Ballet in India: Tutus and a conversation

Ballet is much more than dazzling leaps, splits and pirouettes; it is hours and hours at the barre, sinking into squats, practising arm movements and drilling minor details until every move looks effortless. However, in India, it has often been written off as an elitist indulgence — ideal for little girls over the weekend, but never to be pursued as a profession.

The tide is slowly turning though. 2017 has been a good year for the dance form that originated in the royal courts of medieval France, and went on to acquire greater virtuosity in the grand theatres of Europe and Russia. In May, news about 21-year-old Manish Chauhan and 15-year-old Amir Shah, both from humble neighbourhoods in Mumbai, being accepted into reputed international ballet schools, made headlines. While Chauhan headed to the Oregon Ballet Theatre School, Shah joined the Royal Ballet School in London, where graduating students are often snapped up by the world’s top ballet companies.

Admissions are on the rise, too. When Tushna Dallas set up The School of Classical Ballet and Western Dance in Mumbai in 1966, she had four students. Today, her daughter Khushcheher Dallas, who runs the school, says there are over 300 enrolments. And with interest peaking, screenings and performances are common — the NCPA regularly screens renditions from Moscow’s Bolshoi Theatre, and two months ago, the touring Royal Russian Ballet company mounted the classic, Swan Lake, at Siri Fort auditorium.

Learn, network, collaborate

The timing, it would seem, is ideal to build a ballet community. So dancer-teacher Ashifa Sarkar Vasi and entrepreneur Karene Lawyer are organising the Ballet Festival of India in Mumbai this weekend. The three-day event will have nine workshops, three seminars, a screening, panel discussions, performances and plenty of opportunities for interaction and networking. With over 30 participants — 50% of whom are out-of-towners, from Delhi, Ahmedabad and Chennai — the duo’s primary objective is to encourage learning and grow a community. “We will have classes by renowned teachers (including Cindy Jourdain, former soloist with London’s Royal Ballet, and Leah Curtis, dancer-choreographer from New York). When you are intensively in one place for three days, you automatically learn and grow, and you never know what kind of collaborations can stem from that,” says Vasi, who hopes one day to seed a professional company staffed by dancers who have trained rigorously over a sustained period of time.

Ballet in India: Tutus and a conversation

Of course, this is a big leap from just a couple of decades ago, when learning ballet was an informal exercise. When Anoushka Kurien began classes at the Russian Cultural Centre in Chennai, in 1994, her learning was based on observation rather than excessive instruction. She read ballet books and watched films that her teacher, Ann Toner, shared with her. She recalls the annual student performances being varied in length, too, often depending on “who could carry whom for how long”. Though the contemporary dancer doesn’t practise it regularly any more, she says, “What did stay in my body was a certain understanding of line, flow, musicality and physical strength from having worked in the basic positions of the form.”

A fine balance

There is nothing natural about ballet. As Pia Sutaria, who dances with the Navdhara India Dance Theatre, puts it, “Your body is expected to go against its very nature.” One of the reasons why its extreme physicality is better absorbed by young children with malleable bone structures. But to convey this rigour to four-year-olds obsessed with pink tutus can’t be easy. In Bengaluru, Yana Lewis, who runs the Lewis Foundation of Classical Ballet, teaches 1,000 students of various ages and says she’s found an unlikely ally in Barbie. When she plays composer Tchaikovsky’s more recognisable tunes in class, she is likely to have a child tell her, “Miss Yana, this is Barbie’s music.”

Lewis finds this transition smooth because they already have a visual sense of what to expect. Often, students as young as four are self-motivated, insisting their parents send them to class regularly. However, she has identified two stumbling blocks: the ages of seven-eight and 11-12, when they realise the form needs more work and complex training, and drop-out rates are high.

Ballet Festival of India
  • The ongoing festival includes a screening of the works of George Balanchine, the father of American ballet and one of the most iconic choreographers in ballet history, followed by a discussion on his contribution. Today evening, there will be a panel conversation on ballet in India — past, present and future — and tomorrow will see a studio performance by dancers Czarina Villegas, Leah Curtis and Manish Chauhan. The best performer from the workshops will also present a short piece of choreography.
  • Till tomorrow, at the Future School of Performing Arts, Santacruz (E), Mumbai. Details:

Academics is another bump in the road. According to Vasi, students who are looking at ballet beyond just a hobby, need to practise a couple of hours daily, six days a week. “But in India, this is hard because, as you grow older, school work gets in the way. And as it’s still not seen as a viable career, it’s harder for parents and students to justify that intensity of training and commitment,” she says.

One of the solutions could be educating people — and no, we do not mean a Bachelors’ degree in performing arts (which are few and far between, and more for Indian classical forms and contemporary dance) — but helping parents understand ballet and its potential.

Michelle Sharma, co-founder of Danzza Institute of Modern Dance in Chennai, observes that children who take up a sport like cricket or tennis are encouraged by their parents as they know about the facilities and career options. “But when it comes to ballet, they don’t know much and so they don’t motivate their kids,” she says, adding that she hosts ‘Mum and me’ sessions to lessen this gap.

Ballet in India: Tutus and a conversation

Quality en pointe

With approximately 40 ballet schools across the country, most of which are not certified, there is a need to provide quality classes. Earlier this year, ballerina Ritika Chandra — who underwent rigorous training at the Kirov Academy of Ballet, Washington DC, and with companies in Russia — set up her own studio, Elan Ballet, in Delhi, to replicate international standards and bring down renowned teachers. “We want to bridge existing gaps and bring quality training. I want to offer the correct education and not just think of ballet as an activity,” says Chandra, adding, “I’m hoping to set up a system where people will train every day, and commit to eight years of training, after which we will help them participate in international auditions by dance companies.” She is also laying the ground for another ballet festival, in December.

Gender roles

Going international is a transition few Indian dancers have been able to make. Both Amir Shah and Manish Chauhan — trained by Yehuda Maor, the ballet master at Mumbai’s Danceworx Academy — are role models today. Do their successes also signify a shift in gender ratios within ballet education in India, where currently girls in tutus outnumber boys in tights? While Vasi and Dallas find their children’s batches are full of girls, Maor contends there is no gender gap. Rather, he sees parents widening the gap. “As soon as the girls finish class, their parents put them into a car and drive away. The boys can stay for extra classes and practise for longer. Girls barely get any training and their classes become recreational. For any pursuit of excellence, you need a lot of practise, and they don’t get the chance to do this,” he explains.

However, these binaries are collapsing. And with a new generation of dancers determined to expand the field by providing experienced teachers, more opportunities for serious training, and platforms for performances, the number of students will increase. “I chose to continue dancing because we had a teacher at Danceworx who taught every day,” shares Sutaria, another of Maor’s students, who also hopes to one day soon “open up ballet education to many more kids, possibly through the school curriculum”.

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Printable version | Mar 1, 2021 10:58:45 AM |

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