A Second Act for Ballet in Iran?

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.

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