual identity to a work of art is most important. For me, I’ve always struggled to learn techniques like a machine and to follow the rules perfectly, despite being surrounded by them. I’ve always adored the magic of instinct, but years of study and observation proved that technique could give you a useful vocabulary to create and make work you believe in. On the other hand, I believe an artist must learn techniques and then be able to forget them. Not ignore them, but believe that they’re not everything and that the fire inside the artist is more important.
NM: You have worked on solo performances and with theatre companies in Italy. What are the challenges of working as an Iranian artist in Italy? How were you perceived by your professors or in auditions?
NN: Indeed, nationality and cultural origin can affect people’s opinions of others, particularly artists that have immigrated to a new society, Luckily in my case, my nationality has always been met with interest, curiosity, and passion. From both my professors and in auditions, I have had positive interactions yet conscious or unconscious judgment is always present. Most of the time, especially in the case of audience, this is to be expected. As an Iranian, I feel responsible for being sincere about every single aspect of my origin and identity.
NM: You have also held workshops in Bergamo. Do you teach certain types of theatre techniques? How was the feedback from your students? Do you feel physical theatre removes cultural barriers?
NN: I had a brief but beautiful experience teaching performance methods to children and young people. For a time, I worked with disabled children. It was a blessing because the freedom and courage they have are one of the most precious things I carry with me on this journey. I also had the opportunity to create and perform a piece over a year with a contemporary dance academy. This experience was an individual and psychological journey. It can be understood that working with foreign performers and a variety of cultures can make a beautiful, globally-representative piece of art but this doesn’t mean eliminating cultural barriers. It allows us to watch these contrasts in one frame.
NM: What are your future plans, and how have you been coping with COVID -19?
NN: I’m about to finish my studies at the Susanna Beltrami’s contemporary dance academy. I’ve been developing a personal taste and performance form during the years that I have resided in Italy. I wish I could learn and share more about the performing arts. I believe COVID -19 is the pause that the world needs. We need to slow down, observe, and enjoy the simplicity of daily rituals.
This post was written by the author in their personal capacity.The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of The Theatre Times, their staff or collaborators.