When Yeh Ballet had a touch-andgo moment on Netflix, there was a chance that it’ll probably do for ballet what Gully Boy did for gully rap. But when it’s not glammed up with silver screen actors, or with promotions that set the country going, it’ll reach those of us who decide to sit up and take notice. Manish and Amir are just two examples. What’s the reality of the art form in India?
At the time of this interview, Yeh Ballet’s Manish Chauhan was locked down in Mumbai with his instructor, Yehuda Ma’or, the man who made Chauhan the flawless dancer we saw in the film. “In my class, there were mostly girls, all so elite, they used to wear ballet shoes, and I had nothing. But I wanted the scholarship, so I did my homework. I was a break dancer, so my advantage was my flexibility,” he recalls. Manish laughs, “Not many people know much about ballet, so people couldn’t tease me much. I used to tell my friends it’s a cool form, you get to do lifts, etc. I would tell them how we can use the moves in B-boying,” he says. Even after his film, people asked him how long he can stand in “pointy” shoes. That’s how little knowledge there is, about the role of men in a ballet performance. “We have to wear soft shoes, to do high jumps, and lifts. Girls wear pointe shoes,” he says.
Manish feels like the infrastructure for ballet is missing here. “We don’t have dance companies who come here to perform, so that kids can watch, and aspire to learn it. It’s there for other dance forms, there’s Bollywood, freestyle on TV. If you show people the dance, they’ll want to learn it,” he points out. Joshua John Salvador, 17, from Chennai, joined ballet when he was seven, because when his sister joined ballet, Joshua used to copy her. “My mom saw me, and she thought it’ll be good if I join too. There were two or three other guys when I joined, but they left two years later. But in the last two years, a lot of guys have joined because the curiosity has increased,” he says.
Boys in Joshua’s school were surprised when they learnt he went for ballet classes, he recalls. “Even now, the notion that it’s a feminine dance form hasn’t changed. You’ve to tell them what your role in a performance is. But I’ve seen it get better,” he says. Madhav, 34, is from Hyderabad, and moved to Chennai a year and a half ago, and he always wanted to learn ballet, or kuchipudi, because he felt these dance forms were difficult. “I was told it’ll take me at least three months to know if ballet is for me, a trial class is not enough to know. That sparked an interest. There’s a guy called Sanjay Khatri, who is one of the first male ballet dancers whose profile was published in India, almost 12 to 13 years ago. That’s when I knew I wanted to learn it,” he recalls. As a student of ballet, Madhav feels people love adding a gender to everything, even art. “I love to dance, and I’m going to continue doing it, and I’ll keep doing ballet. I’m in touch with a male ballet dancer in the US, to take online classes,” he says. Karthikeyan Sudha has been doing martial arts for 12 to 13 years now, and teaches taekwondo. He started ballet a year ago, and now, at 25, he’s completed the first level. “I started doing ballet because since I teach taekwondo, the techniques of ballet complement it. I saw a performance at the Russian Centre in December 2018, and I thought this will help me with my martial arts,” he says.
Deepika Ravindran is the co-founder and managing director of Bombay Ballet Company, in Mumbai. She has trained professionally from various international coaches, and has been teaching ballet for nine years. As an instructor, she believes ballet is being accepted by people as a dance form that doesn’t have anything to do with gender. “There is a common perception that men need to emote qualities such as power, dominance, strength, authority, and a certain masculinity. Dance, however, is a form wherein artists express their feelings and show vulnerability. Some men who would want to learn ballet, are afraid of being negatively perceived, and judged. She continues, “Gender stereotyping has been common in the ballet world for a long time. Most ballerinos I have danced with have incredible strength and stamina, comparable to that of professional athletes.”
Shubhankar Chauhan, 27, is a ballet dancer and a teacher in Mumbai. He started learning at the age of 13, at The Danceworx, and has been teaching for eight years now. He explains that ballet is a foundational dance form to be a good dancer. However, pop culture has never really done for ballet what it did for hip-hop, and can be quite French, literally, when you look at it from the outside. In the past eight years, Shubhankar has taught almost 450 students, out of which, 20 per cent have been boys. But in his journey as a student and instructor, he has seen an increase in the number of men pursuing ballet. Shubhankar adds that now, every renowned company in India is ensuring that ballet is the first class their students take, so the scene is surely changing. “I can see it even in my classes. In terms of body structure, girls are very modest, presentable, and artsy. It’s more about grace. But when it comes to boys, the demand for ballet is strength,” he says.
Urvil Shah, 22, joined The Danceworx when he was 16, and is a contemporary dancer who has also taught ballet in the past. Shah believes that internationally, to be a contemporary dancer, you’ve to be a really good ballet dancer. “It was very clear to me from the beginning, that ballet is something that’s going to be very important to me,” he explains. Shah says that after Manish Chauhan and Amiruddin Shah happened, more boys took interest in ballet. “In the company (TDX), it’s mandatory to do ballet, if you’re doing it professionally. So I think only two or three boys would pick ballet out of interest, or to get their postures right,” he says.
Director of School Of Ballet & Contemporary Dance, Ann Toner, started learning ballet at the Russian Culture Centre In 1980, when it was almost unheard of, in Chennai, and in India. Right now, her school has about 200 students, out of which, there are eight boys, which, she says, is a skewed gender ratio internationally, as well. “When boys joined, they realise it’s not a girly art form, and actually requires a lot of strength, and it’s quite tough,” she says, adding that the world, in general, wants more men in ballet. Devang Bhanushali, the executive director of The Lewis Foundation of Classical Ballet, Bengaluru, agrees. “Even abroad, the cut off for male dancers in schools is lower than females, because they want more male dancers,” says
Toner has male students who have been with the school for years. “But sometimes, when you have to go to a higher level, they quit, because they’re not looking at doing it professionally. Even having eight or nine guys is actually quite an improvement,” she laughs. Bhanushali is an IT professional who met Yana Lewis, the artistic director of the school and his partner, and took her jazz classes and the fitness-based dance classes. “When I saw ballet online, I saw the male side as well, which has a different repertoire. I saw it takes a lot of strength, and it needs to look artistic, and not look gymnastic. I experienced how ballet is so foundational,” he says. Bhanushali partnered with Lewis because he felt like he wanted to give boys the opportunity he didn’t have as a child, to learn ballet. The school has officially been around for over 10 years now, and they have over 1,000 students, and in ballet, out of 800, they have approximately 10 boys in ballet.
The Lewis Foundation has an outreach programme, where they work with non-profit organisations, like the Parikrama Humanity Foundation. “There are more boys in our outreach programmer than in regular classes, so they are definitely more open to the idea of the dance form,” says Bhanushali. Khushcheher Dallas is the director of The School of Classical Ballet and Western Dance in Mumbai. Her mother, Tushna Dallas, started the school in 1966, with four students. Many years later now, their school’s strength has grown to 250 students. And out of the 250, the school has only 3 boys. About the gap bridging between genders pursuing the art form, she believes it’s getting better than what it used to be. “Yes, the boys in our school are very few, but it also depends on the institute and the setup. Ashley Lobo of TDX has a full company where they have a male instructor. So, the very fact that you have a male instructor, a male idol and you have committed dancers who are actually taking it up seriously, then you are going to find many more. In fact, even at Shiamak Davar, when my mum used to teach at the one-year program, there were a lot of boys there. In fact, in some of the batches, there were more boys than girls. An institute or setup makes it so much easier,” she says.
But do ballet schools and instructors see ballet as a career opportunity in India? Manish believes it’s still looked at as a dance form that’s nice to learn as a hobby, but that’s about it. Madhav cites Khatri as an example and says, “There are opportunities for sure. Sanjay Khatri, the person who influenced me, runs a school. If he can do that, so can anyone who is confident enough.” Deepika feels that right now, the career opportunity for both men and women in ballet in India, is teaching. “India is still very far from having a theatre for ballet arts and producing ballet shows,” she says. Bhanushali agrees, and adds, “In fact, we want to start that at a root level and make a career in ballet, because someone has to take the responsibility. These stereotypes, when it comes to ballet, can be broken, and a unanimous vote from all the voices goes to awareness. Yes, Shubhankar says, the perception of being a feminine form hasn’t changed, but there are many examples that also break the stereotype. “In the 19th century, the West had adopted the male dancer’s perception as weak, fragile, and homosexual. But that has changed. I’ve seen a number of actors, footballers, bodybuilders, and other celebrities that started studying ballet. I know two body builders: Arnold Schwarzenegger and Colombo. Christian Bale has taken ballet lessons, and of course, Jaime Bell, from Billy Elliot,” he says.
Deepika believes the media and the movies have the power. “Movies like Billy Elliot, which was about a young boy fighting the odds to pursue his passion, can make a huge impact in the way we think. Even Yeh Ballet. I think movies like these would encourage more boys to take up ballet,” she says. Shubhankar thinks it’s not the dancer’s responsibility to convince people. “Parents should be more open to children not pursuing conventional careers, and support them to pursue an art form, if that interests them. It needs a lot of effort to make it a career. Also, ballet awareness in India is still evolving, and will take some time to get where the West is,” he says.
Shah believes that in India, it’s still the popular thing that works. “We’re in that phase where we want to do the popular thing, which is hip-hop and Bollywood here. Ballet is a credible style in some people’s minds, but we’ve yet to come to a point where credible style is also the popular style. So if a Ranveer Singh does a Yeh Ballet, it will probably become the next big thing,” he chuckles. Bhanushali feels when it comes to children, it’s difficult to break the stereotypical mindset. “Parents haven’t seen enough of male dancers doing ballet, that’s the biggest hurdle. They will understand ballerinos and how they perform, the strength it needs, when they see more ballet performances,” he adds. Every three months, Dallas’ school has an Open Day, where she encourages parents of existing students to send in boys and their sons as well. “Some laugh, some say their fathers would never allow it. But I tell them, you have to be really strong for ballet. That being said, I can see a lot more guys in dance these days. Now whether it’s Bollywood or Hip-Hop, we are seeing a lot of boys. I have had this idea of having a ballet class only for boys, with a male teacher, it’ll help them get more comfortable with the dance form, and maybe then they will pursue it,” she opines.