House of Strength
Performance by Nooshin Rostami
Choreography by Merisha Mesihovic
Industry City Open Studios, Brooklyn
26 April 2014
[House of Strength is a performance by the Iranian Brooklyn-based artist Nooshin Rostami inspired by the traditional Persian gymnasiums called Zoorkhane (House of Strength). The Zoorkhaneh is a place where male participants practice a lengthy series of exercises designed to build their bodies and skills. Women have been traditionally forbidden from participating in these activities at the gyms where male performances are led by a singer who chants sacred poetry and plays drums and bells. In this performance, women artists from different ethnic backgrounds working in a variety of disciplines collectively perform a contemporary rendition of these traditional routines and rituals. The performance entails choreographed body movement with props and music. House of Strength was performed for the first time on 26 April 2014 at the Industry City Open Studios in Brooklyn.]
Where I grew up being a woman and an athlete was signing up for permanent invisibility. It meant dedicating a life to something that was never going to be recognized; success, victory, and loss that you were not going to be able to share with some of your closest family members, like your father, your brother, or a male partner. This explains why I spent several years of my young adult and adult life in Iran as a “semi-professional” athlete. The conservative prefix, “semi,” allowed me to be multiple things, the sum of which would give me some recognition as a woman. I never wanted to be “just an athlete” because women sports took place in a women’s only world with no documentation, media coverage, official appreciation, or real competition, as if it did not exist at all.
Besides playing futbol (soccer) as a kid, and basketball as a teenager with the neighborhood boys and at the risk of getting arrested by the police, every other athletic activity I was involved with in Iran took place in a closed space limited to women. Trainers, players, coaches, fans, referee, cleaning people, and anybody else that I interacted with during the time and space I was an athlete in action were women. There was the underground, invisible world of women sports, and there was Sports as a field where only men prevailed. The news of the women’s sports often made it to the tail end of the sports news. A graphic image of the relative sport’s ball or racquet—or in the case of swimming, an image of an empty swimming pool—appeared on the screen as the announcer quickly went through the results and statistics of a major women’s league.
Anything that is broadcast, photographed, televised or takes place in a public and accessible space, from the streets to the stadiums and gymnasiums, is still exclusive to men. The limitation of women in sports in Iran, however, does not just ban them from active participation. Spectatorship is also limited to only men. The entire Azadi (Freedom) futbol stadium with the capacity of about 100,000 people in Tehran gets filled with and emptied out of men numerous times every year for national and international games as millions of women witness it on TV from their living rooms. Men playing with men, for men, men cheering men, men hating men, men loving men, men shaking hands, men kicking each other in the balls, men exchanging sweaty men’s T-shirts at the end of the men’s games as women watch them on TV. The only presence women have at the stadiums is in language, in slur, as men’s wives, sisters, mothers, as “mother” fuckers, whores, bitches and pussies, as metaphor. The recurring bloody fights and excessive cussing during football matches soon gave the state enough excuse to declare the stadium an “unsafe” place, banning all women from entering it “for their own safety.”
This limitation to the participation of women in modern sports however is not in any way an unprecedented experience for Iranian women. Although they were allowed to attend games at the stadiums and play public matches before the revolution in Iran, women have a long history of being banned from sports as participants and as viewers. A significant historical precedent to this limitation dates back to before the advent of modern sports in Iran. Men practiced the popular traditional gymnasium dance workout known as Varzesh-e Bastani (Ancient Exercise) dating as far back as the fifteenth century. Choreographed group exercises and wrestling took place at the popular neighborhood gymnasiums where the Pahlivans (champions) went through heavy exercises using equipment that was symbolic of the battlefield armament. At the gymnasium, traditionally known as Zoorkhaneh (House of Strength) the Pahlivans practiced physical training, as well as virtues of humbleness, forgiveness, brotherhood, and generosity. Women’s presence at the Zoorkhaneh has been limited to sitting in their designated balcony during the championship events as they watch the topless men wrestle in the octagon-shaped pool of Zoorkhaneh from above.
Nooshin Rostami’s dance performance, House of Strength, is a poetic rendition of a female only version of a field, practice, and an experience historically exclusive to men. Throughout the piece women are rendered as the active performers and creators of a routine that is designed to give them strength while redefining strength and power. In this way, rather than a women’s “redoing” of what hypothetically men would do, House of Strength invites you to imagine how women would have done things they have been historically excluded and banned from.
[Photo credit Hani Zandi. Image courtesy of the author.]
Here the homoerotics of the sweaty topless male-only gymnasium is reiterated by the queer appearance of the women’s bodies, costumes, moves, and dance that incorporate and gimmick elements of femininity and masculinity at the same time. Everything reflects, literally and figuratively. From the silver triangles sewn on the dancers’ outfits mimicking female genitals to the exercise equipment. The viewer is invited to look at and into things. At the performance, as I am thinking this thought, the distorted image of my own face appears before my eyes as one of the dancers holds a pair of reflective shields in front of my face. She slowly pulls the shields aside and I can once again see the audience sitting around us in the space. Reminiscing in the after-image of my disfigured face I turn my head around to follow the dancer.
Choreographed by Mersiha Mesihovic, the circularity of the routine along with the constant syncopation of the dancers’ moves and music gave my presence at Zoorkhaneh (an impossibility for myself as a woman) a dizzying and stealthy quality. It felt like an erotic (day)dream disrupted by the annoying sound of a loud TV announcing the champions of a big men’s futbol league. This circularity repeated in the long solo turns of the dancers with the hula-hoop shaped Kabbadeh (originally inspired by the warriors’ bows) drew me into the melancholy of decades and decades of absence by women. I wonder how many other women, at one point or another in their lives, have imagined themselves ripping off their shirts, getting in the middle of the gymnasium, a Zoorkhaneh, a futbol field, or another male-exclusive space and running across the field or turning until they feel so dizzy they fall. I wake up from this sweet old familiar fantasy by the sound of the bell that rings calling for the end of the performance, House of Strength.