A Conversation with Niloufar Talebi on “The Persian Rite of Spring: The Story of Nowruz”
A Conversation with
On “The Persian Rite of Spring: The Story of Nowruz”
“It was all a revelation to me, tracing how thoughts were passed on through the ages and connecting the dots of cultural moments and practices that fed into Nowruz.”
A Conversation with Niloufar Talebi
On “The Persian Rite of Spring: The Story of Nowruz”
You’re an author, memoirist, librettist, translator, and theater artist. What compelled you to create The Persian Rite of Spring: The Story of Nowruz, and did you always imagine it as a stage performance?
Even knowing—or thinking I knew—the history and rituals around Nowruz, there were surprising aspects I learned about through this production. What was something that surprised you that you uncovered during your research for this piece?
NT Everything I create is propelled by my impulse to learn, and further urged by a need to get the bigger picture and context. A friend once told me, “You know you don’t have to go all the way back to the Big Bang to study something, right?” It’s funny, but it captures the direction of my research: back, back, and further back.
In 2007, I created a theatrical program (with composer-collaborator Bobak Salehi) of the poetry in my anthology, Belonging: New Poetry by Iranians Around the World, in which I narrated and dramatized the poetry on stage. This led to my commission to create a theatrical program on the theme of Nowruz for the community celebrations at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. I invited Bobak to create the music and the video projections, and took the opportunity to begin filling the gaps in my knowledge of our rich ancient rites and long history, classical poetry, folklore, and many more aspects of Iranian culture there for the discovery.
My research usually begins by Googling, reading Wikipedia pages, clicking on any idea or concept that captures my attention, and expanding from there as I build a picture of my area of inquiry. Curiosity often leads me from one thing to another. For example, I started with Nowruz and leapt from the symbolism of the seven S’s to Sumerian and Akkadian mythology to classical Persian poetry to Zoroastrian texts to Sanskrit to cosmology to the architecture of Persepolis to many other areas.
One of the pivotal pieces in the puzzle was understanding that the first tenth of the Shahnameh is our Creation Myth, which covered the discovery of fire and the mythical origin of Nowruz. I was fortunate to have access to the digital recordings of Dr. Mohammad Jafar Mahjoub’s lectures about the Shahnameh, which I supplemented with Dr. Amir Prushani’s audio stories—that ultimately lead to many enjoyable discussions by phone. I also received advice from Dr. Mahmoud Omidsalar on reciting the poetry in Persian, which I also translated into English for the stage, that is, rhythmic lines offering a digest of the story rather than a line-by-line translation.
An aha moment was recognizing the greater and much older Indo-Iranian context of the stories in the Shahnameh, that the poet Ferdowsi versified in the 10th century, which inevitably led me to research Zoroastrian rites, the Bundahishn, the Avesta and other living texts. From there I contacted a Zoroastrian temple and ended up having a lovely conversation with a priest and his wife one very late evening, followed by subsequent calls during which I recorded him singing the prayers I eventually chose to include in the program. Porochista Khakpour’s scholar brother gave me the book, Nowruz-Nameh, and her parents helped me cross-check alternative pronunciations of the prayers so that I could form my own version for the show. Additionally, I found references to Yalda, Sadeh, and other seasonal milestones on the journey to equinox in classical Persian poetry. Finally, I also incorporated my own childhood memories of Nowruz into the program, so there’s a strong personal component as well.
The next step was to curate and tie in all elements from the hundreds of pages of notes I gathered that helped me make sense of Nowruz. I had to tell its story to myself first by starting from Yalda, the winter solstice, and going all the way through 13-bedar. I also searched for visual material to match the content I was beginning to form and worked with Bobak to create the videos. Creating the music—and eventually each scene—was a magical experience since Bobak and I have creative juju, where he almost instinctively imagines the sounds for the feelings I want each scene to evoke in viewers.
It’s relevant to note that I was at the same time researching and creating a libretto commissioned by Carnegie Hall for a project to commemorate the 10th anniversary of 9/11. The composer of that work—which became Ātash Sorushān (Fire Angels), an original tale with two Zoroastrian philosophical concepts as antagonized forces—had asked for a libretto drawn from Persian cultural knowledge. So both sets of research fed into each other and I was able to carve out two projects in that year (2009-2010). And there is such more material relevant to Nowruz in reserve that could make a longer show than the current 30-minute version.
It was all a revelation to me, tracing how thoughts were passed on through the ages and connecting the dots of cultural moments and practices that fed into Nowruz. You comment that you discovered surprising aspects about Nowruz. So did I and I’m gratified that the audiences who experienced the program live and those who view the video of that program tell me that they had never heard all of the various branches connected together.
I’d like to also note that the title is drawn from the English translation of Igor Stravinsky’s stunning and breathtaking 1913 work, The Rite of Spring: Pictures of Pagan Russia in Two Parts, whose costumes and set were coincidentally inspired by Central Asian motifs (by designer Nicholas Roerich). I especially appreciated a comment by a viewer that points to the connection:
“The future changes the past. The name “Rite of Spring” may bring to mind the 1913 production of Igor Stravinsky’s work, which threw a lightning bolt into the heart of classical culture. Now there is a new work in dialogue with Stravinsky: Niloufar Talebi’s The Persian Rite of Spring: the Story of Nowruz furthers the ongoing conversation by offering a new modernism, rooted in ancient Persian humanism, with a vitality and power deeply needed in these uncertain times. Talebi turns Stravinsky’s sacrifice on its head. Unlike the “Chosen One” in the ballet, she embodies the ancient rite of spring with no need to destroy herself for the patriarchy.” — Gary Gach
Has celebrating Nowruz changed for you since creating The Persian Rite of Spring?
NT Once I understood the symbolic displays as merely outward manifestations of the larger ideas of renewal, I internalized Nowruz. I feel as if I celebrated all of my future Nowruzes in that one project. Nowruz is a state of mind for me now, freed from altars and arrangements. It’s a time to create new latitudes, to generate and participate in collective joy.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Watch The Persian Rite of Spring: The Story of Nowruz
یلدا جشن سده چهارشنبه سوری نوروز سیزده بدر
Artist Niloufar Talebi connects elements from thousands of years of ritual and history and recasts the story of Nowruz for a modern audience. Created in collaboration with composer and video artist, Bobak Salehi, and accompanied by Paul Evans.
Performed in 3 languages (English + some Persian & Avestan), the story opens with the poet Saadi’s yearnings for the birth of light during Winter Solstice (Yalda), and enacts Houshang’s discovery of fire according to Persian mythology, Manuchehri’s poem about Jashneh Sadeh, Zoroastrian fire prayers, Haft-seen, Nowruz ceremonies, iconography of and celebrations at Persepolis, Jamshid’s story of instituting Nowruz from the Shahnameh, and finally the victory of light over dark at Spring Equinox, and the following picnic feast and its Sabzeh symbolism.
‘The Oldest art form, storytelling, is on dazzling display in Niloufar Talebi’s electrifying and multi-disciplinary wisdom. Niloufar masterfully captures the essence of ancient rituals and myths while infusing them with a thoroughly modern sensibility. The result is a theatrical performance for all ages that will awaken even the most slumbering soul into a new beginning!’ — Maryna Hrushetska, LA Craft and Folk Art Museum
‘A mesmerizing performance, The Persian Rite of Spring is expertly researched, written, directed, and performed, weaving together stories from the Shahnameh, poetry, mythology, folklore, and traditions of Nowruz. Bringing our ancient heritage to life with a 21st century point of view, Niloufar Talebi is the only person I know who beautifully narrates in English, Avestan, and Persian.’ — Dr. Touraj Daryaee, Professor of Iranian history and the Persianate world, and Director of the Dr. Samuel Jordan Center for Persian Studies
ABOUT THE ARTIST
Niloufar Talebi is an author, award-winning translator, multidisciplinary artist, and producer. Her most recent works are the hybrid memoir, Self-Portrait in Bloom (l’Aleph, 2019), the opera Abraham in Flames with composer Aleksandra Vrebalov (world premiere 2019), both based on the life and work of iconic Iranian poet, Ahmad Shamlou, and a TEDx Berkeley Talk about the adventure of realizing the projects. For more information, please visit www.niloufartalebi.net.
ARTIST PHOTO by Devlin Shand Photography • Featured image by Abbas Tehrani