“The Conference of the Birds” defies the conventions of a traditional oratorio — the conductor sings, the soloists dance and the choir doubles as an orchestra. Based on a 12th century Sufi poem, the performance debuted at the Garrison Theater on March 27 and 28.
The performance is an adaptation of Sholeh Wolpé’s 2017 translation of Attar of Nishapur’s famous poem “Mantiq al-tayr,” or “The Conference of the Birds.” Wolpé, an award-winning poet and translator of Iranian origin, collaborated with director and choreographer André Megerdichian and composer Fahad Siadat to adapt her book into a performance.
“Even though the book was published in 2017 … I knew I was not yet done with this powerful text,” Wolpé wrote in the program notes. “It had changed my life in a profound way, and I wanted to bring it to as many people as possible.”
Wolpé is not the only person transformed by Attar’s work. Rumi, often called “the most popular poet in the United States,” considered Attar a master of Sufi mystic poetry and a major influence on his work. According to legend, Attar held Rumi in his arms and predicted his greatness as Rumi’s family fled from Mongol invasions in the 12th century.
“The Conference of the Birds,” widely considered one of Attar’s greatest works, is an allegorical story about the soul’s search for purpose and purification. Using embedded narratives, a common feature of medieval Islamic writing, the poem describes the journey of birds seeking their king, Simurgh. They fly through the Seven Valleys, described through nearly 5,000 couplets of poetry.
The performance transformed the poem into seven movements. Dressed simply in creams and beiges, the choir members and soloists came together on stage as birds on a spiritual mission. The only silent bird was professional dancer Catalina Jackson-Urueña, who joined the singers in movement and had her own modern solo routines choreographed by Megerdichian. Siadat, the composer and conductor, chimed in as the narrator of the story.
“The form we’re trying to achieve is putting all these elements of theater on the same playing field — the movement, the music and the words — they all have equal weight,” Siadat said in a post-event panel. “All together, hopefully they create something bigger than the sum of its parts.”
Audience member Sophia Chanin PO ’23, who is working on an independent project about poetry and movement, found it “enchanting to see how dance, voice and poetry can not only coexist but interact.”
“As a student at the 5Cs, it is exciting that we have opportunities to see beautiful art and learn from it,” Chanin said.
Siadat and Megerdichian have long worked on projects exploring the intersection of artistic and spiritual practice. They founded The Resonance Collective a decade ago in Los Angeles to approach the arts as a sacred and mystical experience. The Resonance Collective produced “The Conference of the Birds” as part of its mission to create interdisciplinary, theatrical narratives based on spiritual transformation.
Other local LA groups collaborated with The Resonance Collective on “The Conference of the Birds,” including HEX Ensemble and The Contemporary Choral Collective of Los Angeles . Associate Professor of Music at Scripps College Anne Harley, a longtime partner in the project, was slated to play Hoopoe, the wisest of the birds and the lead vocal role. Due to a family emergency during rehearsals, her understudy Joslyn Sarshad performed the role on Sunday.
“I’m very, very happy with how it turned out, and I’m very happy that each of the artists [Wolpé, Siadat and Megerdichian] are able to spend time with students,” Harley said in an interview.
This semester, Wolpé, Siadat and Megerdichian are O’Brien Distinguished Visiting Professors at Scripps College, a position given to scholars whose expertise in liberal and fine arts fields can complement the Scripps curriculum.
“They’re all really good communicators, which makes them really good teachers,” Harley said. “It’s not always that you have a good artist who is also a good communicator. But we are very fortunate.”
Siadat and Megerdichian worked with students in Scripps professor Kevin Williamson’s Advanced Contemporary Dance Techniques class to create a pre-show event. In the Garrison Theater courtyard, the students’ performance explored the themes of flight, flocking, disruption and journey. Over three rehearsals, Siadat and Megerdichian collaborated with the students to develop movements and vocals tailored to the performance site at Garrison.
“It seemed a natural progression to invite audiences to witness a pre-show happening with a large cast, serving as another metaphor for the journey of the birds,” Williamson said via email. “It was a rich and rewarding experience for students to co-develop new ideas with the creators.”
In early March, Shaila Andrabi, coordinator of Muslim life at the 5Cs, hosted Wolpé for an evening of poetry at her house. Hailing from Singapore, Pakistan, India and the US, students gathered to listen to Wolpé’s poetry and discuss Sufi literature.
“It was an interfaith, intercollegiate, international and domestic gathering of all colors,” Andrabi said.
Wolpé is excited to be sharing “The Conference of the Birds” with so many groups.
“In the epilogue of the book, Attar, the poet, says that one day this work, like perfume, is going to be scattered around the world, and here we are!” Wolpé told the audience at Garrison.
“The Conference of the Birds” will move to the Broad Stage in Santa Monica for performances on June 18 and 19.