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  • Makeda Davis

...but water is like a mirror – An Interview with Sashar Zarif


Premiering at the Citadel this past May as part of a double-bill under the title Encounters, ...but water is like a mirror is a ritual concerned with body, breath, and connection.

Choreographer Sashar Zarif and BoucharDanse’s Artistic Director Sylvie Bouchard drew inspiration from Sylvie’s relationship with horses and Sashar’s nomadic ancestry. Through dedicated and intentional rehearsal and collaboration ...but water is like a mirror was created into something tangible, something for people to bear witness to Sylvie’s experience. I got on a call with Sashar to speak with him about dance, rituals, collaboration, authenticity, and what his work means to him.


This interview was edited and condensed for clarity.


Rather than being called a dance piece, ...but water is like a mirror is considered a ritual. How do you separate the two?

Wow, good question. I think that at this point talking to you, there is no need to separate them from each other. Dance can be a ritual, or is a ritual. We use the word ritual or dance for the lack of better term for them, because when you say dance, it includes everything. When you say ritual, it has a certain identity to it. We have all these contracts in life, you know? From the moment we are born, we are given these contracts and we make new contracts about life. This is that, that’s a contract. This is this, that’s another contract. But life is not based on contracts. Life is ever-changing, it is complex, life is grey, it’s not black and white of course, it’s very relative. For me, as an artist-or whatever I want to call myself-it is quite hard to limit my experience to words. But we call [...but water is like a mirror] a ritual because dance usually is referred to as something that is being performed. But we wanted to do something that is experienced, and for me a ritual is when you go to an experience with an intention. It’s a structure that facilitates a particular kind of experience with an intention. That is a ritual for me. And this work has intention, and it has a structure. Within that structure the performer-the experiencer-experiences the moment and tries to not make her choices based on her habits, or her training. We’re trying to abandon a trained body, a trained mind, trained emotions, and get in touch with that natural mind, the natural body, and natural emotions, so that your choices in every second, or for the next second, is not based on a habit or training. It’s not automatic, it’s intuitive, its alive, it’s in the moment.


Would you say that since a ritual has an intention behind it, that the dance is a vehicle to get to that intention within the ritual? Like the dance is the base of the ritual.

No, a ritual can employ different things. It can employ your mind, it can include your emotions, singing, dancing, the body. But here in this form of work that I do, the three-body, mind, and emotion-is integrated and I refer to it as dance, but it is not a dance that is only about movement. It’s a dance that the movements are initiated emotionally and echoed physically. Does that make sense?


Yes, that makes sense! What role if at all, does the audience play in a piece like this?

The audience is very important. As we don’t like to call this a performance and we want to call it a ritual or an experience, we would like to refer to the audience as witnesses. In this form of work, the relationship of the experiencer to the witnesses is that the witnesses are there like a test for the experiencer to see if with the onlookers, can the experiencer still invest in a pure and authentic experience. This is because in life, we always have an audience. We have society as an audience, family as an audience, coworkers as an audience; so these audiences enable our trained body, mind, and emotion to react and act in a certain way, to please the audience or to provoke the audience. Some people like to provoke, some people like to please, it’s just different in every case. But here we just want the audience to be there as a symbol. Our ritual is an exercise of life and what we lead through real life, and the witnesses are a sample of the world and the external eyes that are watching. The experiencer would like to see if with these eyes watching can [she] still be authentic and true to [her] experience.


That makes sense. Just making sure that there is still that authenticity there, that you’re not reacting how you’ve been conditioned to react.

Exactly. In short, you’re not to perform. Experience and leave yourself vulnerable enough so that others-the witnesses-can share your experience and see what you’re experiencing.


Exactly; shedding all the many faces that you have. ...but water is like a mirror is a collaborative piece, but there have been times where Sylvie has rehearsed on her own, is this because of the nature of the piece being a ritual and where do you draw the line between intentional collaboration and necessary individual practice?

Sylvie has been interested in my world so I have brought that world into the studio through exercises, stories, and explanations, and I have shared that with her. I have tried to untrain her trained body for this case. I ignite and I facilitate that experience, then it’s important for the person to do this on their own. For somebody dedicated like Sylvie, she will do a good job in doing that. She will go on her own with what was given to her, she will experience it and then she will come back to the studio with me. Then we will dive deeper into the matter and ask her about her challenges and what is not working for her and what is working. We obviously worked physically on vocals, on movements, and the way your body relates to gravity, to the earth; the way the body relates to itself, the way the body relates to the breath, how the body relates to sound-all of this has been a part of this exploration. And I can’t say exploration, I can say that training has been a big part of this work. And [Sylvie’s] willing to take it in. She has that capability of meeting me with a blank page, she wants to come into that world. So going away and [rehearsing] on her own is like doing homework and coming back with it.

We have worked on this intensively as you know, almost every day, five days a week, and that has also brought a different quality and commitment to the work. Basically, my choreography is a collection of the exercises that I do with the experiencing body. The result of those exercises is put together to create a structure for the choreography, and the experiencer is invited to reexperience those exercises but in that form, with that structure, with that dramaturgy. That can summarize our process from beginning to now.


Can you explain the horse spirit and its connection to …but water is like a mirror?

In general, I actually think that dance having a verbal title is such a contradiction. A verbal story can have a verbal title, but for a dance to have a verbal title is kind of a contradiction because if you can say it, you would say it; why would you dance it? But you need something to refer to the work. The horse spirit is the connection and relationship that Sylvie has started the last few years with horses, and my nomadic ancestry is very connected to the horse. The rhythm, the life, the musical rhythms, and the movements, all of these have a very deep connection to the horse and horse culture. I shared that with her and she was very interested to know about that so we tried to find the idea of shamanism, where you connect to different spirits; tangibles and intangibles. Intangibles are living things like rocks, the spirit of a mountain, a tree, an animal, or ancestors, these are different spirits that come to you, and they all have their own wisdom to give you. Sometimes you are fascinated by something because unconsciously you are a connection to their spirit and this spirit can give you something that you might not otherwise get somewhere else. The horse spirit was that we wanted to awaken the horse spirit in Sylvie and see what are the similarities in this spirit that make them connect to each other. During the process, I did a lot of exercises with Sylvie with words and running pen exercises. In one of the exercises that she did, this title came up: but water is like a river. We were trying with this exercise to reach out to the part of thoughts that is not logical. What does it look like, but the exercise invited her to just intuitively bring words forward and put them in a format and that became ...but water is like a mirror. But in general, when you start a dance you use symbols to construct it, but when you get deeper and deeper those symbols just fade out or become the older layers of a painting and new brush strokes will come on top of it and layer the work, but it becomes less relevant to the path. It does its work and it’s there but it’s not the main focus anymore.

An example is like when you really want to go to the gym to feel better about yourself, and the gym is important until you kind of get going. After going in that direction, the gym becomes less important and the exercises become more important, and then you take that exercise anywhere and do them anywhere it becomes not so codependent.


You have a unique approach to dance called living stories / moving memories. How is this incorporated into your practice and specifically with ...but water is like a mirror.

Living stories and moving memories is really a quest. It’s an inquisitive approach that uses memory. The human experience is documented as memory, body, mind, and emotions to really navigate our way forward. It’s kind of a way to self-discover, to understand yourself better by reviewing your past experiences; you bring a light into the new experiences that you are going to have so that you can see details that you might otherwise miss. Living stories and moving memories encourages this intuitive approach that I divide into four different elements: the natural body, the trained body, the mimicking body, and the reacting body.

The balance of the four of these becomes the inspired body and the evolving body, otherwise if you make all of your decisions with your trained body, your reactive body, or your mimicking body, then there is no balance. There is always something missing and you will not have a full, authentic experience. But if you can actually make all these bodies be in service of an evolving, inspired body as wheels-not as the steering wheel but as wheels-it will take you somewhere. They’re not driving you, the driver is your intention, your intuition. In this work we just use the idea of untraining your body, untraining the idea of performing. The idea of the relationship of the pelvic floor, the ground, and gravity is-in many dance forms and in the dance forms that my work is inspired by in central Asia and western Asia-the body and the pelvic floor is released, surrendered to gravity, and so when you surrender yourself to the gravity, the reaction of the earth on your body needs to be received and that receiving of that reaction will make you stand up, you don’t hold yourself up you actually release yourself on the earth and then the reaction of that force, if you receive that reaction into your body, then that reaction makes you stand up. Does that make sense?


Yes, that makes sense. I can tell how passionate you are about your practice. Thank you so much, you had such great answers.



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