Western classical ballet is still a very unfamiliar art form in India. But in recent years, promising talents have started to emerge, often in dancers from underprivileged families or the working class without any prior association with Western classical music or dance.
In the absence of live ballet performances, the entry point for most aspirants has been cinema, especially Bollywood, or an initial interest in other styles of dance.
Kamal Singh, currently in his twenties and from the outskirts of Delhi, is the son of a rickshaw driver. A ballet sequence in the 2013 Bollywood film ABCD: any body can dance took him to train under a ballet teacher in Delhi and, three years later, continued his studies at the English National Ballet School.
But the biggest hub for many newcomers to ballet has been Mumbai, India’s “city of dreams”, known for its thriving film industry.
From surfing on YouTube to training in Paris
Dipesh Verma, from Siliguri, West Bengal, fell in love with ballet at age 13 after watching his teenage dance idol, Sophia Lucia, on YouTube. The son of a grocer and a daily worker, it was not easy for him to go against his parents’ expectations to exercise a “safer” profession, such as medicine.
Photo by Leslie Shampaine
When he was 15, he traveled to Mumbai with the equivalent of $ 80 in his pocket, to train with the famous Israeli-American ballet teacher Yehuda Maor at the Danceworx Performing Arts Academy. Verma often spent the night on the railway platforms and missed meals after exhausting sessions.
As he progressed in his training, he applied to several schools abroad via video submission and eventually chose the Paris Marais dance school, where he is currently a scholarship holder. Now 20, Verma remembers her formative years in Mumbai: “It shaped my character; I grew up as a dancer and as a man.
A late start, but a passion for ballet athletics
Bobby Roy, like Verma, is also a protégé of Maor and a student at the Marais de Paris. The son of a street clothes vendor and a housewife, he moved from Delhi to Mumbai at age 17 to further his childhood fascination with dance. He had supportive parents and his father accompanied him for six months on his quest to find serious training in Mumbai – and they eventually found Danceworx.
Courtesy of Roy
Roy had grown up dancing hip hop and imitating the choreography he saw in Bollywood movies, so starting classical ballet, a mandatory component of the Danceworx program, was a whole new experience. “I fell in love with her beauty,” Roy says. But he had to work extremely hard to make up for the lost years.
Starting late is a common theme among most aspirants to classical ballet in India, but they are often motivated by a sense of unwavering determination.
Maor’s arrival at Danceworx six years ago revolutionized ballet pedagogy in Mumbai. He mentored most of the dancers mentioned in this story. Maor attributes the growing affinity of young Indian men for ballet to his athleticism. “This is what many Indian dancers see when they take ballet lessons: an athletic art form,” he says. “They don’t come to class with narrow or preconceived ideas about what ballet is or who should dance it.”
Acrobatic tricks and Netflix
This was certainly the case with Manish Chauhan, now 27 years old and a student at Peridance in New York, where he mainly studies ballet, as well as contemporary dance. Chauhan is the son of a Mumbai taxi driver. He started doing acrobatic stunts “because the girls are in awe”, as he shyly puts it in the trailer for the next movie. Call me dancer, by Leslie Shampaine and Pip Gimour, who documents his journey in ballet.
Manish Chauhan in a photoshoot for an international edition of She
Photo by Porus Vimadalal, courtesy of Chauhan
Chauhan also played a fictional version of himself in the 2020 Netflix Original Hindi movie. Yeah Ballet, written and directed by Sooni Taraporevala. It traces the fascinating story of Chauhan and Amiruddin Shah (played by Achintya Bose), both of whom were mentored by Maor at Danceworx and overcame enormous challenges to pursue their dreams. Shah is currently training in London at the Royal Ballet School.
A growing line of ballet
Although the majority of ballet students in India are the first in their families to explore this art form, this is not always the case. Taraporevala, for example, now a filmmaker in his sixties, studied ballet as a child in Mumbai with Tushna Dallas, who founded the School of Classical Ballet and Western Dance in 1966. Dallas’ daughter Khushcheher Dallas, continues the pedagogical tradition today.
Courtesy of Sutaria
Among the students at Tushna Dallas is Pia Sutaria, who says her family have been extremely supportive of her continuing to dance. She was inspired to start ballet at age 5 after watching the 2000 British dance film Billy Elliot. A graduate of the Professional Dancers Teaching Diploma at the Royal Academy of Dance in London, Sutaria founded the Institute of Classical and Modern Dance in Mumbai in 2018, she says, “to fill the void that existed in professional dance and ballet training. for young, talented artists in India.
Now 25, Sutaria has several young ballet hopes under her wing. The youngest, Vidhi Thakker, is 11 years old; her family requested that she train at ballet schools in Canada and the UK.
Training hopes abroad
Elizabeth Gollar, 20, who lives in Dharavi, Mumbai, is the daughter of a lumberjack and a sweeper. His entry into the dance was through waacking and lavani (a highly rhythmic traditional song and dance from Maharashtra). Her flexibility was noticed by dancer Deshna Khanna, who introduced Gollar to Danceworx in 2015, where she was awarded a full scholarship.
Gollar recently passed the Royal Academy of Dance’s Intermediate Foundation exam and hopes to apply to ballet schools abroad to continue his training. However, finances are a constraint. “My family is not yet fully supporting my dream,” says Gollar. “I made them watch Yeah Ballet, and they understood me a little better after that.
Maor attributes the relative scarcity of high caliber ballet dancers to a “culture shock.” “Parents wouldn’t allow young girls to stay in the studio and work late,” he says. “As a result, they lack the additional training that will be necessary for them to compete with other dancers around the world.”
Changing attitudes towards ballet
Danceworx and the Sutaria Classical and Modern Dance Institute offer full scholarships to underprivileged young people eager to work hard in ballet. Newcomers also seem to be encouraged by the growing number of role models mentioned here, despite making up only a tiny fraction of India’s population of 1.3 billion people. Add the success of Netflix Yeah Ballet, the Call me dancer documentary already in post-production and the power of social media, and there will likely be subsequent waves of young Indians turning to ballet.
Roy points out that Bollywood, which attracts young people to dance, is itself beginning to incorporate classical ballet into its dance sequences, thus creating new employment opportunities for ballet dancers in India.
Courtesy of the Thakker family
Sutaria agrees. Her students recently appeared in their first TV commercial, dancing neoclassical choreography while modeling Indian clothing for a fashion brand. Sutaria herself has performed for nationally televised events and major magazines, mixing classical ballet with Indian fashion and culture, including music from Bollywood.
“I would like to see the day when one of the most famous ballets, which is an Indian story, The Bayadere, is danced here with Indian dancers, ”explains Maor. “The more people read articles and see shows and movies about Indian dancers, the sooner we can attract audiences and financial support for our work. ”