Excerpt from “My Life as A Persian Ballerina“.
Born in Tehran in 1930 into a mixed family of a Tartar mother and an Azerbayjani father, Haideh Ahmadzadeh started dancing at the age of seven in a country that was struggling to keep up with modern times. Dancing for girls was not an accepted or desirable occupation. Her love of dance made her overcome many obstacles and with the approval and backing of her mother and later her husband Nejad, she got to the top of her profession. With a great deal of hard work, discipline and drive, Haideh and Nejad founded a Ballet Academy, Iranian National Ballet Company and Iranian Folk Dance, Music and Song Group. They performed regularly for State guests at home and abroad, their travels wrought with a great deal of incident and adventure. When the Islamic Revolution put a stop to all artistic activities in Iran, Haideh and Nejad had to leave a lifetime’s work behind and seek new adventures in the West >>>
The New Opera House and Ballet Academy, 1967
Our new ballet academy was in the process of construction and so was the opera house. These sites were like temples for us, which we passed by every day hoping and praying for their speedy completion.
The new academy a two storey building, with five studios, changing rooms, showers, offices and a waiting room, was finally ready and we left the old premises which only had two studios and two changing rooms behind, for our new school situated in Varzandeh Avenue in the grounds of the Amjadieh Sport Stadium.
Now that we had more room, we could take in a larger number of students, which also meant that we needed more ballet teachers, piano accompanists and also more pianos.
Avak, Mercedeh and Mina were sent one at a time, by Nejad to take a ballet teacher’s course at the Royal Academy of Dancing in London.
Mina and Ahmad eventually got married and left for Europe. His departure created a dilemma, as he rang us from the airport giving us the news on the day he was to dance in a ballet that same evening! A quick reshuffle in the cast saved the performance that evening but made all of us furious at his behaviour.
That is why there should always be understudies for every major part.
Having larger premises meant that we could take more amateur students for our afternoon classes who paid a tuition fee. We were also given a subsidy by our ministry to purchase what was needed for the academy.
In the spring of nineteen sixty-seven we went to Isfahan and Shiraz for some performances. The beautiful hotel Shah Abbas named after the famous Safavid king had just been completed. We danced on an elevated platform in front of a stained glass panel which made a lovely décor for our Iranian dances.
The performance was in the presence of our king and queen and their guests Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos, the president and first lady of the Philippines. They were all very impressed and came on stage to congratulate us.
International Fair in Montreal, Canada 1967
In the late spring of sixty-seven, our folk dance group was invited to participate at the world fair in Canada. We flew to Montreal via Paris, where we stopped for twenty- four hours. That night we decided to see a show at the Lido (the famous cabaret). The entrance charge was quite steep, so the company members declined and preferred to do some shopping instead. Only Frieda joined Nejad and me for the visit to the Lido.
The show was fabulous and extravagant; there were lots of topless girls parading on stage, which for us was a first time experience! Half a bottle of champagne was compulsory, thus Frieda and I not being used to drink were quite tipsy after a few sips. Talking animatedly and gesticulating, I spilled the rest of my drink on my husband’s front which made a large stain on his trousers!
When the show came to an end, Nejad asked the two of us to walk in front of him so nobody would see the stain. We giggled all the way back to the hotel. With hindsight we realise that in that crowd no one saw or cared about a minor incident as this. At the time it seemed like a major catastrophe!
In Montreal our ministry had built a beautiful pavilion in the Persian architectural style with arches and domes. It was decorated with mosaic tiles, similar to the ones adorning our mosques. The walls had intricate mirror work and carpets which are so famous and sought after in the world, covered the floors.
We performed for two weeks doing two shows a day. Every nation had a special day allocated to their country. On the occasion of Iran’s National Day, our Queen Farah was the guest of honour and was so pleased with our performance that she ordered the responsible authorities, to reward our artists with a cash bonus, which was spent in the shops the following day!
That evening there was an official dinner in her presence, to which Nejad and I received an invitation as well. Naturally I had to go shopping for an evening dress. I remember the dress I bought had a black crepe skirt with a white embroidered top. All the company girls went to work on my hair and make-up and were finally happy with the result. Valerik and Fereshteh (the blonde one) were quite good at hair-dressing and used to help the other girls with their intricate coiffures when it was necessary.
It was an unforgettable evening for me and my husband, to be dining with our Queen and her entourage.
We heard later that the Canadian authorities liked the Iranian pavilion so much that instead of tearing it down at the end of the Expo, they made it into a library to preserve it, which is great.
The amusement area at the Expo was very good with lots of fun things to do, but compared to Brussels, for those who had been with us on that trip, it was not as enjoyable as the amusement grounds of “Belgique Joyeuse” which we had attended in nineteen fifty-eight.
As we were in Montreal in June, one day, coincided with my birthday. We invited the whole group to a chic restaurant called “Altitude 44”, as it was situated on the top floor of a skyscraper. The manager had been told what the occasion was, so I was presented with flowers and a birthday cake, with violins serenading us at the table! The next night we went out with the dancers and danced the night away.
On the third night we celebrated with champagne in our hotel room, just the two of us. Since then I have this habit of celebrating my birthday three times, which is great!
Recently when we were telling our granddaughter, Hannah, about Montreal and reached the last bit about my birthday on the third night, she said seriously, “Please don’t tell me any more, I don’t wish to know the rest!”
Montreal was very beautiful in early summer. We went out for drives and on picnics to the lake side and other lovely spots. The girls especially loved the shopping malls laden with merchandise. Many of the shopping areas were underground, to keep the shoppers warm during the cold winter months, which was a novelty for us.
We have fond memories of listening to “Lara’s” theme from the film Dr Zhivago, featuring Omar Sharif and Julie Christie, which was played regularly for the spectacle of the dancing fountains at the fair grounds.
One day all the girls decided to go to the cinema to see “Love Story” a film with Ryan O’Neal and Ali McGraw. I think some of us had seen the film before and knew that it had a sad ending, so we equipped ourselves with boxes of tissues in anticipation. Good thing we were prepared as the tissues came in handy once more!
On our return trip we stopped in NY where our consulate arranged for us to perform for the Iranian students, studying there. The students were overjoyed, as it was rare for an Iranian troupe to visit the States in those days.
For me the visit to NY was a very happy occasion, as two of my uncles, Camille and Mansour lived there with their families, plus my cousin Teymour. We also had the pleasure of being in that busy cosmopolitan city again, after eleven years.
Leaving NY behind, we went via London and Rome to Naples, where we visited Capri, Sorento and Pompeii. We then had a twenty-four hour stop in Amsterdam, Holland. We booked a tour of the city in order to see as much as possible in a short space of time. On the last part of the tour they take the tourists to visit a diamond work shop to demonstrate how diamonds are cut, polished and set.
It is cleverly arranged so that after the different stages of the rough diamond being cut and moulded, you end up in the display room where you can purchase the finished article, made into a piece of lovely jewellery!
Everybody especially the girls were very interested. I liked a ring with a diamond in the centre surrounded by four baguette diamonds. The price was high and Nejad was not inclined to spend so much on a ring for me.
Nothing doing, as all the girls said they would not leave the diamond centre unless my husband bought me the ring!
So the tour ended on a high note for me. Now whenever I wear the ring memories of that wonderful trip come flooding back.
From Holland we flew to Athens where we contacted our three Greek girls, Heleni, Eva and Evangelia from Nilla’s time and spent a wonderful couple of days with them. Heleni, who was married to a very rich man, invited the whole company for a night out on the town. We ate, drank, danced and smashed lots of plates in the customary Greek manner. She said her husband would foot the bill!
We invited the girls to visit Tehran. Heleni and Eva came in the autumn of that year, the time of the coronation of our sovereigns and stayed in our house. On the actual day of the coronation, as Nejad and I were invited to witness the ceremony with other guests, in the gardens of the Golestan Palace, Frieda and her husband were with our Greek friends among the crowds watching the royal procession drive through the streets of Tehran.
Somehow they found themselves among the cortège of cars following the newly crowned sovereigns. They followed them all the way to Shimran as the crowd cheered waving the tricolour with the lion and the rising sun.
Heleni and Eva thought it a lovely experience and felt like royalty themselves.
Coronation of Their Majesties – 1967
October twenty-six, 1967 was marked as the coronation date for our Shah and Queen Farah. It was also the shah’s forty-seventh birthday. People all over Iran were preparing themselves for this event, especially in Tehran, where the coronation ceremony was to take place.
Our brand new opera house, the Rudaki Hall, named after a famous Persian poet and scholar, was to be inaugurated by their majesties on the evening of the same day, after the coronation ceremony at the Golestan Palace.
Rudaki Hall is a beautiful building with a good sized stage that has a circular middle section and can also move from side to side and up and down when necessary. The auditorium seats 1200 and has two tiers of boxes and balconies.
Contrary to my husband’s advice, suggesting that the hall should be built like the Lincoln Center in NY in a semi-circle with no boxes to obstruct the view of the stage; the authorities opted for a more traditional plan and built it like the European opera houses.
The safety curtain in front of the stage has a phoenix rising from the ashes painted on it. Ferdowsi our famous poet mentions this mythical bird in his poems in the Shahnameh. I think it is a dramatic and appropriate image for the auditorium of Rudaki Hall.
Sylvia Matheson a critic for “The Times” of London, February seventh, 1968 describes our opera house to perfection. The following passage is from that article, which I quote:
“Last July I was watching Iran’s National Ballet Company rehearsing in the ramshackle old buildings scattered among the trees next to the shell of a building, for years shrouded in scaffolding in the heart of Tehran.
But when I returned from Europe for the coronation in October, I was astonished to find that the old buildings had disappeared, and in their place as if by magic, smooth green lawns and terraced gardens with splashing fountains surrounded the magnificent new Rudaki Hall, set like a many-faceted diamond in a crystal jewel box; flood-lit at night, its marble foyers with their traditional mosaics and fabulous crystal chandeliers were thronged with far more elegantly evening gowned, tiaraed audience than you’d find in most western capitals.”
What a lovely description of our opera house!
At the back of the hall, the building rises to house six floors. On the third floor there was a smaller stage and auditorium, used for recitals, chamber orchestra concerts and also for our ballet academy students’ performances.
The opera and symphony orchestra were on two different floors and the fifth floor was for the ballet company.
It consisted of a vast studio, larger than the stage downstairs, no pillars to cause an obstruction when moving around and a whole wall covered with mirrors that were imported from Belgium. At the top of the mirrors were a row of big windows to make the studio light and airy.
There were dressing rooms, showers, offices and a small pantry.
We were terribly proud of the opera house as our dreams had finally come true.
On the sixth floor there was a lovely restaurant and a roof top terrace, where you could have lunch or a meal after a performance. In summer one could see a brightly lit panoramic view of Tehran from the terrace.
On the day of the coronation, Nejad and I were invited to see the procession in the gardens of the Golestan Palace, as only the royal family, diplomatic corps, and high- ranking officials were present at the ceremony inside the mirrored hall.
The Shah’s crown was the one worn by his father, Reza Shah, forty-seven years before for his own coronation.
For the Queen everything had to be created from scratch, as she notes in her biography, as none of our previous monarchs had crowned his spouse before.
Her crown was made up of jewels from the treasury coffers of Iran, designed by the Parisian house of Van Cleef and Arpels who managed to incorporate Persian design with taste and elegance.
Her coronation robe and cloak were designed by Christian Dior but made and embroidered in Iran by our own dressmakers and seamstresses.
Young Reza, the crown prince who was seven years old, was dressed in full military uniform.
He entered first followed by the Queen with young girls carrying her train and escorted by her ladies-in-waiting.
Finally the Shah walked regally past the guests and sat down on the Peacock Throne. He first crowned himself, and when the Queen knelt in front of him, he carefully placed her crown on her head, trying not to mess up her chignon.
Those who witnessed the coronation in the hall said afterwards that the crown prince behaved impeccably during the ceremony.
They left as they had arrived in horse drawn carriages through the streets of Tehran. The assembled crowds chanting “Long live the King”—“Long live the Queen”
It was a beautiful sunny day that enhanced people’s good mood. That evening Rudaki Hall was inaugurated by their majesties. The royal box in the centre of the second balcony is truly magnificent, with its walls covered by Persian brocade.
A gigantic crystal chandelier in the shape of a bee-hive hangs from the ceiling. The acoustics sound and electrical equipment was executed by “Siemens.”
Nejad, the first manager of Rudaki hall introduced me as the prima ballerina and de Warren as the ballet master and choreographer of the ballet company to the royal party. Naturally there were photographers present and one of the photos shows Robert and I being presented to their majesties.
Robert sent the photo to the Dancing Times Magazine in London to make publicity for himself and his work.
When this photo was printed in the magazine, the caption under it read, “Robert and his wife Jacqueline being presented to the King and Queen of Iran!”
Robert claimed that the magazine had made a mistake, instead of my name they had printed his wife’s, but we always had the sneaky feeling that it was rather intentional.
Two weeks of performances by international groups followed one another. There were numerous orchestras, opera singers and dance companies invited to perform for this auspicious occasion.
The most memorable for us were the two pas de deux, performed by none other than Margot Fonteyn and Rudolf Nureyev, the world famous dancers from the English Royal Ballet who danced the white swan pas de deux from “Swan Lake” and “Le Corsaire”, to Yehudi Menuhin’s solo violin played on stage.
He later said that he had never done such a thing before.
Menuhin was one of the best loved musicians and violinists of the Twentieth century.
Rudolf Nureyev was born on the train between Lake Baikal and Irkutsk in Siberia in 1938. He was a Russian dancer, choreographer and ballet director; also one of the true super stars of dance.
He started studying folk dance and ballet in Ufa, later joining the Kirov Ballet School in St Petersburg, or Leningrad as it was then called. He became the soloist of the Kirov Company and while on tour in Europe with them, he defected to the West in nineteen sixty-one.
His fame spread quickly and his partnership with Fonteyn, who was much older than him, became legendary.
She was a cool English rose and he a fiery hot- blooded Tartar, which blended very well together. As a person he was very conceited and spoiled, all that fame and adulation had gone to his head.
My mother being a Tartar, wished to meet him and have a chat with him after the performance, as she hadn’t spoken Tartar since her sister Shamsi had died. He was rude and off hand with her, which left her very disappointed.
Sadly none of the above artists are any longer with us.
I remember at the time Nureyev had deserted his ballet co. and sought political asylum in France, Nejad and I were travelling in Europe, visiting Paris for a few days on the way to London.
When we saw the posters advertising Tchaikovsky’s ballet “The Sleeping Beauty” at the Paris Opera, we rushed to get tickets, not aware of the fact that the Russian dancer who had joined the company recently was Nureyev!
That night he was dancing the “Blue Bird” pas de deux and to our surprise received an ovation at the end, which surprised us, as it was a much smaller part than the principal’s role. When we enquired the reason from the people sitting next to us, we were told about Nureyev’s flight to the western world which explained the reaction of the audience.
The next day the newspapers were full of praise for his dancing and his courageous decision to flee his country. Only then did we realise the importance and the unique performance we had seen that night. The year was summer of 1961.
Going back to the outstanding concerts at Rudaki Hall; the other event I remember well is Zubin Mehta conducting the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra.
In his dressing room after the concert we spoke about our trip to Bombay with Mrs Cook and the fact that his father had played the violin for our performances.
Contrary to Nureyev, Zubin is a very friendly down to earth and easy to talk with, person and we were very honoured to meet him.
We had a tremendous time, as there were so many interesting and famous artists who came to perform during those two weeks following the coronation.
I remember Antonio Gades, the famous flamenco dancer and his company, Elizabeth Schwarzkopf, the renowned opera singer, Aram Khachatourian, the Armenian composer, made a lasting impression on my mind.
Now that we had a wonderful theatre to perform in, we needed more dancers for our company in order to be able to present full length ballets.
Nejad attended auditions in London and other European cities to recruit young dancers. Dame Ninette was very helpful and allowed Nejad to have first pick of the students graduating from the Royal Ballet School who were willing to travel abroad.
I remember Diana who was not yet sixteen and needed her parent’ permission allowing her to join our company. Nejad had to give them his word that she would be well looked after!
In the following years we engaged many dancers, male and female, ballet masters, choreographers and soloists to collaborate with us. Many boys and girls from our own ballet academy were also promoted to the company ranks.
De Warren staged “La Péri” which we had danced at the Iran-America Society prior to the opening of Rudaki Hall; with new and more elaborate costumes and décor. Leon and I danced the leading roles once more.
He also staged “Cinderella” a ballet based on the famous fairy tale.
It was first performed in Vienna in 1813. Many different music scores have been used over the years but it wasn’t until Prokofiev completed his famous score in 1944, that the ballet achieved its greatest success.
Numerous companies have staged different versions of Cinderella with well known dancers in the leading roles. Rudolf Nureyev’s successful, updated version was staged for the Paris Opera Ballet in 1986 with Sylvie Guillem in the title role.
De Warren wanted to create new soloists for our company so he cast Sorour and Amin in the leading roles, with Yerjanik and Goli dancing the part of the “Ugly Sisters” very successfully.
Having a home base for ballet was what we needed and so every season was crammed with creating and performing new works.
In February 1968 we performed at our new opera house with a two-part programme, half Iranian folk dances and the other half classical ballet.
I quote from Sylvia Matheson’s article printed in the “Times” of London who describes it with enthusiasm: “A few nights ago, with a completely full house, I watched a programme that began with an enchanting and superbly produced folk dance performance; the setting an exquisite Persian miniature, the costumes breath-taking, the lighting and production—all by the company’s producer director Nejad Ahmadzadeh—utterly captivating.
The rest of the programme was in the traditional western ballet style, costumed and choreographed by the company’s Maitre de Ballet, Robert de Warren, on loan from London’s Royal Ballet Company, whose ballet, “Love and the Clown” came across with such verve and ardour that the technical deficiencies inevitable with such a young company no longer mattered.
The leading roles were taken by extremely talented artists headed by prima ballerina Aida Ahmadzadeh who has often been described as an outstandingly brilliant ballerina. In the part of the forlorn little clown it is hard to imagine that she could have been bettered.”
“It is hard to believe that the academy was founded by Nejad Ahmadzadeh only in 1956 at the suggestion of the Minister of Culture and Arts. We know that we aren’t ready yet to dance in competition with the best of the western companies” says Nejad frankly, “so when we perform before visiting heads of state, or abroad, we keep to our traditional folk themes— we have a long way to go yet, but now that we have a chance to perform regularly, we should progress much faster.”
I must note that Nejad did not design costumes and scenery. He told the designers what he had in mind and then supervised the overall effect, sometimes changing and altering designs as he thought better suited to the work.
I persuaded de Warren to cast me in the part of the little clown, even though it was not the leading role. I wanted to try my skill at comedy.
Avak was the big clown and we both enjoyed dancing the ballet.
Mercedeh was the leading lady as Jamshid and Alek vied for her affection only to lose her to the big clown who also secretly admired her.
This ballet was first performed by the Sadler’s Wells Theatre Ballet with music by Verdi the Italian composer, and choreography by John Cranko the South African dancer, choreographer and ballet director, entitled “Lady and the Fool” in 1954.
De Warren adapted the choreography to suit our dancers, and renamed it;
“Love and the Clown” also using Verdi’s score.