‘Prisoner of Tehran’ puts spotlight on oppression, persecution, survival, and hope

Photo courtesy of Motus O. Motus O performs ‘Prisoner of Tehran’. They will be at the E.A. Rawlinson Centre on Sunday, March 26.

It’s taken a lot longer than they expected, but Motus O Dance Theatre will finally have an opportunity to take the stage in Prince Albert.

The Ontario-based dance theatre company originally planned to bring their production of ‘Prisoner of Tehran’ to Saskatchewan roughly three years ago. Then COVID hit, and they’ve been trying to reschedule ever since.

“We’re just really glad that it didn’t get cancelled,” said Jack Langenhuizen, one of Motus O’s three co-artistic directors and choreographers. “We’ve got the opportunity to finally come and the multiple re-bookings might actually happen. We’re thrilled about that.”

Everyone may be three years older, but the story Motus O tells is timeless. Based on the 2007 international bestselling memoir of the same name, ‘Prisoner of Tehran’ recounts the early life of Marina Nemat, an Iranian woman who was arrested as a political prisoner following the Islamic Revolution of 1979.

Nemat was tortured and came close to being executed. She eventually escaped Iran and came to Canada in 1991, where she still lives today.

Langenhuizen and a few other Motus O cast members first heard Nemat give a presentation on her experiences during an arts conference in Toronto. They were captivated and, after reading her memoir, approached Nemat about a collaboration.

The end result will be on the E.A. Rawlinson Centre stage Sunday evening where the company will display a unique performance piece that combines theatre, video, and oral storytelling, and touches on themes of oppression, persecution, survival, and hope.

“The spoken material she had written herself, which was fortunate because we can rely on the accuracy of her memory,” Langenhuizen explains. “That was no problem at all. The only challenge for us as a dance company was your goal is usually to say, ‘hey, look at us, look at us,’ and this was totally opposite.

“We want you to see us as another layer, but listen to her. Choreographically that was a huge challenge for us.”

For years, Nemat would read from her own memoirs will Motus O provided what Langenhuizen calls a “movement landscape”. Nemat always read her memoirs in a very “matter-of-fact” tone of voice, so Motus O would try to provide the emotion through visual cues.

“A director did ask her once, ‘can you maybe more emphasize this as a theatre person would do?’” Langenhuizen remembered. “She was very honest. She said, ‘I can today, but tomorrow I may not come back again from that depth,’ so it was like, ‘oh, okay, so that’s why, when she speaks, she speaks very matter-of-factly and this is what happens.’ She doesn’t enter that other level and so that was our key to go, ‘okay, we can provide that for her.’”

Nemat no longer travels with the company due to mental health concerns, but Motus O still spreads her story across Canada. They’ve performed in Saskatchewan multiple times, primarily for younger audiences.

Their show always ends with a question and answer session so audience members can give feedback. Sometimes people will ask about what they can do to make things in Iran better. Other times they want to know more about story details the performance doesn’t touch on. Other times they want to talk about the artistic side of the collaboration. The cast of Motus O welcome it all.

“It was important for us,” Langenhuizen said. “Especially when Marina was doing it, but even so now.”

‘Prisoner of Tehran’ by Motus O runs Sunday at the E.A. Rawlinson Centre. The show starts at 7:30 p.m. For ticket information, visit www.earc.ca.

@kerr_jas • jason.kerr@paherald.sk.ca