For Sharifa Felicia Norton, Week Seven’s theme “Redefining Europe,” was the perfect opportunity to bring together religion, art and history.
Norton, a Mystic Heart Sufi practitioner and contemporary dancer, will perform her solo dance theater piece “Noor” at 7 p.m. tonight in the Hall of Christ followed by a short talk back with the audience.
“Noor” combines music, dance and theater to honor the life of Noorunnisa Inayat Khan, the first woman wireless operator for Britain’s Special Operations Executive in Nazi-occupied France during World War II.
Khan was born in Moscow in 1914 to an American mother and the classical Hindustani musician and renowned Sufi master, Hazrat Inayat Khan. She felt it her duty to save Jews and other victims of Nazi oppression and became a SOE spy. Khan was betrayed and captured by the Gestapo in 1943 and was sent to prison in Germany where she was interrogated and tortured for 11 months before she was shot at Dachau on Sept. 13, 1944. Her last word was “Liberté!” Norton was studying with Khan’s brother Pir Vilayat Khan when she first heard Noor’s story.
“He always talked about his sister, who had died at Dachau,” Norton said. “I had heard about her for so many years and I was so moved that I decided to do a piece to honor her and share her story.”
“Noor” follows Khan’s journey from childhood to her time an SOE spy to her death at Dachau. The score, by Emmy-nominated composer David Majzlin, includes poems written by Khan, musical compositions, and Khan’s translation of the Buddhist Jataka fable “The Elephant Tale.”
“The sound score has a narrative to it that motivates the choreography,” Norton said. “Doing a dramatic visual dance piece with the sound score makes it a much more rich experience to really feel her and get a sense of who she was and the importance of the work she was doing.”
She described the movement as modern dance but more narrative and theatrical rather than technical. She said the choreography is sometimes playful and childlike but also takes the audience to some dark places in Khan’s life.
Norton received her dance training at the Metropolitan Opera Ballet School and American Ballet Theatre. She received a bachelor’s degree in dance from Hamilton College. She then began touring across Europe performing solo dance repertoire.
She performed “Noor” in France; Edinburgh, Scotland; London; New York City and other venues in the U.S.
Norton has been teaching as a Sufi practitioner through the Mystic Heart program in Chautauqua for several years. She became interested in Khan’s story both as a World War II hero and as a European Sufi.
“Here’s a woman who was a pacifist, grew up in a peaceful home, was very poetic, mystical and tender, and she became a spy,”she said. “You wouldn’t think that someone so elegant and poetic would be able to do that.”
Although she was a pacifist, Norton said Khan was able to stay true to her faith even in a dangerous situation.
“She upheld her spiritual ideals by action,” Norton said. “She gave her life for other people. She didn’t have to do that. She didn’t have to do any of it.”
As a child, Khan translated and published Twenty Jataka Tales, Buddhist fables for children.
“There is a Buddhist fable about animals that do acts of bravery so they sacrifice their lives but they help others and that is what she did,” Norton said. “She had the courage to make that sacrifice and live her spiritual ideal in real life.”