Emelie Mahdavian’s passions have taken her all over the world, including Oakland’s Mills College, Boston’s New England Conservatory of Music, the London Film School and UC Davis, where she completed a C. Phil. in comparative literature. But it wasn’t until she joined the Performance Studies Graduate Group (PFS) at UC Davis—where she paired her research on Central and South Asian culture with her practice as a performing artist—that she really took flight as a filmmaker, musician and dancer.
“Most Ph.D. programs in the United States don't have a track for practitioners who want to integrate practice into research,” says Mahdavian, assistant director and principal dancer with Ballet Afsaneh, a Persian and Central Asian dance company based in Berkeley, California. “The practice as research strand within UC Davis Performance Studies is a perfect fit. I feel like a whole person again: an artist-scholar, instead of two separate identities as artist and scholar.”
PFS is a dynamic, interdisciplinary graduate group led by faculty from more than 20 departments. The group integrates such a breadth and depth of culture and expertise that Mahdavian found herself having to rein in her interests to stay focused on her dissertation research, which draws widely from the disciplines of film, dance and performance studies, as well as religion, gender, Persian literature, post-Soviet history and nationalism.
Having access to mentors who specialize in all of these areas has given Mahdavian a template with which to build her career, and– just as vital –she feels wholly supported to pursue her own unique approach. Her current focus is her first feature-length documentary film, After the Curtain, about the lives of female dancers in Tajikistan. The Fulbright scholar initially chose Tajikistan because it was dance- and America-friendly, and during the process, she fell in love with the country. The film has given her the chance to immerse herself in the culture and language and to deeply engage with her collaborators and subjects.
Now honing her teaching skills with her own classes at UC Davis—she has taught classes in Comparative Literature and Theater and Dance, and is currently preparing to teach hands-on courses in Digital Video for Cinema and Technocultural Studies—she looks forward to providing the same experience of academic rigor paired with practice to other working artists.
“Before I came to Davis, I had no framework for bridging theory, history, and practice,” she says. “I’ve really enjoyed being part of a community that challenges me intellectually and allows me to grow as an artist.”