Occasionally, in my dreams, I relive the entrance of the Shades from La Bayadère. From the quiet, hypnotic buildup of arabesques snaking down the stage to the prayerlike moment when the entire corps de ballet freezes in a front tendu, arms crossed and eyes turned upwards, it is where my mind goes for rest and contemplation, more so than any extraordinary variation.
A year into the pandemic, large-scale ensembles are also what I've missed the most on the ballet stage. As COVID safety protocols prevented dancers in many countries from gathering in large groups, when companies were able to deliver livestreams or performances with limited audiences, they have favored gala-style excerpts and smaller works—leaving aside a core strength of the classical repertoire.
At Ballet Hispánico, Dandara Veiga has to be part dancer, part chameleon. As she goes about an average day as an artist with the company, she shifts from ballet repertoire to contemporary works—and the contents of her dance bag help her ease from one style to the next.
"The way I move changes a lot when I change my hair or my clothes," she says. The Brazilian-born Veiga often switches up both completely as she works through her day, and doing so helps her to transition seamlessly through Ballet Hispánico's varied repertoire. And while the more casual styles put her a little out of her comfort zone—Dandara trained for some time at a strict ballet conservatory in Portugal—she's learning to enjoy it. "I don't do anything crazy, but I like to play a little. It's fun!"
The Goods<p><strong>Bloch booties:</strong> "I always go for black, because it's easiest to match with my leotards. I love for my leotards to be colorful, but I like to keep my warm-ups more neutral."</p><p>"I actually made my <strong>legwarmers</strong> in Brazil, with my grandmother, before I moved. When I first started dancing, I was on scholarship, so I had to build my wardrobe little by little. I'm very attached to these legwarmers, because my grandmother taught me how to make them. I wouldn't exchange them for anything."</p><p><strong>Uniqlo vest:</strong> "I like this vest because it's ultra-light, so it doesn't take up too much space in my bag. It's black, of course, like all my other warm-ups!"</p><p>"I always have a small <strong>golf ball</strong>. Some of the other girls in the company introduced me to using it to roll my feet—we're always exchanging information about those things. I love how it feels on my arch," she says.</p><p><strong>Gaynor Minden pointe shoes:</strong> "Now that I'm dancing at home, I've been darning the boxes of my shoes, because the floor of my apartment isn't ideal for dancing. It's pretty uneven, so I've found the darning helpful to give me a bit more stability. I'd hate to get injured dancing at home!"</p>
Veiga holds photos of her family members in Brazil (Lucas Chilczuk)
With the Help of Social Media, the Asian Ballet Community Is Speaking Out Against Anti-Asian Violence
Amid a rise in anti-Asian hate crimes around the world, Singapore-based dancewear company Cloud & Victory posted a video on March 18 calling for a stop to the hate against the Asian and Pacific Islander (AAPI) community. It features prominent Asian dancers and allies, including former professional dancer Miko Fogarty, The Joffrey Ballet's Jeraldine Mendoza and Boston Ballet's Lia Cirio and Paulina Waski.
The video is part of a larger movement of dancers who have been using social media as a platform for activism.
Raising Awareness and Making an Impact<p>Many of those featured in the video, like Phil Chan, Patricia Zhou and Miko Fogarty, understand the impact of racism and stereotyping, and see an opportunity to advocate for increased awareness and diversity in the ballet world.</p><p>Phil Chan, a co-founder of <a href="https://www.yellowface.org/" target="_blank">Final Bow for Yellowface</a>, says that the organization's work on changing portrayals of Asians has always been informed by the understanding that onstage stereotypes translate to offstage perceptions. "If we have terrible representations of us onstage, it means that we can be treated terribly when we leave the studio, leave the theater—and how people see us onstage is how they see us outside, as well," he says. "Those things are a mirror image."</p><p>Freelance dancer and creative Patricia Zhou recalls working early in her career with a choreographer who referred to female Asian dancers as "Mademoiselles Japon," while other dancers were identified by the colors of their leotards. She says that microaggressions like these often go unacknowledged and unchallenged, especially when directed at younger company dancers, who are fearful that speaking out may impact their career trajectories. In these circumstances, Zhou says, older dancers, ballet masters or even artistic directors should step in. In general, Zhou believes artistic directors need more management training to learn how to better support their dancers. "It's not just their job to teach us dances," Zhou says. "Their job is to maintain the well-being of the company."</p>
Patricia Zhou, now based in the U.S., during her time with Staatsballett Berlin
Carlos Quezada, Courtesy Patricia Zhou
Western classical ballet is still a very unfamiliar art form in India. But in the last few years, promising talent has begun emerging, often in dancers from disadvantaged or working-class families with no prior association with Western classical music or dance.
In the absence of live ballet performances, the entry point for most aspirants has been film, notably Bollywood, or an initial interest in other dance styles.
Kamal Singh, currently in his early 20s and from the outskirts of Delhi, is the son of a rickshaw driver. A ballet sequence in the 2013 Bollywood movie ABCD: Any Body Can Dance led him to train with a ballet instructor in Delhi, and three years later, he is studying further at the English National Ballet School.
But the bigger hub for many ballet newcomers has been Mumbai, India's "City of Dreams," known for its thriving film industry.
From Surfing YouTube to Training in Paris<p>Dipesh Verma, from Siliguri, West Bengal, became smitten with ballet at 13 after watching his teen dance idol, Sophia Lucia, on YouTube. As the son of a grocer and a daily-wage worker, it wasn't easy for him to go against his parents' expectations of pursuing a more "secure" profession, like medicine.</p>
Manish Chauhan (center) training with Dipesh Verma and Bobby Roy
Photo by Leslie Shampaine<p>At 15, he headed for Mumbai with the equivalent of $80 in his pocket, to train with noted Israeli-American ballet pedagogue Yehuda Maor at <a href="https://www.thedanceworx.com/" target="_blank">The Danceworx Performing Arts Academy</a>. Verma often spent the night on railway platforms and missed meals after grueling sessions.</p><p>As he advanced in his training, he applied to several schools abroad via video submission and ultimately chose the Paris Marais Dance School, where he's currently on scholarship. Now 20, Verma reminisces about his formative years in Mumbai: "It forged my character; I grew up as a dancer and as a man."</p>
A Late Start, but a Passion for Ballet's Athleticism<p>Bobby Roy, like Verma, is also a protégé of Maor and a student at the Paris Marais. The son of a clothing street vendor and a housewife, he moved from Delhi to Mumbai at 17 to take his childhood fascination with dance further. 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.</p>
Courtesy Roy<p>Roy had grown up dancing hip hop and imitating the choreography he saw in Bollywood films, so starting classical ballet, a compulsory component of the Danceworx curriculum, was a novel experience. "I fell in love with its beauty," says Roy. But he had to work extremely hard to make up for the lost years.</p><p>Starting late is a common theme among most classical ballet aspirants in India, but they are often driven by a sense of dogged determination.</p><p>Maor's arrival at Danceworx six years ago has revolutionized the pedagogy of ballet in Mumbai. He has mentored most of the dancers mentioned in this story. Maor attributes the young Indian men's growing affinity for ballet to its athleticism. "That's what many of the Indian male dancers see when they take ballet classes: 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."</p>
Acrobatic Tricks and Netflix<p>This was certainly true of Manish Chauhan, now 27 and a student at New York City's Peridance, where he mainly studies ballet, along with contemporary dance. Chauhan is the son of a Mumbai taxi driver. He began doing acrobatic stunts "because girls get impressed," as he says shyly in the <a href="https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NeqyykAwzOY" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">trailer</a> to the forthcoming film <em>Call Me Dancer</em>, by Leslie Shampaine and Pip Gimour, which documents his path into ballet.<br></p>
Manish Chauhan in a photo shoot for an international edition of Elle
Photo by Porus Vimadalal, Courtesy Chauhan<p>Chauhan also played a fictionalized version of himself in the 2020 Netflix Original Hindi film <a href="https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rpeOrmjRK90" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><em>Yeh Ballet</em></a>, written and directed by Sooni Taraporevala. It charts the compelling story of Chauhan and of Amiruddin Shah (played by Achintya Bose), both of whom were mentored by Maor at Danceworx and overcame huge challenges to follow their dreams. Shah is currently training in London at the Royal Ballet School.</p>
A Growing Ballet Lineage<p>Though the majority of ballet students in India are the first in their families to explore the art form, that's not always the case. Taraporevala, for instance, now a filmmaker in her 60s, studied ballet during her childhood 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.</p>
Courtesy Sutaria<p>Among Tushna Dallas' students is Pia Sutaria, who says her family has been extremely supportive of her pursuit of dance. She was inspired to take up ballet at 5 after watching the 2000 British dance film <em>Billy Elliot</em>. 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 vocational dance and ballet training for young, talented artists in India."</p><p><a target="_blank"></a>Now 25, Sutaria has several young ballet hopefuls under her wing. The youngest, Vidhi Thakker, is 11; her family has applied for her to train at ballet schools in Canada and the UK.</p>
Hopes of Training Overseas<p>Elizabeth Gollar, 20, who lives in Dharavi, Mumbai, is the daughter of a woodcutter and a sweeper. Her entry into dance was through waacking and lavani (a strongly rhythmic traditional song and dance native to Maharashtra). Her flexibility was noticed by dancer Deshna Khanna, who introduced Gollar to Danceworx in 2015, where she was granted a full scholarship.</p>
Evolving Attitudes About Ballet<p>Both Danceworx and Sutaria's Institute of Classical and Modern Dance offer full scholarships to disadvantaged youth keen to work hard at ballet. Newcomers also seem to be encouraged by the growing number of role models, mentioned here, although they comprise a minuscule portion of India's population of 1.3 billion people. Add in the success of Netflix's <em>Yeh Ballet</em>, the <em>Call Me Dancer</em> documentary already in postproduction and the power of social media, and there are likely to be subsequent waves of Indian youth turning to ballet.</p><p>Roy points out that Bollywood, which draws young people to dance, is itself beginning to incorporate classical ballet into its dance sequences—creating new job opportunities for ballet dancers in India.</p>
Courtesy Thakker family<p>Sutaria agrees. Her students recently appeared in their first TV commercial, dancing neoclassical choreography while modeling Indian clothing for a fashion label. Sutaria herself has done gigs for nationally televised events and major magazines, blending classical ballet with Indian fashion and culture, including Bollywood music.</p><p>"I would love to see the day when one of the most well-known ballets, which is an Indian story, <em><a href="https://www.pointemagazine.com/la-bayadere-orientalist-stereotypes-2646384245.html" target="_blank">La Bayadère</a></em>, is danced here with Indian dancers," says Maor. "The more people read articles and see performances and films about Indian dancers, the faster we will be able to attract audiences and financial support for our work."</p>