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My Friend Hafiz (How a Gift Turned My Life Into A Circus)

Sweet Can Productions and The Levins present My Friend Hafiz at the Dance Mission Theater in SF, CA

“Write them all down, all your worries and your fears. Even from a thousand years, I will lean in to today and the flame inside my heart, will burn them all away.”

– Hafiz of Shiraz as rendered by Daniel Ladinsky and adapted by The Levins

The journey of the heart takes us to places of greater beauty than we could allow for with just pure intellect. Almost like a Mid-Winter Night’s Dream, our production of My Friend Hafiz at the Dance Mission Theater in San Francisco has gone into the ethers. Still, as we head into a new year, in a nation weary from divisiveness, it remains as real as the love this 14thcentury Sufi poet bestowed upon this tear-stained world like a mountain of emeralds.

A few years ago, I was given a book of poetry for my birthday. The book was called “The Gift,” renderings of poetry by Hafiz of Shiraz, who lived one hundred years after Rumi. Hafiz is revered in the East. His Divan of poetry sits on the shelf of not only Muslims but people of every faith. The inclusive, light-hearted, unorthodox way the poet fully embraced his love for the divine, got him in trouble with the religious authorities of his day. Like Bugs Bunny, however, Hafiz always found a humorous way to end up free and singing out to inspire true seekers of life. His poetry still sings to people around the world.

Daniel Ladinsky was a devotee of Meyer Baba; whose favorite poet was Hafiz. Daniel has ushered Hafiz into the West, with his playful, heart-centered renderings which I believe capture the spirit of what Hafiz of Shiraz dedicated his life to convey. Daniel’s renderings create controversy because they do not follow the strict structure of the original poetry form (ghazal), which is delicate and marvelously complex. Still, for the Western soul, they cut right through to the heart faster than champagne to the head.

I carried this book around with me everywhere I went and its poems inspired songs that were unlike what my wife Julia and I usually compose. We ended up recording the songs with a world folk ensemble, gaining Daniel Ladinsky’s permission, and had a CD release party in an art gallery in Berkeley, CA. Our friends, Coventry and Kaluza, a beautiful clown couple, augmented the evening with some holy goofing. Shortly after, Julia and I shared a gig with Coventry and Kaluza and Sweet Can Circus, a company that succeeds in bridging the gap between traditional circus and theater with skillful, humorous, and aerial benevolence. As we prepared to move East to New York, our desire to create a production with Sweet Can and the music inspired by Hafiz found a permanent spot on our vision board.

In 2014, our dream of collaboration with Sweet Can came true. By then, Coventry and Kaluza had joined forces with Sweet Can Productions. They stuck their necks out and arranged for us to come back to San Francisco to co-create an event based on the songs from My Friend Hafiz. We married the album to circus acts, playing live as they danced, and defied gravity in every sense of the word. The pageantry was a spiritual feast that moved audiences in ways they didn’t expect.

“Your mother and my mother are good friends who care for each other. Your heart and my heart belonged to each other right here from the start. We’re old, old friends. Very, very old friends.”

– Hafiz of Shiraz as rendered by Daniel Ladinsky and adapted by The Levins

Julia and I, accompanied by Coventry and Kaluza, pitched the show to Mindy Cooper, a Broadway director/choreographer, and Theater and Dance professor at U.C. Davis. This collaboration may have been charmed for a lifetime. Mindy’s mother and my mother had both gone to summer camp (Camp Louise) as girls, and generations followed suit. Both our sisters and nieces attended the same camp together and have been lifelong friends. I have known Mindy since childhood; she is one of those forces of nature that never stops. She directed and choreographed her way past breast cancer with a dedication that makes life pause and admire itself in her wake.

Mindy Cooper and The Levins

As someone who has no time for favors, even for family friends, we were delighted that Mindy was inspired to join us to elevate our production into a play. It was a risk working with a troupe she didn’t know, and officially venturing into circus for the first time. Mindy was very generous with her time and energy as she wrangled and guided the cosmic cats we assembled to represent Hafiz’s magic inclusiveness.

Together, we weaved a plot of a traveler coming upon a “tavern” of loving souls, splashing in mirth who welcome him heartily. The traveler, the “everyman,” is weighed down with his own baggage of shame and guilt. He does not feel he deserves kindness and repeatedly tries to leave but the joyful inhabitants invite him to nourish his being, and lighten his burdens.

A play within the play reveals that the traveler lost hope and goodness when he lost his parents. He became very small-minded and ended up locking up everyone he knew. A nearby poet began dropping master keys so the traveler’s “beautiful rowdy prisoners” could free themselves. His captives danced away and ended up in the “tavern” where they persisted in bringing their captor into the love that emancipated them.

Ian Wallace created a wonderous visual backdrop that was as much a part of the story as any of the characters.

Before the show, the audience was offered an opportunity to write down their worries and fears and place them in a bowl. Throughout the show the traveler’s fears are written down, faced, torn up and burned away.

The theme of forgiveness and healing permeated our production. During our 2014 show, one of the musicians, who had been with Julia and I from the start, became confrontational. We didn’t understand what caused his unrest but felt sad that we might never work together again. During Yom Kippur, the holiday of forgiveness, the musician reached out and explained that he had lost his parents and that it had caused him to burn bridges all around him. We learned this, after constructing the plot described above. Because he reached out to us, we were able to reconcile and he was able to join us in the “tavern” of this production.

There were also obstacles that cropped up during the one and half weeks we had to put this new show together. Last minute schedule changes, illness, and personal losses caused us to question if we had taken on more than we could handle. Yet, one by one, our fears were burned away and our path was cleared, so that our first preview reached the audience on a deeper level than we thought possible. Every aspect of this show was beautiful and focused on lifting the spirits of those in attendance.

Our goal is to bring this show beyond San Francisco, but watching each act and scene the final evening, I became very present and knew that what we were accomplishing in the moment was healing and magnificent. I imagined myself like Emily from Our Town, coming back from the dead to revisit this feast of riches we were presenting. I mirrored that character’s sentiment, “Oh, Earth, you’re too wonderful for anybody to realize you.” Yet, poets like Hafiz and Daniel Ladinsky have done their best to realize this wonder and gift it to us.

A few doors down from the theater is the Beloved Café. A café, that uses Rumi and Hafiz quotes on their business cards. The owner had just returned from visiting Hafiz’s tomb in Shiraz and told us that we had captured the essence of the poetry for him. It is humbling to be a part of something larger than yourself that lifts you up to the poet’s prompt to,

“Carry your heart through this world. Free yourself and this world. Carry your heart through this world like a life-giving sun.”- Hafiz of Shiraz as rendered by Daniel Ladinsky and adapted by The Levins

  • Hafiz of Shiraz as rendered by Daniel Ladinsky and adapted by The Levins

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