Universal Stories: Kayhan Irani talks about There Is A Portal


On Friday, November 9, IJ presents There Is A Portal, a performance from director Rania Lee Khalil, written and performed by Kayhan Irani, and with video art by Gazelle Samizay. IJ’s program assistant, Eric, sat down with Kayhan to discuss the origins of the work, storytelling, and Kayhan’s processes. Read on, and then join IJ and Kayhan on November 9!

Eric: The central question you pose in your show is whether or not your origin story as an Iranian-Indian immigrant growing up in New York City can be a universal story in today’s America. Why is it important for a story to be universal? 

Kayhan: It’s the specific that brings out the universal. It’s not that my story is just like your story. It’s probably different. But there are aspects of my story that can resonate in someone else’s life even if it isn’t a one-to-one comparison. There’s a part in the performance when I talk about losing my ancestral language - not being able to speak the language of my parents and the language of my grandparents. Maybe that’s not your issue, but maybe there’s something in the quality of the loss of my experience that you felt in something else and that you can connect with and feel empathetic about. It’s that universality and it’s also really about the specifics. If you’ve not experienced the loss of your ancestral language, it gets you to actually think about what that might be like. I think in America, which is a country of immigrants, it’s important for us to remember what were the languages that we spoke and how they were erased from our mouths and our tongues. That happened in my lifetime and it may have happened to you three generations ago. That’s still something for you to connect with.

Eric: What might surprise audiences about There Is A Portal?

Kayhan: Intimacy. I want it to be a very intimate performance. I structured it to be a very simple and intimate telling of my life as if I’m speaking to you in my home or in a safe, quiet space where it’s just us. I want audiences to feel that intimacy. It’s really about opening up a space of intimacy and sharing where we can all heal and fully see each other as we are.

Eric: In a broad sense, what has the role of telling stories played in your life?  

Kayhan: It’s multidimensional. I found very early on in my childhood that telling stories collectively could build relationships and bring people together who normally wouldn’t sit or play together. On another level, storytelling in communities, especially in communities that I was a part of, which was an immigrant community, can bring a community together. Telling stories about where we come from was an essential dissent against the erasure of the stories of people of color and immigrants that US history forgets. The story, history, and knowledge that my community told about who we are and where we came from was essential in making sure that I understood I was connected to something deeper, specific, broader, powerful, smart, and important.

Eric: I was wondering if you could talk a little about your work using stories as a mechanism or conduit for social change.

Kayhan: There are two levels on which I work with storytelling. One is storytelling as process. Storytelling investigates our own lives, reality, and experiences, and airs these experiences as a way to analyze and understand where we fit in a larger social picture. How are we privileged or not privileged in this society that we live in? What particular interventions or desires have started to percolate as a result of understanding my social story in a new way? How can I commit myself to intervening and acting in a particular manner or on a particular issue?

We use story as process to help integrate the multiple parts of ourselves, the social selves, the subject of our own lives, and also how we are placed in the subject position by the dominant society, and use that to build power, find truth, and identify how we want to move forward. I use Theater of the Oppressed as one of my methodologies and I train people with these methodologies so they can use it, take it forward, and adapt it.

On the other side, the creation of stories is about speaking back to the stock stories - the stories repeated in our dominant culture that reinforce the status quo and social hierarchy. In America, that’s white supremacy, patriarchy, and class domination. How can we create stories that speak back to white supremacy or patriarchy, and show a value and goodness of all human beings and how human beings are interconnected, cooperative and full of agency? In that way, stories can serve as a nutrient to heal something that’s been missing from a community or silenced so effectively by dominant structures. Stories can be used in all these ways.

I think one of the main conduits of my work is that I always partner with organizations and individuals who have already been mobilized. I think it’s beautiful that some artists want to individually use their art in the direction of social justice and social change. But if you’re doing social justice work as an individual, you’re just not going to be effective in isolation. You have to partner and you have to build with people who are already mobilizing and who can work in multiple different ways. Any movement for social change is not going to have one tactic or strategy. It’s going to work in multiple ways. The expressive arts and storytelling should be just one of the many ways that movements are working. It’s very important for me that I don’t pretend to be the wizard behind the curtain. I am offering a set of skills and a toolkit to people who are already doing the work in some capacity.

Eric: Along the timeline of your career in storytelling, social justice and social change, where does There Is A Portal fit in? Is this a new chapter or a retelling? How are you looking at this project in particular?

Kayhan: In a way it’s a new chapter, but also a kind of synthesis of my work, learning, and experience. I’m bringing together elements of my own art-making. I’m speaking to young people and I’m using my story as a portal, as a doorway to engage young people of color, young immigrants. What’s their story?

These are the lessons I’ve had to learn through the ways that I’ve been complicit in my own hurt, in the ways I’ve hurt my family, and the ways in which I’ve healed and moved on, built community, and found a home here. I want to offer that to young people so they can start to think about it now. I started to think about that in my thirties and now into my forties. I want young people to think about that now and to have the resources to say that yes, I’ve been hurt, but I can also heal. And from that hurt, I can find my voice and speak out, not hide or feel like I shouldn’t be active or I don’t belong, and identify something that I never want to happen to anyone again. I’m inadequate in some way. My hope is that my story can open the doorway for their understanding of their value in society. 

Eric: So it sounds like the concept of the portal serves two purposes: that of a window into your own lived experiences and that of an educational tool for young people who have had similar experiences to help them reflect on those experiences. Is that accurate?

 Kayhan: Yes, kind of both things. The portal is a doorway. It’s a conduit and multi-directional. I am holding in my heart young immigrants and young people of color, because I’m healing that person in myself. But the ways in which I tell my stories are also universal: loss, hatred, regret, disappointment, and connection. So I want each person to be able to open up something inside themselves and ask: where have I pushed the door shut? Where have I pushed this thing down and gone about my life and not acknowledged where I’m still hurt? Can I open that up and really look at my own healing? How can I now engage in this society to ensure that we create a society that doesn’t continue to harm people? It’s not “if you haven’t experienced fleeing from revolution, then you can’t connect.” It’s rather, “what have you lost along the way?” How can looking at what you’ve lost help you understand people who are experience loss right now? And also help you understand what you need to reconcile within yourself in order to be a more effective ally and really be part of a movement for immigrants’ rights or whatever it might be. It’s really an invitation and a truly heartfelt connection we all can make.

 There’s a specific line in There Is A Portal - it’s a two-part phrase in Farsi that says, “From my heart to your heart there is a portal.” It’s this idea that anytime we shut down possibilities for human connection, we’re allowing the oppressive forces to win. The more we can keep our hearts open to understand that we have the ability to make a connection with any human being and understand one another’s pain and stand up and fight for one another is possible not just from a place of “this is right,” but from a place of deep understanding.

Eric: Kayhan, thank you so much!

Join Intercultural Journeys and Kayhan Irani on Friday, November 9 for There Is A Portal.

Intercultural Journeys Welcomes New Board Member

Keisha Hutchins Hirlinger

Intercultural Journeys is pleased to welcome Keisha Hutchins Hirlinger as the newest member of the Board of Directors. Elected in July 2018, Ms. Hirlinger is a vocalist, social justice advocate, and music teacher at Abington Friends School.

"We are delighted to welcome Keisha to the Intercultural Journeys Board of Directors," said Dr. Alice George, Chair of the Board of Directors. "Keisha brings a wealth of experiences to IJ’s board, from her musical and educational backgrounds to her training in diversity, equity, and inclusion. Her strengths and talents align beautifully with IJ’s peace-driven arts mission, and I am confident she will bring great insight and advice as IJ continues to present and produce high-quality artistic programming driven by contemporary issues.”

Ms. Hirlinger has over two decades of experience as a musician. As a vocalist, Ms. Hirlinger has performed with the Philadelphia Singers, and has collaborated with artists as diverse as hip-hop producer Justin Gilmore of KRU records, dance music producer and DJ MacGuyver, New York composer Andrew Shapiro, and New Orleans composer and trumpeter Hannibal Lokumbe. As a music teacher, Ms. Hirlinger has served prestigious institutions such as the Philadelphia Orchestra, Settlement Music School, Rita Gold Center for Children and Families, and LiveConnections. Ms. Hirlinger holds a Bachelor of Music in Vocal Performance and a Bachelor of Arts in Sociology from Oberlin College, as well as a Master of Arts (Music and Music Education) from Teachers’ College, Columbia University.



PHILADELPHIA, April 9, 2018 — Hailed by critics for their “powerful, emotional, and intimate” (Philadelphia Inquirer) performances, feminist flamenco dance company Pasión y Arte lights up the stage on Friday, May 18 and Saturday, May 19 in My Voice, Our Voice | Mi Voz, Nuestra Voz. Sharing choreographic tools across genres, Pasión y Arte charts a new path across movement and motion to explore the effect of trauma on the female body, an exploration vital to creating social change. Presented by Intercultural Journeys, this performance will take place at the Philadelphia Episcopal Cathedral (tickets: $8-$40).   

Pasión y Arte Artistic and Executive Director Elba Hevia y Vaca says, “Flamenco is my identity, my way of life over a nearly 50-year intense journey of study, exploration, and creation. I continue to strive to penetrate the flamenco dance form at the deepest levels, making use of all I’ve learned and using my aging body to give voice to myself, to women and their stories, and to push the rigid boundaries of traditional macho flamenco, encoded over decades and centuries. As a Latina, indigenous woman from Bolivia, I have my own particular way of looking at flamenco and I want to share some of that unique perspective in this work.”

My Voice, Our Voice | Mi Voz, Nuestra Voz will be grounded in a rich artistic flamenco history while featuring the transcendent interplay of contemporary/traditional of flamenco dance, music and cante, side-by-side with debut excerpts of a collaborative explorations with postmodern dancer/choreographer Annie Wilson. Wilson seeks to engage with flamenco in ways that deconstruct her practice of postmodernism in a commitment to dismantling the myth of the “neutral body,” a concept that reinforces a white, male-favored, cisgendered framing. In addition to Ms. Hevia y Vaca and Ms.Wilson, additional performers and collaborators include dancers Jeanne d’ Arc Casas and Sarah Candela.

My Voice, Our Voice | Mi Voz, Nuestra Voz will also feature original composition and the first time collaborating with guitarist Andreas Arnold. Andreas Arnold expresses himself through a musical kaleidoscope that reflects the classical traditions of his homeland of Germany, jazz from the US where he has been living for the last decade, and music from the Mediterranean, in particular the art of flamenco guitar from Andalucía. In addition to Mr. Arnold, the performance will also feature musicians Barbara Martinez (cante), Adam Maalouf (cello) and Jeremy Smith (percussion).

"Elba is a passionate and honest artist, committed to a fierce and profound self-expression in all the work she creates, both as an individual artist and in collaboration with a rich array of additional artists," said Carly Rapaport-Stein, executive director of Intercultural Journeys. "Intercultural Journeys is thrilled to close its 2017-18 season with Pasión y Arte's phenomenal artistic voice."

This is the fifth and final performance of Intercultural Journeys’ 2017-2018 season, Borders & Boundaries.

My Voice, Our Voice | Mi Voz, Nuestra Voz will be held on Friday, May 18 and Saturday, May 19 at 7:00PM at the Philadelphia Episcopal Cathedral (23 S. 38th St). For more information and tickets: interculturaljourneys.org/pasionyarte. Tickets are $8-$40.

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Syrian-American hip hop artist Omar Offendum to perform in Philadelphia

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PHILADELPHIA, March 20, 2018 — Recognized for his potent poetry and witty wordplay, acclaimed Syrian-American hip-hop artist Omar Offendum takes center stage with Intercultural Journeys (IJ) on Sunday, April 8 for his performance, SyrianamericanA. Tracing the lines from Harlem Renaissance great Langston Hughes to Syrian poet Khalil Gibran, Offendum guides listeners across a compelling poetic pathway in this beat-driven performance.

“The part of my life featured in SyrianamericanA is intimate and passionate—it’s a reflection on the history of my country, of my family, being erased and bombed away. There’s an extra sense of responsibility in our current moment, and my dedication to these stories stems from a sense of loss of the beauty found within Syrian culture,” says Offendum. “Hip hop can be an immense force in bringing people together, bridging cultural divides in a thoughtful and intriguing blend of personal and political.”

Born in Saudi Arabia, raised in Washington DC, and living in Los Angeles, Omar Offendum’s artistic output speaks to people across the globe. He has been featured on several major news outlets, toured the world to promote his ground-breaking music, lectured at a number of prestigious academic institutions, and most recently been involved in creating several critically-acclaimed songs about the popular democratic uprisings throughout the Middle East & North Africa.

In the week preceding his performance, SyrianamericanA, Offendum will take part in educational and community-based events. On Thursday evening, April 5, at the Penn Museum, Offendum joins curator Lauren Ristvet as she gives a tour of the exhibition Cultures in the Crossfire: Stories from Syria and Iraq. Offendum will offer a short performance inspired by the exhibition, and the two will lead a conversation highlighting diverse connections between artistic and historic worlds. Additionally, Offendum will spend a week with the students of Bodine High School, exploring the intersections of poetry and song, as well as give a student-centered performance at Swarthmore College.

“Omar’s lyrical style, filled with contemporary and historic references, is magnetic,” says Carly Rapaport-Stein, Executive Director of Intercultural Journeys. “Juxtaposing the rich history of Syria and his exceptional poetic voice, Omar’s performance will be a timely and powerful artistic journey across cultures and mediums.”

SyrianamericanA  will be held on Sunday, April 8 at 7:00PM in the Ibrahim Theatre at the International House Philadelphia, 3701 Chestnut Street. For more information and tickets: interculturaljourneys.org/syrianamericana.

Renowned Indonesian Dancer to Perform in Philadelphia

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PHILADELPHIA, February 8, 2018 — Intercultural Journeys (IJ) welcomes internationally renowned cross-gender dancer Didik Nini Thowok to the Philadelphia stage for Dual Face | Dwimuka on Sunday, March 11 at 7:00 pm. With his signature blend of comedy and dance-based storytelling, Didik weaves together a spellbinding performance that offers a compelling perspective on the duality and fluidity of gender.

The multi-talented Didik Nini Thowok is a dancer, teacher, singer, comedian, costume-maker, and makeup artist. His unique style stems from a multitude of historic cross-gender dances found in Southeast Asian, drawing from the regional dance traditions Sunda, Cirebon, Bali, Central Java, and beyond. Part master dancer, part movement historian, Didik’s in-depth study of these traditional forms and their accompanying costumes, masks, and make-up make him the world’s leading interpreter of cross-gender performance. Didik has performed for dignitaries throughout the world, and has collaborated with respected international artists from across the globe, including Astad Deboo and Pooja Bhatnagar (India), Akira Matsui and Richard Emmert (Japan), and Pieter Chin and William Lauw (Canada). While Didik has performed on the East and West Coasts of the United States, this is his first visit to Philadelphia.

“I followed my heart, and started my work as a response to my natural passion for dance. The more I dance, the more I realize that it is crucial work to keep these traditional dances alive and to pass it on to the younger generation,” says Didik Nini Thowok. “They give a nuanced understanding of Indonesian culture, a well rounded picture of gender representation, and show the depth and beauty of our ancestral roots - which is a very valuable aspect in our society.”

Joining the production is producer and Didik Nini Thowok’s international artist representative, Ratri Anindyajati, who served as curator, dramaturg, and cultural liaison. She worked closely with Didik and IJ curator Alex Shaw to program and sequence the dances, develop narrative structures, and contextualize the performance within the landscape of Philadelphia. The result is a cohesively-flowing show that weaves Didik’s vignettes with the live-improvised musical stylings of multi-instrumentalist and composer Sean Hayward.

In the week preceding Didik’s performance on Sunday, March 11, Didik will engage in events with community partners in the Philadelphia area. On March 6, Didik will give a free seminar at Swarthmore College at the invitation of the departments of music and dance, gender studies, and Asian studies. On March 7, Didik will offer a community dance class with the Philadelphia-area Indonesian dance ensemble Modero and Company.

“Didik’s work is a vibrant addition to discussions of gender expression, as well as a unique look at a fascinating aspect of Indonesia’s performing arts heritage,” says Carly Rapaport-Stein, Executive Director of Intercultural Journeys. “Drawing from the rich history of the art form and his extraordinary talent as a movement artist, Didik’s performance will offer a profound commentary on gender and culture.”

This is the third performance of Intercultural Journeys’ 2017-2018 season, Borders & Boundaries. The season continues in April, as IJ presents Syrian hip-hop artist and poet Omar Offendum in SyrianamericanA, and concludes in May with Pasión y Arte’s My Voice, Our Voice | Mi Voz, Nuestra Voz.

Dual Face | Dwimuka will be held on Sunday, March 11 at 7:00PM in the Ibrahim Theatre at the International House Philadelphia (see map). For more information and tickets: interculturaljourneys.org/dual-face.

About the Collaborators

Ratri Anindyajati

Jakarta-born Ratri Anindyajati is an independent producer and official Producer/International Representative of Didik Nini Thowok. A graduate of the MFA Creative Producing and Management Program at California Institute of the Arts, Ratri serves as curator, dramaturg, and cultural liaison for Didik’s US performances. Her passion lies in storytelling and producing works that explore humanity and identity through the lens of diversity and multiplicity of cultures. Before relocating to Los Angeles, Ratri was a producer at the Indonesian Dance Festival, an international contemporary dance festival in Jakarta, as well as arts management and production collaborator at European festivals including Impulstanz (Vienna, Austria) and Kunstenfestivaldesarts (Brussels, Belgium). https://www.anindyafoundation.org/artofdidik

Sean Hayward

Sean Hayward is a composer and performer based in Los Angeles and Surakarta, Indonesia. His music is a reflection of his wide ranging interests, which include Javanese gamelan, process music, Balkan folk music, the contemporary classical guitar, extreme metal, and ancient tuning systems. Sean is currently a doctoral candidate in the Performer-Composer program at the California Institute of the Arts where he also serves as a lecturer. Aside from performing as a soloist, Hayward performs regularly as one half of the guitar violin duo, Duo Meranti, an ongoing collaboration with composer-violinist, Chrysanthe Tan. Sean is also the founder of the experimental Indonesian music collective, Gamelan Suara Baru. http://www.haywardsound.com/