Dallas native Parisa Khobdeh shares what it means t be a Paul Taylor dancer, fostering her free and easy movement quality and the company’s upcoming performance at the Eisemann Center.
Richardson — It takes more than strong technique and individual virtuosity to make it as a member of the Paul Taylor Dance Company. It also takes humility, authenticity and a natural self-awareness as company member Parisa Khobdeh has discovered over the past 12 years.
Born and raised in Plano, Khobdeh trained with Gilles Tanguay at Dance Consortium and Kathy Chamberlain at the Chamberlain School of Ballet. It was Chamberlain who encouraged her to audition for Southern Methodist University’s dance program where she got the opportunity to work with choreographers, including Robert Battle, Judith Jamison and Donald McKayle. Her path as a professional modern dancer wasn’t cemented until she attended the American Dance Festival (ADF) as a Tom Adams Scholar where she saw the Paul Taylor Dance Company perform Promethean Fire (2002). The first time she auditioned for the company she didn’t make it, but that didn’t deter her from her ultimate dream of becoming a Paul Taylor dancer. After attending a Taylor intensive in New York Khobdeh made it through her second audition and premiered with the company at ADF in summer 2003.
One of the last living pioneers of modern dance, Paul Taylor first presented his choreography with five other dancers in Manhattan in 1954. Over the last 60 years he has become a cultural icon thanks to his vivid imagination, all-encompassing intellect and quick eye for uncovering a person’s character, which continues to captivate audiences around the world. Formed in 1993, the Paul Taylor Dance Company has performed in more than 540 cities in 64 countries, representing the United States at arts festivals in more than 40 countries and touring extensively under the aegis of the U.S. Department of State.
The company returns to Dallas Feb. 7 for a one-night only performance at the Eisemann Center for Performing Arts in Richardson, TX. The program includes the Dallas premiere of Diggity (1978), Beloved Renegade (2008) andCloven Kingdom (1976). There will also be a screening of the Paul Taylor documentary Creative Domain, presented by the Eisemann and the Arts Incubator of Richardson, at 7 p.m. on Thursday, Feb. 5 at the Alamo Drafthouse in Richardson. Tickets for that are $10.
TheaterJones asked Parisa Khobdeh about her training in Dallas, becoming a Paul Taylor dancer and having work set on her by the legend himself.
TheaterJones: You have been with the Paul Taylor Dance Company for more than 10 years. What is it about the man that instills such loyalty from his performers?
Parisa Khobdeh: I don’t see it as loyalty so much as it is a commitment to him and his work. We are really a family and look out for one another. Mr. Taylor has an eye for uncovering a person’s true character. He notices things that aren’t always apparent to the rest of us when he is auditioning people. He chooses not only really beautiful dancers, but also people with really great souls. And because of that you don’t see a lot of turnover among the dancers in the company. I joined the company at 22 and it has been a place that fosters artistry. There are a lot of revolving-door companies out there. They emphasize the technical virtuosity and not necessarily the depth of humanity, which is what Mr. Taylor’s work, embodies. His work reflects his physicality, beauty and well-structured physique. And then the dance itself is structured to show architecture through space and that is something that sets his work apart from others choreographers.
In a 2007 Dance Magazine article Mr. Taylor refers to the way you move as eye-popping. How does it feel to receive such a compliment from such an illustrious source in the modern dance world?
Oh gosh! I don’t really think about it to be honest. What I feel for Mr. Taylor is complete love and support. He has a beautiful soul and such a big heart. Every day we get the opportunity to work around a genius. So, back to your question I really don’t think about the things you just mentioned. This has definitely been a wonderful place for me to foster my artistry. Mr. Taylor really allows the dancer to speak and fulfill the role given to them. And I think that’s why his company attracts more mature dancers. It’s woven into the work, these subtleties of being human. He sees things a certain way and then shows you where to look and it’s really just been a wonderful place to expand and experience life for myself. To learn from him, watch him create and then to be created on is such an honor.
You are the focus of his works Lines of Loss (2007) and To Make Crops Grow (2012). What is the atmosphere like in the studio when the company is working with Mr. Taylor?
We are all very present when he is creating. Entering the studio Mr. Taylor already has the music broken-up and counted out; he has his notebook; and he knows what and how many dancers he is going to use, but he knows there is only so much you can plan. It’s now a matter of going into the studio and having the process and that’s when the energy between the dance maker and the dancer really comes to life. And you need that process and coming into the studio. You can’t just make a dance in your head in your house. It’s exciting and seldom is it disappointing because if you are not being created on then you are watching him create which is a gift in and of itself. Sometimes he will articulate what he wants and if you don’t get it then he will get up and show you and you get to experience the dancer that he is. There is such a beauty when he comes up and touches you. When he actually moves you there is a touch memory there that stays with you even after performing the work for the hundredth time. It’s really a sacred process.
When did you come to the realization that modern dance was the right path for you?
I actually started my dance training with Julie Lambert and Gilles Tanguay at Dance Consortium with would later merge with Kathy Chamberlain’s school. I was 14 at the time and I really danced because it was fun. With Gilles I learned a lot of modern movement, but when I joined Kathy’s school the focus was more on classical ballet. The school also offered classes in other styles of dance, but most of the students spent their summers at the School of American Ballet and I was never really moved by the storybook ballets. I appreciated them, but the form didn’t really speak to me. It was Kathy who encouraged me my senior year of high school to audition for the Southern Methodist University’s dance program. So, I auditioned and got in and really had no idea what I was getting myself into. At the time I wasn’t interested in becoming a dancer, but I began to waver after taking Graham technique and working with various choreographers such as Robert Battle, Judith Jamison and Donald McKayle. But most importantly I was seeing a lot of modern dance work created by Paul Taylor and Merce Cunningham. I was starting to see works that really spoke to me and that was a big game changer. So, it wasn’t until the end of my junior year when I went to the American Dance Festival (ADF) where the Paul Taylor company premiered Promethean Fire (2002) that I knew this is what I wanted to do. I didn’t just want to dance for Paul Taylor; I had to dance with Paul Taylor.
Looking back how did attending festivals such as ADF prepare you for your future as a professional dancer?
The SMU dance program required you to attend festivals, but Kathy Chamberlain has always encouraged her dancers to go and see dance and for good reason because perspective is everything. And honestly I didn’t know what dance was capable of doing. And I sense that had I not seen some of those performances I wouldn’t have known what I wanted.
As a dancer who is over 30 years old how do you avoid burning out or becoming jaded by the industry?
I think it’s about awareness and consciousness and you are ultimately in control of all of that. Nothing external to you like a choreographer, job or partner will make you happy. Happiness is our birth right. Ultimately, we all have our different paths, but it’s still up to us to have that consciousness to dream up what our life could be. We all have the same potential and it’s just a matter of how bad do you want it. How hard do you want to work at it and I think that’s just consciousness. Mr. Taylor beautifully transmits content and depths of life. There are probably a lot of young dancers that it’s all about becoming a star and in that case the Paul Taylor company is probably not right for them. It’s definitely not the place for them because it’s not about you. If you can come from a place of true contentedness and not competing with other dancers then the work doesn’t become hard or unenjoyable. It becomes an experience and it becomes gratitude. You get to see the beauty in life for its simplicity and sweetness.
The other part of it is being healthy and not smoking or drinking, and to really have a clean lifestyle. That’s what I need to be able to do the work that I’m content with and happy about. I am not saying any of these things are wrong. The kind of vigor and the expectations that the work demands of an artist actually causes me to eat consciously. I had a major injury that took me out and it was really a gift because it allowed me to want to come back to dancing. It was a gift to be able to watch work and watch my colleagues do what they love to do it. It gave me perspective. And then to be able to go back to doing it, I only felt gratitude.
How does it feel to get to perform in your hometown?
I definitely feel like I have come full circle. But what is most exciting is seeing how the city and dance community has changed since I left 12 years ago. That’s really the beautiful part of coming back to Dallas. It’s wonderful that there are presenters like the Eisemann Center and TITAS to bring in such amazing dance companies. You know, it’s not just about the dance schools, but it’s also about seeing dance and gaining perspective.
The evening’s program includes Diggity (1978), Beloved Renegade (2008) and Cloven Kingdom (1976). Which pieces will you be performing and how does each piece speak to you?
I will be performing in Beloved Renegade and Cloven Kingdom. Having a strong ballet background and exposure to other styles thanks to Kathy and SMU made learning the material easier for me. And obviously Mr. Taylor is from the school of Graham so his style is not too far off from what I am use to. Still, I was young when I joined the company, 22, so there was a lot for me to learn and it takes years to become a Taylor dancer. With more than 140 works in his repertoire these three pieces give you only a small taste of Mr. Taylor’s aesthetic. He shows you where to look in all his works, but then you have to do the discovering for yourself. Beloved Renegade is a perfect example of this. It’s inspired by Walt Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass.” And how it looks to me is Mr. Taylor is reflecting on his own life or man reflecting on his own life and reminds of a quote “find death before death finds you.” I think Mr. Taylor even said that all stories end the same way and that’s with death. That’s the one thing we do know. But the work is not morbid at all.
Cloven Kingdom is the earliest work on the program and really reflects Mr. Taylor’s intellectual hunger. You can see the tension between the Baroque and modern music, but also the tension among the dancers as they struggle with social conformity as they try to disguise their own animal motives. So, you see that struggle and that conflict and the movement vocabulary within the work ultimately came out of this tension between what’s socially acceptable and our true primitive nature. Diggity is a work Mr. Taylor did with long-time collaborators Donald York (composer) and Alex Katz (sets and costumes). There’s 20 some cutouts of dogs placed around the stage which in turn creates an obstacle course for the dancers.
This Q&A was originally posted on TheaterJones.com.