in dramatic blue lighting, an acrobatic couple do an improbable thing with each other's bodies
From "My Friend Hafiz" (Photo/Shoot That Klown)

Folk-singing duo and circus group partner up for ‘holy goofing’

A simple gift of a book of poems has blossomed into an artistic project that is coming to San Francisco later this month, bringing together Sweet Can Productions, an S.F. circus company, and the Levins, a married folk-singing duo.

The fruit of their collaboration, “My Friend Hafiz,” blends acrobatics, aerial dance and clowning with live music to create an intimate, exhilarating experience.

“It’s a concert, a play, a theater piece,” Ira Levin said. “The music, the poetry … it’s holy goofing.”

The show, which was first performed in 2014, is being reprised with a more cohesive plot and with direction by Broadway veteran Mindy Cooper Grenke, a UC Davis theater professor. It also includes the Levins performing their own music — a first.

The show is based on their 2013 album “My Friend Hafiz,” which is in turn inspired by the poetry of the great Persian lyric writer Hafiz (or Hafez), who lived and composed during the 14th century. The aforementioned gift was a collection of Hafiz’s poetry translated by Daniel Ladinsky, “The Gift,” that Ira Levin received for his birthday years ago.

“Hafiz is pretty renowned all over the world, especially in Persia and the Middle East,” Levin said. “But not so much in America.”

The poet is known for his sensuous, timeless verses on faith and love, and Levin was immediately taken by what he read, finding it “delightful, playful and nondogmatic,” he said. The Levins’ previous album had been an anthology of Jewish mystical music, and they didn’t expect to follow it up with songs based on Islamic poetry, but such investigations are in sync with the searching nature of Judaism, Levin noted.

“Our ability to be inspired by the poetry by Hafiz broadens and deepens our faith and understanding,” he said.

“As soon as I heard the Hafiz CD, I became very inspired,” said Sweet Can’s Natasha Kaluza. “It’s uplifting in a universal way. It touches upon what it means to be a human being.”

The show is described as a “beautiful tale of overcoming shame and anger and finding forgiveness and community.”

Sweet Can has collaborated with the Levins before — in fact, the troupe’s annual holiday circus, “Mittens & Mistletoe,” which is starting its ninth season, uses the couple’s version of the Yiddish song “Ale Brider” in its opening act. And Julia Bordenaro Levin said she and her husband consider the circus group to be family.

The Levins, who met at the Berkeley folk performance space Freight and Salvage, moved to New York in 2010. They’ll be joining Sweet Can for five performances of “My Friend Hafiz” and nine of “Mittens & Mistletoe” — performing “Ale Brider” and other songs live.

They’re happy to be among old friends in the Bay Area, where they once lived and which they consider a second home. “It’s good to go back,” Bordenaro Levin said.

“My Friend Hafiz,” Dec. 20-23. $22-$75. “Mittens & Mistletoe,” Dec. 26-30. $18-$65. Both shows at Dance Mission Theater, 3316 24th St., S.F.

Maya Mirsky
Maya Mirsky

Maya Mirsky is a J. Staff Writer based in Oakland.