Leili Tajadod Pritschet has a story to tell. She'll tell it four times this weekend as part of the University of St. Thomas Sacred Arts Festival. It is a universal story of loss, healing and forgiveness, recounted countless times across years and the world. But it is also hers alone.

"Later in life, you say, 'Why me? Why am I alive?'" said Tajadod Pritschet, who was born in Iran 65 years ago. Ultimately, she found her answer. "Because you have a duty. People risked their lives to get you out of the country.

"I'm destined to do something, and now is the time."

Tajadod Pritschet was born in Tehran into "a known tree." Her family owned Iran's first private bank, with branches across the world. An uncle was a vice president of Iran Air. By age 8, the poised and beautiful girl was already a famous dancer. At 18 she studied, then taught, at the London College of Dance and Drama. She later starred in four weekly educational programs for children on National Iranian Television, and danced with the National Iranian Ballet Company.

One of her greatest fans was "Mother of the Arts," the Empress Farah Pahlavi, the third wife of the Shah of Iran.

"Why do you think you are so famous?" someone once asked her.

"Because I'm short," responded the flirtatious and not-quite 5-feet-tall Tajadod Pritschet. "In the front row, everyone notices you."

The clever phrase would return to haunt her. After the shah's fall in 1979, the regime of Ayatollah Khomeini took notice of Tajadod Pritschet, then principal dancer with the National Ballet. To them, dancing was "prostitution" that must be punished.

Her knees were crushed, her feet severed to the bone, leaving her permanently disabled. She was arrested and dragged into prison countless times. Once, the police covered her head and placed her in front of a firing squad next to a close friend who was a professor.

"There are moments when you would love to die," Tajadod Pritschet said, chain-smoking in the vibrant living room of her cozy northeast Minneapolis home. Her hands fly, her thoughts jump as she speaks buoyantly, then is suddenly overcome by tears.

Instead, the police shot her friend dead, uncovering Tajadod Pritschet's head in time to see the body dragged away.

Her family home was confiscated. All records of that life -- letters, photographs and tapes of her national performances -- were destroyed. Or so she thought.

With the help of friends, she escaped and came to Minneapolis in the 1980s to seek counseling at the Center for Victims of Torture. In 1992 she earned a master's degree in theater management from Columbia University in New York, then returned to the Twin Cities to marry Leo Pritschet, her Minneapolis immigration attorney, in 1993. (They didn't start dating until years after their legal relationship ended.)

Life was finally good again. Then, Sept. 11 happened. Tajadod Pritschet broke down mentally, slipping back into war-time behaviors. She stockpiled food, became fearful. "I was not dancing, not even exercising. I was in hiding," she said.

David Harris, artistic director of the Twin Cities-based Voices of Sepharad, which explores song and dance originating in medieval Spain, knew nothing of Tajadod Pritschet's history then, meeting her only as an usher at the Southern Theater where his troupe performed. "Come and dance with me," he told her when he learned her story. "I'll have you the way you are."

Thirty years after her last performance, she danced in his "Peace in the House" in 2004 and 2006. In 2007 she won a Minnesota State Arts Board grant to document her past. "Hidden Yearning" incorporated Persian classical dance, poetry and music, in collaboration with Intermedia Arts and VSA Arts, which makes the arts accessible to Minnesotans with disabilities.

'This is called kismet'

Eighteen months ago, Tajadod Pritschet decided to recreate "Yearning" in a grander way. She contacted Laurel Victoria Gray, 56, a renowned scholar and artistic director of the Silk Road Dance Company (www.silkroaddance.com).

The Washington, D.C.-based dance troupe keeps alive dance traditions from the ancient Silk Road. She asked Gray if she might collaborate. Gray said yes, but clarified that her only knowledge of true Persian dance came from a bootlegged Iranian tape given to her years ago by a friend.

In a stunning revelation, both women realized who was dancing on that tape: Tajadod Pritschet.

"All these years and Leili had no idea" that this footage was in existence, said Gray, who arrived in the Twin Cities with six dancers and luscious costumes last Tuesday. "She was my unknown teacher. This is called kismet."

Gray is humbled to be taking part in "Yearning," which includes more than two dozen cast and crew members. (For information, go to www.stthomas.edu/saf.)

"Leili is one of the most optimistic people that I know, and she has seen the absolute worst that humans have done to each other. Here is a beautiful flower. Why would you cut it down?"

The flower will be in full bloom this weekend.

"I am so excited. I feel overwhelmed," Tajadod Pritschet said. "I'm a whole person. What else can you want?"

Gail Rosenblum • 612-673-7350 gail.rosenblum@startribune.com