Magazine

Mercurial & Magical

Paul Taylor's Parisa Khobdeh blends beauty, grace, and comic timing.

 

 

Paul Taylor’s Also Playing. Costume by Santo Loquasto, photo by Matthew Karas.

 

After nearly 10 years as a member of the Paul Taylor Dance Company, Parisa Khobdeh is being rewarded in the way every dancer loves most: showered with plum roles by a modern master. Still, one part in particular, the stoic, fearless female lead in Promethean Fire, fills her with awe. She first encountered that majestic dance in 2002; its tumultuous duet, performed by Lisa Viola and Patrick Corbin, blew her away.

 

“I saw Lisa run from Patrick to the edge of the stage and then she turned and threw herself at him,” says Khobdeh after a rehearsal at the company’s Lower East Side studios. “As he caught her, her face grazed the ground. I took the same gasp the audience took.”

 

The moment was life-changing. “At that point, I knew: I don’t want to be a great dancer—I want to be a great Taylor dancer.”

 

To accomplish that requires range, and in Khobdeh’s dancing—from her eloquent lyricism to her sly sense of humor—there is a rainbow of emotion and physicality. “I look at Paul’s dances, and it’s not light and dark,” she says. “It’s how many shades of gray. In one dance like Esplanade, you have tremendous pathos, you have romance, you have darkness, you have absolute abandon and letting go, and I feel like being a Taylor dancer is executing all of those things. That’s what I try to achieve. There’s beauty in the madness and the sanity, in the pure gorgeousness and exhaustion, and in the disparity and the dignity.”

 

In many ways, Khobdeh is impossible to typecast. She’s a beauty, with finely arched eyebrows that lend her dancing a sensuous air in works like Brandenburgs and Arden Court; they also seem to let you in on the joke in humorous pieces like Offenbach Overtures or Troilus and Cressida (Reduced). Despite her delicacy, she is tougher than she looks: Khobdeh is a Texan whose parents left Tehran a few years before the 1979 Islamic revolution. She grew up in Plano, a suburb north of Dallas.

 

Khobdeh began dancing for practical reasons: Her parents worked full-time and they needed a place for her to go after school. “Also, I think my mother always admired dancing when she was younger, so this was an opportunity for me to be exposed to the arts,” Khobdeh says. “She couldn’t dance. She wanted to as a youngster and her father didn’t approve.”

 

At the Chamberlain School of Performing Arts, under Kathy Chamberlain, she received rigorous training. The main focus was ballet, and Khobdeh had the chance to perform with high-level guest artists, including Carlos Acosta. “But it wasn’t until I saw modern dance that it spoke to me as an expressive medium,” she says. “I immediately fell in love with it. It blew my hair back.”

 

She entered Southern Methodist University as a pre-med major, but halfway through realized that she wanted to pursue dance instead. It was at SMU that Khobdeh feels she developed, not just as a dancer but also as a person. She recalls asking herself questions like, Who am I? Where am I going? “That’s where I discovered what I wanted.” Khobdeh set her sights on joining the Taylor company. “And then,” she continues, “it was like I’d walk through walls for it.”

 

She auditioned twice. The first time she was cut immediately, but the second audition, about a year later, occurred after she had completed a Taylor intensive. “The line was out the door at 7:00 in the morning, and I was a little cold, so I went to the third floor to the yoga studio that I had been training at.”

 

It wasn’t open, but a cleaning woman was working; Khobdeh asked her if she could use one of the smaller studios to warm up and meditate. “As I was leaving, I looked at her—there was a window behind her—and she was just glowing like there was a halo around her,” Khobdeh recalls. “She said, ‘I have a very good feeling about you today.’ ”

 

At the audition, Khobdeh says that she felt superhuman. “They were pounding out choreography,” she says, snapping her fingers. “When you’ve got so many eyes all over your body, it’s incredible. The next thing I knew, the dancing was done and I couldn’t believe that I had made it that far. Paul came up to us, and he was so generous. He said, ‘You guys are all beautiful’—and he kind of wrapped his arm around me and gave me a little squeeze—‘but I’ve made my choice.’ ”

 

Taylor hasn’t had reason to second-guess his decision. This fall, Khobdeh performed as the lead in his newest work, To Make Crops Grow, after this piece went to press. Taylor says that the role “is one of the most demanding I’ve ever made for her.”

 

"Parisa connects with you in the moment. You can tell when you look in her eyes that there is nowhere else she would rather be.” —Michael Trusnovec, her frequent partner. Photos by Francisco Graciano, Courtesy PTDC. 

 

Khobdeh, who wears heels in the dance, laughs. “He’s warned me that it doesn’t end very well for me,” she says. “I don’t have a very good relationship with my husband. I’m kind of fancy and I’m married to an older gentleman. We have one child together, and he doesn’t do it for me. Paul says I’m very flirtatious. I think it’s because I’m unhappy.”

 

Actually, offstage, Khobdeh, who is single, is as sunny as they come. Michael Trusnovec, her frequent partner, says, “She’s one of those people that whenever we go somewhere on the road and get into a taxi, not two minutes into the ride, she knows everything about the driver.” That curiosity, in part, is what keeps her challenged by Taylor’s prodigious imagination. There’s no way to know what’s around the corner, and that’s how she likes it.

 

“Maybe that’s why we’re so fiercely loyal and devoted to Paul,” she says. “In doing parts like Piazzolla Caldera, Promethean Fire and Company B, I feel like Paul has a lot of trust in me. That he feels I’m capable of doing them justice. Being in the studio and making something is a very special process. When we find out who’s going to be in the new dance, it feels like Christmas morning. It is the best part of my job. It’s such a beautiful thing, especially to see him move. I admire the man so much. And I love trying to read his mind.”

 

Khobdeh, 32, lives on New York’s Lower East Side and rides her bicycle everywhere. She also attends as many theater, dance, and music performances—from the Philharmonic to a three-person band in a Brooklyn basement—as she can afford. But Khobdeh doesn’t limit herself to simply sitting in the audience: She’s also part of a comedy-improv troupe called the Sea Monsters.

 

“The reason I got into it was because Paul was challenging me with more comedy roles,” Khobdeh says. “It’s like the yoga, the biking, and the weight training that I do. It’s cross-training for my mind. It helps me understand comedy, timing and, more specifically, Paul’s timing. And that’s really what I’m striving for.”

 

Clockwise from top left: Offenbach Overtures with Michelle Fleet. Photo by Paul B. Goode, Courtesy PTDC; In costume for Piazzolla Caldera. Photo by Matthew Karas; Esplanade, from backstage. Photo by Francisco Graciano, Courtesy PTDC. 

 

 

So far, her comedy-improv life is something of a secret. “Sometimes it’s really nice to walk into a random third-floor theater somewhere on MacDougal Street and perform and nobody knows who you are,” she says. “Nobody knows what you do. You’re just another player and I love that. I love completely being anonymous and turning into something else.”

 

In her dancing, she manages to do that all the time, performing such disparate roles as the forlorn young woman in Company B (her solo to “I Can Dream, Can’t I?” is heartbreaking) and as the lusty, space-devouring sexpot in Piazzolla. This March at Lincoln Center, Khobdeh dances with Trusnovec in three Taylor classics: Esplanade; Eventide, a delicately rendered look at love told through the simplest of means—walking; and Promethean Fire.

 

Photo by Matthew Karas.

 

 

Trusnovec finds something in Khobdeh’s essence similar to that of the recently retired Taylor dancer Annmaria Mazzini, who danced each performance as if it might be her last. “Parisa is one of those dancers who connects with you in that moment,” he says. “You can tell when you look in her eyes that there is nowhere else she would rather be, that there is no one else even onstage when you’re dancing with her. I feel like the world disappears. It’s very pure and beautiful.”

 

Khobdeh relishes dancing with Trusnovec; in Promethean Fire, which hints at the events of 9/11, she calls him her rock. “I do that blind leap,” she says. “I jump into the void. And I know he’s going to catch me. I trust him with my life.”

 

Photo by Matthew Karas.

 

At one point in Promethean Fire, the dancers collapse on top of each other only to rise up again. It’s a triumphant look at the human spirit, which is why Khobdeh loves it so much. “Being human is going through obstacles and overcoming adversity,” she says. “We’re all faced with tragedy at some point or another, and if you are afraid of it, it might overtake you. So you look beyond the obstacle.”

 

Before last season’s Lincoln Center engagement, the company performed a run-through of Promethean Fire for Taylor. “After we bowed, he gestured to me and I went up to his chair,” she says. “I bent down to hear him because he was sitting. He looked at me and he kissed me on the cheek and said, ‘That’s it.’ It was so tender. My heart felt huge. It was a beautiful moment that I’ll cherish forever.”

 

Gia Kourlas is the dance editor of Time Out New York and writes about dance for The New York Times.

 

 

How Parisa keeps her body dance-ready

 

Heavy lifting ”Here, the women are not the only ones being lifted. There are moments when I’m having to lift someone else, so I strength-train. I spend three days in the gym lifting weights, and I also do Pilates and Gyrotonics. I take ballet and Taylor too. I get massages and I do Thera-Band exercises and I try to eat a very high protein diet to take care of my muscles.”

 

Outside the studio “I bike everywhere. I do yoga and I swim, and especially on our off time, I try to do all of those things. To get the Taylor back, the closest thing without doing Taylor is to be in the pool and use the resistance of the water.”

 

On tour “I usually do some Pilates in my room. If there’s a gym in the hotel, I try to utilize that just to get some blood flowing, especially if I’ve been on a long plane ride. I’ll warm up before tech. I’ll give myself a barre and I will do the Taylor back exercises and rehearse and then do it all over again before the show. And I try to stretch after, while everything’s still warm.”

The Conversation
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Rolling In

To get a 180-degree first position, dancers will sometimes let their arches roll forward. But turnout is not about forcing your feet open; it's about opening up in the hips. “Turning out is an activity, not a position," says Irene Dowd, who teaches anatomy at the Juilliard School. “If we stop sustaining that movement, our feet will passively roll in." Rolling in places stress on the tendons of the feet and leads to injury because the rest of the body compensates for the imbalance when your knees can't line up over your toes.

Dowd warns against using only the arch to combat rolling in. “Dancers will try to lift up their arches and pull up on the inside of the ankle," she says. This can result in the inflammation of the tendons in the ankle and lead to tendinitis, a painful overuse injury that's common in dancers. What she feels are “Victorian furniture feet—feet that aren't fully in contact with the ground" should be solid in three areas: the heel, the ball of the big toe, and the ball of the little toe. Imagine how your weight is being transferred from above, through the body and down the legs, rather than gripping the foot and lifting from the arch.

Misaligning the Spine

Distorting the back, either by crunching the lumbar vertebrae and splaying the rib cage open or by hunching the shoulders forward and tucking the pelvis under, affects every other part of the body. Since the proper placement of the torso is the foundation of any movement, a dancer with a misaligned spine will develop other deadly technique sins. Problems can ripple all the way down to the extremities and upward to the neck and head. The core will be loose, unable to provide essential support. A pelvis that either tips back or tucks under will limit the range of motion in the hips.

Christine Spizzo's students at the North Carolina School of the Arts constantly work on their placement. “The one directive I give in class more than any other," she says, “is tailbone down, navel muscles lifted." She emphasizes that the tailbone lengthens downward without tucking under, and the navel muscles lift upward, not inward. This opposition allows the external rotator muscles to be actively engaged at the top of the thigh. Spizzo uses the expression the Four Ts—“no tucking, tipping, tilting, or twisting of the pelvis"—as a reminder for students.

Clenching the Toes

Clenching, curling, knuckling—no matter what it's called, this condition hampers a dancer's ability to articulate the feet. Clenched toes also make the feet an unstable platform to stand on, creating problems for the rest of the body. The muscles and tendons of the foot, knee, and ankle must work together to perform a relevé or jump, says Edward Ellison, director of Ellison Ballet Professional Training Program in New York. Clenched toes will place unwanted stress on the joints of the legs, leading to imbalance and overuse injuries. On pointe, knuckling over can damage the bones and tendons of the feet.

Master ballet teacher Sara Neece of Ballet Arts in New York says that when the first joint of the toe presses down into the floor too hard, the second joint of the toe jams into the metatarsal. For Neece, the key to remedying clenched toes lies in “bringing sensation to those unused tendons" beneath the second joint, and teaching the toes how to work in a careful and deliberate manner. While seated, a dancer should prick the back of each clenched toe with a fingernail about 20 times. Sitting on a chair with the foot on the ground, she should drag it back toward the body, slowly raising it to demi-pointe with a forced arch. Teachers must pay attention to the response of the feet to this localized work, since overstressing the tendons can damage them. Another way to teach the toes to stretch out is to weave a strip of cloth over the second toe and alternate below and above successive toes, leaving it there during barrework and nondance activities.

Giving In to Extreme Hyperextension

Hyperextended legs, in which the straightened knee naturally curves behind the thigh and calf muscles, are prized in the world of extreme ballet bodies. Christine Spizzo sings the praise of a moderately hyperextended leg line, as the leg fits snugly in fifth position, and the arabesque looks gorgeous, with that slight curve offsetting the arch of the foot. However, dancers with extreme hyperextension must take special care. “The hyperextended dancer tends to have weak external rotator muscles," she says, so the legs are more prone to collapse in on themselves when landing from a jump, letting the body weight fall on the knees. This can result in damage to the joints that maintain the alignment of the leg, including twisted knees and sprained ankles. Even if the dancer understands how to avoid giving in to her hyperextension, she has to learn how to express herself fully while restraining her legs.

But Spizzo points to dancers such as international star Sylvie Guillem, who has used her extreme hyperextension to her advantage. The dancer must think of lengthening rather than straightening or locking the knee, even if it feels slightly bent. She must develop a heightened awareness of the turnout muscles from the top of the thigh down to the calf. “The muscles must be activated to not allow the dancer to give in to the hyperextension," says Spizzo. She uses the image of the barbershop pole to encourage dancers to apply that feeling of an infinite spiral to their legs. Somatic practices such as Pilates can help to strengthen those stabilizing turnout muscles. Spizzo insists that dancers stand with the heels together in first position and never be allowed to press back into that knee joint. To do this, “the quadriceps must remain soft. As soon as you grip, it pulls that kneecap back dangerously."

Using Unnecessary Tension

“Tension," says Daniel Lewis, dean of dance at the New World School of the Arts, “pulls you off balance. It tightens the muscles and causes injury." Stiff muscles are injury-prone muscles, which make free and confident movement impossible.

Unwanted stiffness can also limit your versatility as a dancer. “Modern dance is concerned with trying to go into space off-center and off-balance," says Mary Cochran, chair of the dance department at Barnard College. “If you spend too much time holding your body stiffly, it's hard to make the transition from working in-balance to working off-balance."

Rhythmic breathing helps dissipate tension. Think of the lungs as another limb and pace the breath with the dynamics of the music. Sustain a sense of motion in the body, even when you are still, advises Cochran. Doing so will help reverse the muscle memory of using tension as a form of stability.

Pinching Your Shoulder Blades

Although used as a strategy to open the chest in front, pinching your shoulder blades together immobilizes the back. The serratus anterior on the sides of your rib cage is so overstretched that it can't work. Edward Ellison says that pinched shoulder blades impede the freedom of the arms and the support of the upper spine. He feels that they “cause your weight to fall behind your axis, and strain the trapezius and rhomboid muscles of the back."

Irene Dowd suggests thinking about widening the tips of the shoulders to the side, to allow plenty of room for the chest. “It helps to think about the chest—full of your lungs, your heart, all those organs—as a sphere," says Dowd. “We need to have enough room for all those precious organs to breathe." To relax shoulder blades, sometimes she will tell students to focus on the movement of the hands. “Is the hand really a lively part of my being?" Dowd has her students ask. “The shoulder blade should support that hand."

Getting Stuck in a Rut

While physical habits impede progress, the deadliest sin is losing the drive to improve technique at all. Franco De Vita, principal of American Ballet Theatre's Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School, says good technique begins with a dancer's approach to class. Being present and focused enables the dancer to learn combinations quickly—and correctly. “Not listening and changing the exercise is unacceptable," says De Vita.

Michael Vernon, chair of the ballet department at Indiana University, feels the worst thing a dancer can do “is to get fixed into doing something a certain way, being safe. I love young dancers who understand that you have to dance for tomorrow, and not yesterday." Keeping an open mind means more than just trying a different preparation for a pirouette. “Being open to new styles of dance and new ways of moving the body is vital to keeping the art relevant."

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