“The White Feather” Looks at the Birth and Death of Ballet in Iran

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As the ballet dancers moved through the familiar rituals of their daily class, they tried to ignore the gunshots and explosions outside. It was 1979, and Iran was in the midst of a revolution that would overthrow the ruling Shah and turn the country into an Islamic republic. The dancers were the last few members of the Iranian National Ballet.

Bahareh Sardari was among them. On a recent video call from her home in Herndon, Va., she recalled what happened next: the National Ballet, which had been founded in 1958 and had grown and flourished, ended.

“All of the foreign dancers in the company had already left,” she said. “Then one of the ayatollahs decided that ballet — which he probably knew nothing about — was incompatible with the Islamic Republic.”

What would happen to the art to which Sardari, then 26, had dedicated her life and the company she had helped build? “Finito,” she said. The National Ballet’s sets, costumes and archives were burned. “It killed my heart.”

“They told us to stop doing ballet class,” Sardari continued. “But because we had time left on our contracts with the government, they couldn’t fire us.” So the dancers came in every day and sat, and they were paid at the end of each month. They were offered jobs as actors. “But my voice would not come out,” said Sardari, now 71. “I really tried.”

She arranged a meeting with the new minister of arts and culture. Shaking, she told him, “I’m a ballet dancer. I’ve danced all my life. I’m no use here. Please let me leave the country.” The minister replied contemptuously that ballet dancers were like saffron — the most expensive spice — on hospital food, an extravagance. But he did not give her permission to leave.

After a few years, Sardari did get out. With her husband, she moved to Vienna and then Virginia, where she put her skills to use as a choreographer and teacher, recently with the Washington School of Ballet. And now her story and that of the Iranian National Ballet are among the inspirations for a new dance, “The White Feather,” to be performed at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday and at the Gerald W. Lynch Theater in New York City on Saturday.

“The White Feather” is the brainchild of the ballerina and choreographer Tara Ghassemieh, who has never been to Iran. Her father, born and raised in the north of Iran, left just before the revolution to attend college in Los Angeles. There he married an American woman, and the couple had three children, Tara Ghassemieh among them.

She grew up as a professional child actor, but ballet was her deepest love. At 15, she was offered a scholarship to train at the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School in New York, but just before moving, she injured her back. Soon, she quit ballet. At 20, she returned to it, retrained and built a career as a freelance guest artist, most recently with Golden State Ballet. Yet, as she explained in a recent call from her home in Irvine, she grew to wonder why she was so dedicated to ballet. What was she dancing for?

Then a friend told her that a clairvoyant had a message for her. The clairvoyant described a vision of Ghassemieh’s Iranian grandmother shaking a finger at her and rows of women in the full-length body cloaks known as chadors pointing at her. That night, Ghassemieh Googled “ballet and Iran” and discovered the Iranian National Ballet.

“My throat seized up and my heart starting beating hard, like a panic attack,” she said. “My place in the ballet world suddenly became clear — I dance for them.” She had her own vision: of women removing their hijabs and burning them. And now she had a mission: to bring ballet back to Iran.

She began researching the National Ballet in preparation for making a film about it. But she also wanted to create a performance, an occasion for former members to take a bow. Her friend Sanaz Soltani told her about how her father, a colonel under the Shah, had been executed by the new regime. Ghassemieh got the idea to incorporate that story into a stage work about the National Ballet. She and her husband, the former San Francisco Ballet principal dancer Vitor Luiz, choreographed it together, with Soltani as producer and a score by the Iranian conductor and composer Shahrdad Rohani.

In the first act of the hourlong “White Feather,” the National Ballet is rehearsing “Swan Lake,” when a ballet-villain dictator makes the women remove their pointe shoes and put on hijabs. A heroic general fights back, but is executed.

“It almost sounds like I just made this up,” Ghassemieh said. “But it was real.”

Before there was a National Ballet, there was a school. In 1956, the National Ballet Academy of Iran was established, part of the Shah’s cultural effort to match the West. It was led by Iranians, Nejad and Haideh Ahmadzadeh, but outside experts were brought in. First to arrive was the American dancer William Dollar. Then, after a visit by Ninette de Valois, the founder of Britain’s Royal Ballet, came many Royal dancers, including Robert De Warren, who would choreograph and stage ballets for the company as well as direct the widely touring Iranian national folk dance troupe. Teachers and choreographers came from the Soviet Union, too.

The ranks of the National Ballet were always supplemented by foreign dancers, and British or Russian guest artists often took the starring roles. The repertory performed at the Roudaki Opera House in Tehran was mostly Western classics like “Giselle” and “Swan Lake.” But the Ahmadzadehs weren’t the only Iranians to shape the company.

Bijan Kalantari, an Iranian dancer who trained at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, returned in 1970 to teach. (One of his students, Afshin Mofid, became a celebrated dancer with New York City Ballet.) Haydeh Changizian, who was born in Iran and studied at the prestigious Vaganova Academy in St. Petersburg, joined the National Ballet in 1972 as its prima ballerina. And homegrown dancers like Sardari blossomed.

In 1976, Ali Pourfarrokh took over the directorship. An early student of the Iranian ballet academy, he had gone on to an international career, most recently as the associate artistic director of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. Under his leadership, the stature of the company rose.

And then it all ended. The final work, poignantly, was “The Sleeping Beauty,” in which a spell is broken and a royal court and its ballet awakens. Sardari played one of the fairies and the small but cherished role of Bluebird. “I was so proud,” she said.

Since 1979, there has been at least one attempt to revive the company. Nima Kiann, born in Iran in 1970, fell in love with the National Ballet after seeing it on television, but by the time he was old enough to take class, ballet in Iran was over. As a young man, he emigrated to Sweden, trained there and in 2001 founded Les Ballets Persans, which combines classical ballet with Persian music and stories. Among the dozens of dancers it has employed, Kiann is the only one of Iranian heritage, he said in a recent interview.

“The White Feather,” for its part, has a second act. In it, a contemporary woman takes up ballet, trades her hijab for a tiara and inspires other women to remove their hijabs. This is an allusion to recent history, the protests and “woman, life, freedom” movement that flared after the death of Jina Mahsa Amini in the custody of the morality police in 2022.

Ghassemieh said that she has plans to take “The White Feather” on tour to Europe and dreams of a Broadway run, but that’s not the ultimate goal: “We are going to take this stage by stage until we get to Roudaki Hall, until I can take ballet back to Iran.”

If that ever happens, Sardari said, she will be there.

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