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Source: PBS News

May 3, 2023

How this Iranian American ballerina is spotlighting social injustices in Iran

By — Julia Griffin

Golden State Ballet principal dancer Tara Ghassemieh is used to taking command of the stage. From the Sugar Plum Fairy to the Black Swan, she’s tackled her share of lead and featured roles. But recently, she stepped into a new role: pacifist-activist.

Ghassemieh is half Persian, the daughter of an American mother and Iranian father who fled his home country just before the 1979 revolution. She also says she is the first and only Iranian American principal ballet dancer in the United States.

“To be the first Iranian American principal dancer, as it is an honor, it was actually a big sadness for me,” Ghassemieh said in a video call from her home in Southern California, “because why I am the first is due to dictatorship and suppression of men and women and the fact that they are not given the freedom of artistic expression.”

After the revolution, public performances of Western arts were deemed to be a punishable offense. That means Ghassemieh’s core passion is also a liability. She’s never visited the country, even as a child, and has only met her Iranian family once, in Dubai.

“My dad never let me go to Iran. I was too well-known of a ballerina,” she said. “And so that’s really heartbreaking for me because that’s the only place I really want to be.”

But Ghassemieh’s Persian culture was not always easy to publicly embrace, especially in a post-9/11 world. “It was literally safer and easier to be American,” she says, adding that she was bullied for her appearance and called “terrorist Tara” by her classmates. Dance became her refuge. “That was really where my home was,” she said.

History uncovered

Ghassemieh didn’t integrate Iranian background into her dance career until five years ago when she learned of the existence of the now-disbanded Iranian National Ballet.

Founded in 1958, the world-class company grew to be the one of the largest in the Middle East, featuring foreign and Iranian dancers and performing a repertoire of classic and contemporary western ballets and Persian works.

But after the 1979 revolution, ballet was banned in Iran and the company dissolved. Its dancers were forced to find another occupation or flee the country. Some joined companies in America, Europe and elsewhere, and in 2002, there was even an attempt to revive the company in Sweden as the Les Ballet Persians.

In an effort to embrace this history, Ghassemieh and her husband and stage partner, Vitor Luiz, co-choreographed and performed a pas de deux duet from Scheherazade, a classic ballet based on the Persian tale Arabian Nights that was originally performed by the Ballet Russes at the turn of the 20th century.

Ghassemieh performs the Scheherazade pas de deux she co-choreographed with her husband, Vitor Luiz. Photo courtesy of Festival Ballet Theatre and Artistic Director Salwa Rizkalla.

Ghassemieh also launched several projects highlighting the history of the Iranian National Ballet and the lasting impacts of the Iranian regime’s decision to forbid Western artforms in the country.

She partnered with journalists Kelly Johnstone and Elle Toussi to produce the short film Persian Swan, which introduces Ghassemieh as the lone Iranian American principal ballerina and pays tribute to the Iranian National Ballet. The team hopes it is also a preamble for a full documentary on the ballet company.

As part of that effort, Ghassemieh, Johnstone and Toussi are reaching out to former members of the Iranian National Ballet, many of whom, if they are still living, are more than 70 years old. Getting alumni of the company to agree to interviews is a challenge, she said, as many are scared to go on record out of fear of retribution for themselves or their families.

Toussi, who is a first-generation Iranian, struggled with that sentiment herself when agreeing to work with Ghassemieh.

“For 15 years, I’ve been a journalist, but I’ve never covered anything in Iran,” Toussi said. “If I do something that is my skill set on my homeland, it’s not just me that’s in danger, it’s my family there … I’m saying goodbye to the possibility of seeing my family until this is done, until Iran is free and I can go see them.”

The unveiling of Persian Swan wasn’t the only production on Ghassemieh’s plate this spring.

In March, the INTUITV ARTSHIP foundation Ghassemieh co-founded with Luiz, premiered the ballet The White Feather to a sold-out crowd at the Irvine Barclay Theatre in Irvine, California.

The full evening-length production, which Ghassemieh directed, explores the evolution of artistic restrictions in Iran through the lens of its one-time national ballet company.

Tara Ghassemieh rehearses a scene from the ballet, “The White Feather” with her husband and dance partner Vitor Luiz. Image courtesy of Sam Zauscher Photo.

Social injustices and social media

As Ghassamieh was working on raising awareness of the lost history of dance in Iran, anti-government protests were growing across the country, calling for increased women’s rights and freedom of expression, following the death of Mahsa Amini. Amini died while in the custody of the country’s so-called morality police after being accused of violating the regime’s strict hijab laws.

Using the hashtag #DanceForIran, Ghassemieh posts or amplifies information about Iranians arrested for removing hijabs, dancing in the streets and other acts of defiance and self expression. She also spreads awareness of Iranians who have gone missing.

On International Women’s Day, a group of teenagers in Ekbatan, Iran posted a now-viral video of them dancing in western clothing without hijabs. They were arrested and forced to apologize, and the account that originally posted the video has since been deleted. Ghassemieh decided to join others around the world in performing the choreography of those same teenagers as an act of solidarity.

“The only thing I could do was do their dance. That was it,” she said.

Ghassemieh wants to one day create a ballet studio in Iran and be the first ballerina to perform on the Iranian National Ballet’s old stage since the company was dissolved. In the meantime, she hopes her posts of support are reaching those still teaching and learning dance underground.

“My heart aches for the little girls and boys and the adults, everyone learning dance in their living room, in basements,” she said. “They are my fuel.”

Tousi, who never danced herself, believes the nature of Ghassemieh’s physical movement is key to broadening awareness of injustices in Iran to the wider world.

“After seeing Tara dance in person for the first time, I realized that dance is a universal form of language,” she said. “You may not understand Farsi or any other type of language, but when we see dance, we can all understand what’s going on by what the dancer is doing in that movement.”

Julia Griffin is senior coordinator of digital video at PBS NewsHour where she oversees the daily production of video content for the organization’s website and social media platforms.

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