How We Met: Amir Hosseinpour and Maria Ewing

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The Independent Culture
The dancer and choreographer Amir Hosseinpour, 28, was born in Iran, but during the 1979 revolution fled with his family to France, later settling in London. In 1992 he set up his own company to explore his eclectic ideas about dance. He lives alone in a Docklands penthouse.

Maria Ewing, 44, was born and brought up in Detroit and has sung major roles in all the world's leading opera houses. She is now appearing in Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk at the Met in New York. Since her divorce from Sir Peter Hall she has lived in Sussex with their daughter.

AMIR HOSSEINPOUR: It was five years ago and I'd got this dancing job in the huge production of Carmen at Earls Court - a cast of 400. Maria's divorce was in all the papers, but somehow I hadn't heard about it. I knew nothing of her or Peter Hall. I remember the day she arrived for rehearsals. She walked in, everyone clapped, and she burst into the first number. I was mesmerised. I thought, who is this woman? She's an animal on stage. For me then it was a simple case of admiring an artist at work. She was a star.

After four London performances there was a three-month gap, then a Tokyo tour. The cast arrived all jet-lagged and were put up at the Keio Plaza, an amazing hotel built of two huge towers. Of course Maria had the presidential suite on the 80th floor, and we dancers were somewhere down at the bottom.

But this time I was introduced to her after rehearsals and exchanged a few words.

By the last night I was terribly unhappy. We'd been playing in this huge stadium in front of 40,000 Japanese every night, which after two weeks had rather fazed me. Probably I was lonely. After the show I hung around the hotel bar with the other dancers until about 11.30pm, when I decided to call it a day. I was making my way to the lift when I saw a crowd of photographers descending on the main entrance. Maria swept in looking stunning in a huge black cape and dark glasses. She'd been out to dinner with Harvey Goldsmith and the Carmen producers.

She said hello to me and chatted while we both waited for the lift, and I somehow got the sense that she felt frustrated too - this was the last night and everyone was just drifting off. I wanted to ask her out for a drink but I thought, come on, Maria Ewing's not going to go out with a 23-year-old dancer] I chanced it anyway, and to my amazement she said yes, but that her seven-year-old daughter was asleep upstairs and she'd have to see whether the babysitter could stay longer. As she disappeared into the lift I thought what a nice, polite way of refusing that was. I waited two minutes, and was about to take the lift to my floor when suddenly she reappeared in a pair of jeans. 'I'm ready,' she said. 'Where shall we go?'

I suggested Repongi, where all the nightclubs are. We found what we thought was a club, down a tiny alleyway. It turned out to be a Japanese leather bar, playing heavy metal so loud you couldn't talk. So we got straight on to the dance floor and danced like crazy for two hours. That was a revelation.

My God, that woman can move] Then we found a quieter room. I can't say the conversation was deep, but something clicked. She was going through hell with all the publicity surrounding her divorce, and for some reason she told me about it. Perhaps it was a relief to find someone who didn't know the details. Then she asked about my career, and what it was like leaving Persia in the Revolution. We sat in the corner of that club till 5.30am, when we took a taxi back to the hotel and our separate floors. The next day I flew home.

We'd exchanged addresses and she said we would meet up in London. I wasn't sure whether to believe it or not. A few weeks later I was invited to tea at her house in Sussex. The other guests had been invited to discuss her plans for Tosca, but I was there as her friend, and from then on it seemed something was established between us. We grew closer until we were almost family. Oddly enough, people often ask if we're brother and sister. We've never been lovers.

About 18 months after we met, my dance company really took off. Artistically Maria's partly responsible for that. I've absorbed something from her, you could call it her aura. For a long while she'd come to rehearsals and all my premieres, which was helpful in more ways than one. When people saw Maria Ewing in the front row they thought the show must be worth seeing. Before a performance too, if I was nervous, she'd talk to me for hours. And when I had financial problems she helped me.

And then I fell out with her. We didn't talk for two years until three months ago. She can be wild, and when she can't control her feelings she bites. Enough said. But even while we weren't speaking Maria kept in touch indirectly. She saw my mother every month in London and my aunt in Paris, even my grand-parents in Geneva. I believe our friendship is deeper than a love affair, and it has survived. I know that sounds weird - at least, it's uncommon - but in art, friendships can be much, much more intense.

MARIA EWING: I don't make a habit of going off with members of the cast after a performance. Quite the reverse. I tend to keep myself to myself. But with Amir, there was this instant rapport. It was as if I'd known him for years.

I was in Tokyo doing the Earls Court Carmen. It was the last night, I'd been to some dinner party and came back at two in the morning. There in the hotel lobby was this dark character with long hair standing with his hands in his pockets looking restless. I'd seen him before, he was one of the dancers in the production, but we'd barely spoken. We got into conversation and he suddenly said, 'D'you wanna go to a club?' We went off to this dark place full of stoned-looking people sitting around, and had a great time. After two weeks of that kind of work what you want is to go a little bit crazy.

Laughter is comforting, and I found that very easy with Amir. He has the most extraordinary charm. We stayed out till late and he came next day to my suite and we exchanged phone numbers.

There was never a point when I thought he might be getting the wrong idea, that it might be a romantic attachment. But I think we both felt we'd made some kind of discovery, that the friendship would continue.

Amir was just starting out as a choreographer. I wouldn't say I took on the role of teacher, but it became, shall we say, a healthy influence. As an artist you always need support, the right kind of understanding. I gave that to Amir and he gives it to me. Performing artists are the most vulnerable creatures on earth, you know. Once, doing a Carmen in Oslo, I was very depressed and phoned Amir in London. Within four or five hours he was there.

That was amazing.

He's also come out to join me in Los Angeles, Washington, Paris. Normally I can't have anyone around me when I work. It's difficult for most people to cope with that kind of tension. Some of them think it's just to do with nice singing. They haven't a clue what hell you're going through. Amir is emotionally taken in by the whole thing. He not only observes what a performance is vocally, but what it is visually, psychologically, and feeds off it. I suppose it could be said that there's an element of adulation on his side, but it's more than that. Amir truly understands what it is that I'm doing. It's part of his make-up. Part of his creative intelligence.

Ours is an intensely emotional friendship, not palsy-walsy. We talk a lot about love, mostly on the phone, often in the small hours. Amir has been very aware of certain other relationships I've had, and in many ways, because we're so close, he's experienced the joy and the pain to a most unusual degree.

There was a time when we parted for a while, two whole years when we weren't speaking. I'd rather not go into details but it had become over-intense, a little hysterical. Things were going on in my life Amir couldn't cope with, but eventually we both came to see what we could and could not expect of each other. All relationships, be they platonic or sexual, if they mean anything, should be able to pull through difficulties. Otherwise you're stopping one relationship, starting another, stopping one, starting another.

One of Amir's and my ambitions is to hold soirees together. A concert, at my place, followed by dancing in the garden, a la Isadora Duncan. More seriously, we've talked about collaborating on Debussy songs - some sort of video - with Amir choreographing them, and I might do some movement as well.

It's a question of finding the time.

There's not anyone like Amir. He has the sort of charm that makes a woman feel easy, unselfconscious - a rare quality in a man who isn't gay. Amir's very close to his mother and his sister, and he understands the sort of difficulties women go through. And he also has this childlike quality. I remember once in Washington I sent Amir out to get a video, and do you know what he brought back? Lady and the Tramp.

I don't have casual friendships. When people come into my life it's always on an intense level. It's not that we don't have fun, but I'm interested in people who are focused in their lives. You can have platonic relationships.

The sexuality is neither here nor there. Amir and I talk a lot about love and passion between people. And I can say anything to him, I can talk about myself in the most intimate way, and it's utterly understood. There's a trust. But that's not to say it's asexual. Sex is in everything we do. Music is very sexual. Completely, in fact.

(Photograph omitted)