Elegance, precision and grace. These are the three essential ingredients of a successful ballet performance. It is a dance form that conveys a sense of supreme calm to the audiences; a visual language of equipoise and balance. And yet, as every ballet dancer knows, the serene movements of the dancer belie the athletic nature of the physical commitment this form demands. Ballet is all grace and quiet on the surface, but somewhere underneath, there is a ferment of the soul, and a foundation of backbreaking effort and painful routine.

“Ballet is a dance art that requires dedication, discipline. It challenges your physical limitations, musicality and grace, and you must make it all look effortless,” says Ashifa Sarkar Vasi, a ballet teacher, dancer and choreographer based in Mumbai. Vasi, along with Karene Lawyer, another prominent ballerina and teacher, recently organised the Ballet Festival of India in Mumbai, an event that was billed as the country’s first full-scale celebration of ballet. The festival, which concluded on 26 November, hosted performances by renowned international artistes, as well as a series of workshops for ballet enthusiasts.

Talking about the vision behind this one-of-its-kind ballet festival, Karene Lawyer says, “Ashifa and I have both been lucky to have had some good training and opportunities abroad. We hoped to bring those same opportunities to ballet dancers in India. The event was aimed at serious ballet dancers across the country, in the hope of giving them training opportunities and exposure that they would otherwise not have access to.”

Khushcheher Dallas (center-back, with her hands in the air) with other dancers of her ballet troupe.

Enthusiasts from across the country attended the Ballet Festival of India, with a view to learning from and networking with ballet teachers and mentors from as far afield as the United States, Israel and France. That such an event was organised in Mumbai at all is indication enough of ballet’s rising popularity in Indian cities. Today, ballet schools are scattered across Delhi and Mumbai, offering professional training and degrees endorsed by foreign maestros. But that is not all. India is making its mark on the international scene by sending its own home-grown ballet dancers to woo the global audiences.

Sanjay Khatri is one such ballet artiste who has performed at several international venues. He is also considered the first male ballet dancer from India to perform internationally. Based in Delhi, Khatri is now on a mission to popularise ballet in India. Khatri is the founder of the Central Contemporary Ballet, a ballet school located in Gurugram, and believes that of late there has been a significant spike in the number of aspiring ballerinas and ballerinos on these shores.

“Change is going to come with awareness,” Khatri tells Guardian 20. “Things will change with the help of the Internet, where one can find numerous  tutorials made by good ballet teachers. All this will enhance the knowledge of interested students. People who really want to learn ballet can now contribute towards this change, and help improve the quality of ballet education in India.”

Khatri believes that the shortage of proper platforms for those who wish to learn ballet is also a big concern here. “In my opinion,” he says, “we should have some sort of National School of Ballet, recongnised by the government, just like the National School of Drama. It is not a new concept. Many countries, like Korea, Argentina, Russia, China etc., already have such national schools. This way, the students can get the chance to learn quality ballet from expert faculty at nominal fees.”

Khushcheher Dallas is the head of the School of Classical Ballet and Western Dance in Mumbai. She was among the faculty members at the Ballet Festival of India, and is herself at the forefront of India’s emerging ballet scene.

“A perfect ballerina,” she says, “is one who has a shorter-structured torso in relation to her long nice legs. She needs to have good movement ability, especially at the hip socket. The person is expected to have a long neck and beautifully shaped arms with feet that are flexible. Apart from these physical qualities, the dancer is supposed to be musical and artistic, as at the end of the day, they need to communicate a message to the audiences via their moves and facial expressions.”

“We in the School of Classical Ballet and Western Dance take in children once they are 5-6. Because to become a professional dancer one has to start early to reach that level of expertise.”

All classical forms are best mastered early on in life, and ballet is no exception. Dallas says, “Any child from the age of 2-3 can start to learn ballet as that is when they begin listening to music and following the patterns. We in the School of Classical Ballet and Western Dance take in children once they are 5-6. Because to become a professional dancer one has to start early to reach that level of expertise.”

In India, though, classical ballet is hardly seen as popular entertainment. Other dance forms, like fusion, Bollywood and hip-hop, take pride of place on our primetime slots and reality TV shows. And the situation isn’t much different in the West, where ballet is sidelined by other simpler forms. Renee Chatelain is the president and CEO of the Arts Council of Greater Baton Rouge in Los Angeles, USA. She was also on the faculty of the Ballet Festival of India, and while here she spoke to Guardian 20 on the sidelines of the event. “Salsa and hip-hop are dances that stem from a folk cultural base. Ballet is a form of dance involving long-term study of technique and artistry. Many such dance forms, like salsa, hip-hop, disco, zydeco and bebop, are a reflection of trends in society and by their nature can be picked up and mastered quickly. They also tend to change as society changes. Ballet, however, is a traditional art form that is passed on from master to student in the same way going back more than two centuries,” says Chatelain, who has been a professional ballet teacher for 36 years now.

So the main challenge for ballet dancers and teachers, more so India than in the West, has to do with popular acceptance of a traditional form. One effective means of doing so is through the power of cinema. In 2011, director Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan, featuring Natalie Portman, was released worldwide. The film was an adaptation of Swan Lake, a ballet composed by the Russian musician Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky in the 19th century, and it went on to win an Oscar. This was surely a big boost for the ballet community everywhere.

At Ashifa Sarkar Vasi’s ballet school. photo: sudharak olwe

Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake was also at the centre of a recent show performed by the Royal Russian Ballet, which was hosted in September at Delhi’s Siri Fort Auditorium. In an interview with Guardian 20, the show’s director, Anatoliy Kazatskiy, said, “I certainly believe that adaptation of classical ballets into mainstream cinema can play a pivotal part in popularising the genre. Given that ballet is still an art form consumed only by niche audiences, and that cinema continues to be a mass influencer, a confluence of the two can go a long way in piquing the interest of more people. Black Swan, particularly, was a beautifully made film that did justice to the essence of the ballet. Such productions are important to help audiences discover the marvels of the art.”

To say that a lot still needs to be done doesn’t take away from the fact that ballet in India is already on its way up. What could help further in this regard, according to Czarina Villegas, a 28-year-old ballerina from the Philippines, is incorporating local cultural elements into this Western dance form. “It is mostly the culture. The media nowadays portrays ballet as if it is sort of archaic, even when it’s really not. Another thing is ballet’s European origins. For ballet to flourish in Asia, it has to adapt by incorporating Asian cultural elements, like transposing local folk dances, into ballet, like what we do in the Philippines. I have seen considerable interest in ballet here in India, and I can say popular reception is steadily growing,” says Villegas, who was in Mumbai last week to attend the Ballet Festival of India.

Anyhow, the prospects look promising enough. According to Ashifa Sarkar Vasi, the festival’s co-founder, the future of ballet in India is bright. “To me,” she says, “ballet is still young in India. It is barely a few decades old. But in the past 10 years, there has been a tremendous change in the Indian ballet scene—schools are mushrooming, and so is a greater degree of awareness. I believe this is setting the stage for a significant change in Indian ballet over the next 10 or 20 years. With access to improved training, greater exposure and better understanding of the dance form, ballet will flourish in the near future here. I think it will be a potential career option soon, hopefully in the next 10-20 years.”

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