In Under the Veil, Iranian-born choreographer Miki Liszt offers an intriguing and deeply personal investigation of what she calls in a program note “the ways in which cultures
|• For another dance review from this issue, click here.|
reveal and conceal women.” Through the ten-section work she takes us on an autobiographical journey through the Muslim practice of covering women from head to toe. Taking the feminist slogan, “the personal is political” to heart, Under the Veil functions as a meditation not just on Liszt’s experience of the veil, but on all Muslim women’s experiences, and in fact, all women’s struggles with the potent force their bodies wield in their own lives and in their cultures—and their cultures’ responses to that force.
This is powerful stuff, and dance/movement seems like the perfect vehicle for exploring it. Could Liszt have relied on her own gripping stage presence and the gorgeous Persian music she selected to accompany most of the piece, I have no doubt she’d have kept her audience riveted. Props, video projection, and the presence of five young women dancers who functioned as a sort of chorus, however, tended rather to diffuse the work’s theatrical impact than to enhance it.
A focus on hands and feet—the only body parts besides the eyes not completely covered by the veil—carried through the work. Opening the piece, images of baby hands and feet were projected on the back wall as the dancers, lying on their backs with arms and legs in the air, twisted and turned their own hands and feet. From this beginning, the work progressed through a series of scenes of women relating to the concealment offered (or threatened) by the veil, with Liszt alternating as either the main actor or the observer of the younger women who appeared as refracted images of herself, or as representations of community.
Video projections appeared intermittently, the most powerful of which were a series of stone or brick walls cast behind and upon the five women in white veils: the veil as wall. Shoes provided a consistent, if puzzling, through-line as well as the veil. Put on, taken off, brandished, they figured prominently in many scenes (the only accessory for women otherwise completely covered?) but often seemed to needlessly clutter the stage space.
The work offered clear instances of the veil as an oppressive force, but it also acknowledged—less clearly—the veil’s offer of safety, the power of concealment. I kept wanting to know, however, more about the body being covered or exposed by that veil, whether through bolder imagery or physicality, or through a greater clarity of intention behind each movement, especially by the chorus. Performing Liszt’s spare, often pedestrian or gestural choreography, none of these young women could match her level of simultaneous intensity and nuance. As a result, I felt most compelled when I could watch Liszt’s rippling hands or prehensile feet weave stories of their own, and let everything else melt away.