Mercurial & Magical
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.”
Choosing music for your first-ever choreography commission can feel daunting enough. But when you're asked to create a ballet using the vast discography of the Rolling Stones—and you happen to be dating Stones frontman Mick Jagger—the stakes are even higher.
So it's understandable that as of Monday, American Ballet Theatre corps de ballet dancer Melanie Hamrick, whose Port Rouge will have its U.S. premiere tonight at the Youth America Grand Prix gala, was still torn about which songs to include.
The way we create and consume dance is changing every day. Now more than ever, the field demands that dancers not only be able to perform at the highest level, but also collaborate with choreographers to bring their artistic visions to life. Dancers who miss out on choreographic training may very well find themselves at a disadvantage as they try to launch their careers.
What is an acceptable request from a choreographer in terms of nudity? On the first day of shooting All That Jazz in the 1970s, Bob Fosse asked us men to remove everything but our jock straps and the women to remove their tops. His rationale was to shock us in order to build character, and it felt disloyal to refuse. Would this behavior be considered okay today?
As much as audiences might flock to Swan Lake or The Nutcracker, ballet can't only rely on old war horses if it wants to remain relevant. But building new full-lengths from scratch isn't exactly cheap.
So where can companies find the money?
It's not often that a promising choreographer gets to stage work in a world-class theater, on a skillfully-curated program with professional dancers, and with the possibility of winning a substantial cash prize. But at the McCallum Theatre's Palm Desert Choreography Festival, that's been the status quo for over twenty years.
Since Shea New, the festival's artistic director, founded the festival in 1998, she's worked tirelessly with McCallum's director of education and festival producer, Kajsa Thuresson-Frary, and stage manager and festival production manager Joanna Fookes to build a festival that nurtures choreographers, highlights high quality work, powerfully engages the local community and cultivates an audience base for dance in the Coachella Valley. The trio is backed by a strong team of professionals at McCallum and the brilliant volunteers from the local and national level who serve as adjudicators.
Get Dance Magazine in your inbox
Today—April 16, 2019—marks what would have been Merce Cunningham's 100th birthday. As dancers from Los Angeles to New York City to London gear up for Night of 100 Solos (the marathon performance event being livestreamed today), and as companies and presenters worldwide continue to celebrate the Cunningham Centennial through their programming, we searched through the Dance Magazine Archives to unearth our favorite images of the groundbreaking dancemaker.
A bright disposition with a dab of astringent charm is how I remember Brock Hayhoe, a National Ballet School of Canada schoolmate. Because we were a couple years apart, we barely brushed shoulders, except at the odd Toronto dance party where we could dance all night with mutual friends letting our inhibitions subside through the music. Dancing always allows a deeper look.
But, as my late great ballet teacher Pyotr Pestov told me when I interviewed him for Dance Magazine in 2009, "You never know what a flower is going to look like until it opens up."
One night. Three cities. Seventy-five dancers. And three unique sets of 100 solos, all choreographed by Merce Cunningham.
This incredible evening of dance will honor Cunningham's 100th birthday on April 16. The Merce Cunningham Trust has teamed up with The Barbican in London, the Brooklyn Academy of Music in New York City and the Center for the Art of Performance in Los Angeles for a tri-city celebration.
The best part? You don't have to be in those cities to watch—Night of 100 Solos is being live-streamed in its entirety for free.
When George Balanchine's full-length Don Quixote premiered in 1965, critics and audiences alike viewed the ballet as a failure. Elaborate scenery and costumes framed mawkish mime passages, like one in which the ballerina washed the Don's feet and dried them with her hair. Its revival in 2005 by Suzanne Farrell, the ballerina on whom it was made and to whom Balanchine left the work, did little to alter its reputation.
Yet at New York City Center's Balanchine festival last fall, some regretted its absence.
"I'd want to see Balanchine's Don Quixote," says Apollinaire Scherr, dance critic for the Financial Times. "It was a labor of love on his part, and a love letter as well. And you want to know what that looks like in his work."
Even great choreographers make mistakes. Sometimes they fail on a grand scale, like Don Quixote; other times it may be a minor misstep. Experiment and risk help choreographers grow, but what happens when a choreographer of stature misfires? Should the work remain in the repertory? And what about a work that fails on some levels but not others?
After the horrific March 15 terrorist attacks at two New Zealand mosques, the music and arts community sprang into action to plan a way to help victims and their families. A series of resulting concerts, titled "You Are Us/Aroha Nui," will take place in New Zealand (April 13 and 17), Jersey City, New Jersey (April 17) and Los Angeles (April 18). Proceeds from ticket sales will be donated to the Our People, Our City Fund, which was established by the Christchurch Foundation to aid those affected by the attacks.
Throughout 2019, the Merce Cunningham Trust continues a global celebration that will be one of the largest tributes to a dance artist ever. Under the umbrella of the Merce Cunningham Centennial are classes and workshops, film screenings and festivals, art exhibitions and symposia, and revivals and premieres of original works inspired by the dancemaker's ideas. The fever peaks on April 16, which would have been the pioneering choreographer's 100th birthday, with Night of 100 Solos: A Centennial Event, featuring a total of 75 dancers in three performances live-streamed from London, Los Angeles and New York City.
Cloud & Victory gets dancers. The dancewear brand's social media drools over Roberto Bolle's abs, sets classical variations to Beyoncé and moans over Mondays and long adagios. And it all comes from the mind of founder Tan Li Min, the boss lady who takes on everything from designs to inventory to shipping orders.
Known simply (and affectionately) to the brand's 41K Instagram followers as Min, she's used her wry, winking sense of humor to give the Singapore-based C&V international cachet.
She recently spoke with Dance Magazine about building the brand, overcoming insecurity and using pizza as inspiration.
The Ballet Memphis New American Dance Residency, which welcomes selected choreographers for its inaugural iteration next week, goes a step beyond granting space, time and dancers for the development of new work.
This is huge news, so we'll get straight to it:
We now (finally!) know who'll be appearing onscreen alongside Ariana DeBose and the other previously announced leads in Steven Spielberg's remake of West Side Story, choreographed by Justin Peck. Unsurprisingly, the Sharks/Jets cast list includes some of the best dancers in the industry.
The pleasure of watching prodigies perform technical feats on Instagram can be tinged with a sense of trepidation. Impressive tricks, you think, but do they have what it takes for an actual career?
Just look at 18-year-old Maria Khoreva, who has more followers than most seasoned principals; in videos, her lines and attention to detail suggested a precocious talent, and led to a Nike ambassador contract before she even graduated from the Vaganova Ballet Academy. Still, when she joined the Mariinsky Ballet last summer, there was no guarantee any of it would translate to stage prowess.
What's next for the dance world? Our annual list of the dancers, choreographers and companies that are on the verge of skyrocketing has a pretty excellent track record of answering that question.
Here they are: the 25 up-and-coming artists we believe represent the future of our field.
At six feet tall, Jesse Obremski dances as though he's investigating each movement for the first time. His quiet transitional moments are as astounding as his long lines, bounding jumps and seamless floorwork. Add in his versatility and work ethic, and it's clear why he's an invaluable asset to New York City choreographers. Currently a freelance artist with multiple contemporary groups, including Gibney Dance Company and Limón Dance Company, Obremski also choreographs for his recently formed troupe, Obremski/Works.
Last night at Parsons Dance's 2019 gala, the company celebrated one of our own: DanceMedia owner Frederic M. Seegal.
In a speech, artistic director David Parsons said that he wanted to honor Seegal for the way he devotes his energy to supporting premier art organizations, "making sure that the arts are part of who we are," he said.
It's a bit of an understatement to say that Bob Fosse was challenging to work with. He was irritable, inappropriate and often clashed with his collaborators in front of all his dancers. Fosse/Verdon, which premieres on FX tonight, doesn't sugarcoat any of this.
But for Sasha Hutchings, who danced in the first episode's rendition of "Big Spender," the mood on set was quite opposite from the one that Fosse created. Hutchings had already worked with choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler, who she calls "a dancer's dream," director Tommy Kail and music director Alex Lacamoire as a original cast member in Hamilton, and she says the collaborators' calm energy made the experience a pleasant one for the dancers.
"Television can be really stressful," she says. "There's so many moving parts and everyone has to work in sync. With Tommy, Andy and Lac I never felt the stress of that as a performer."