Ashley Lobo has a lot on his plate! Let’s start by looking at ProDance - A youth certification program for youngsters from all across India. They are conducting the first round of auditions on 9th June.
As Artistic Director of Navdhara India Dance Theatre, a contemporary dance company, he has been busy touring with Amaara (Read our review here). Amaara - A Journey of Love is one of the performances that has been selected from over 600 applications, to perform at the international 'Tanzmesse' 2018, to be held in Dusseldorf, Germany in August 2018.
We spoke to Ashley about the company, upcoming productions, his choreography process, future projects and everything in between.
Q. Ashley you have been known to change the landscape of commercial dance in India bringing contemporary, jazz, ballet and other like dance forms to the country and training dancers to be at par with international standards. Was forming Navdhara India Dance Theatre (NIDT) a step towards the same goal?
I think I felt that in India we have constantly looked to the west for inspiration for international dance and I thought that after twenty years of being with international dance in India it was now time to take the next step which was taking international dance out of India into the world. And the only way to do that was to lead the way by creating a company that could perform at international platforms in that format as well as start to choreograph so now I am even choreographing for International Ballet companies in Europe.
Q. NIDT forayed into international space with 'A Passage To Bollywood' but is your work 'Amaara - A Journey of Love' that has received much praise and is consistently been on tours, both in India and abroad. How has the experience of performing internationally for contemporary Indian dancers been?
To be honest, actually 'Amaara - A Journey of Love' was the first international foray for us. We took 'Amaara' to New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco and it was the first international tour for NIDT. After that we did 'Amaara' and 'A Passage To Bollywood' in Israel at the Suzanne Dellal Theatre which is the most prestigious venue to perform in, in Israel.
For me, I think it has been a huge experience for all the dancers as it was their first time. There was one boy from Kanpur who has never travelled overseas. He did not even have a passport. As of today, he has toured across nearly 9-10 countries in the last two years. It's an eye-opening experience because while we were there, we did workshops with international companies and collaborations. We have dancers from that country coming in to witness the performances. So getting feedback from them has been amazing. The good thing is that the dancers confidence is high because with every single performance they have done has received standing ovations and accolades from dancers and that's a great thing.
Q. Your extensive knowledge of dance and yoga inspired 'Prana Paint™ Technique' in dance which was a unique sensitizing approach that explores movement through connectivity, yoga, breath and touch and has been employed to great effect in 'Amaara' as well. Is this technique used in all your choreographies? How does it benefit dancers?
For me, my whole thought today in choreography is that I'm going through a world of minimalism which means very little movement. There was a time when I used to do a lot of movement in my choreography. Today I do very little movement because I feel that to communicate, you got to transcend the body so for me, yes, we used movement but I would rather let the audience feel the movement than see the movement. For them to feel it, I use the 'Prana Paint™ Technique' which is using breadth and energy for the audience to feel the movement rather than see it. For each individual dancer it automatically forces them to personalize and develop their own instruments so dance could be two parts – one is the actual physicality and the other is the personal instrument or personal expression of a dancer. 'Prana Paint™ Technique' helps you to maintain your breadth and personalize your movement. So whether a dancer works for Navdhara or anywhere in the world, it helps them become more personal. In fact, when I was at the Chemnitz Ballet in Germany I used the Prana Paint™ Technique and I was actually hired mainly for that and even now, when I'm hired for a ballet company in Austria, they are hiring me because of my ability to personalize the movements of dancers.
Q. Very recently, NIDT was seen performing at the Lantern Festival in Taiwan. How was the experience and what were the major learnings and challenges of performing at such international festivals?
At the Lantern Festival, the biggest challenge was the outdoor venue. So if you are doing a contemporary dance piece, it's very difficult to hold a contemporary dance piece in a stadium. It is okay to hold it in a small space. The energy dissipates. So for the dancers, it was a huge experience because it's not first person narratives but abstract. And to hold an audience in abstract in that kind of a venue with that distance is difficult. So it was very interesting for the dancers to do that and I think they learnt a lot. The good thing for them was that again they managed to do that and became celebrities with the Taiwanese audiences who came up and wanted to take photographs and autographs. It was quite interesting.
Q. Tell us more about your relationship with Germany? How was it to choreograph a ballet dance drama for the Chemnitz Ballet company in Germany? Also NIDT will be performing at the Internationale Tanzmesse nrw 2018 in Germany later this year. How excited is the team to be a part of such a grand event?
For me, the experience of choreographing in Germany was great fun because you're working with professional dancers and in India, apart from working with Navdhara I don't get that opportunity. Also, because those dancers have done about 15-17 years of ballet, their sense of classical technique is very strong. I could actually use some point work which I can't do a lot of in India. And quality point work; there is point work in India but it's not high quality point work. Here I could actually do that so it was interesting for me to play with those ideas. The dancers also being very professional absorb much faster. About the challenges working with them, because they are international dancers most of them are not as vulnerable as an Indian dancer so I had to use a lot of my Prana Paint™ Technique to help them find that inner voice and help them develop and hone it. The dancers are now travelling to Dusseldorf in Germany for 'Tanzmesse' and that's a huge huge honour since out of about 600 companies that apply only 50 are selected. And these 600 come from top level contemporary companies from across the world. So to be in the top 50 is a big deal. The dancers are really excited and also a bit nervous because they have been picked to be one of the top 50 to perform at a huge platform like this which brings together the largest gathering of professionals solely dedicated to contemporary dance. There will be over two thousand people there and it will be a mixture of theatre owners, buyers, dancers, company representatives, etc who all come there to buy, sell, network and look for possible collaborations. I think it's a huge opportunity and a huge honour.
Q. Please tell us your choreography process? How important is music, props, setting and other visuals in your choreography apart from movement?
I think for me choreography is holistic. It's everything – props, costume, music, movement. They are all intrinsic. My process really involves first coming to the studio with a thought and then giving the dancers a task and then letting the movement evolve from there helping them share work with each other to create the movement and create the process of the movement. I don't go on with a story per se. I go on with a thought where every day a different thought comes into my mind. I allow that thought to play out into movement so it becomes a series of pieces and then later, as I start looking at the pieces, I start to see the sense of how the piece is linked together and then finally, two weeks before we open, I start to link it into a piece.
Q. What are the major challenges that were part of NIDT and your journey? One thing that you would change about the Indian dance industry?
I think the difficult part of NIDT is that there is no funding for an artistic contemporary company unlike anywhere else in the world and there is no real commercial work in this area in India. Since India is behind in its understanding of international dance or especially contemporary international dance so funding has been the challenge and financing a company like that. I would love it if we had corporate sponsorship as part of their corporate sponsorship schemes that they have, it would be fabulous for Navdhara to be sponsored especially because we have represented India in so many countries across the world and an average of at least 4 or 5 countries a year. So if you have any corporate person who wants their company exposed overseas with the new face of India please do let us know :). Well, I'd say finance has been the biggest challenge. Also, the other challenge with NIDT has been the dancers initially understanding what the true meaning of becoming a dance professional is, because it's a lot of sacrifice and many hours of work. It's like 8-10 hours a day, sometimes 6 days a week and there's not much payment so you're purely dancing for the sake of dance and art and becoming an artist and not dancing for the sake of the commerce.
The one thing that you would change about the Indian dance industry would be probably the awareness of the larger perspective on the understanding of dance. India's understanding of dance is very myopic and the way we follow dance is only what is popular. We don't go beyond the popular. Sometimes, I feel we only buy what the west sells us. We are not looking at what is high premium in their own country. For example, ballet and abstract contemporary is very high premium in their country. Hip-hop, street dance and other informal dance styles are not sold in opera houses and are not held at high premium, probably because it is accessible. It's on the street and everywhere. In India, it's reverse. In India, street, hip-hop and all of that is very popular. We haven't yet come to the place where ballet and artistic contemporary is come to that premium position. So it's funny that overseas they have exactly the reverse valuation or understanding of that.
Q. Any new projects that we would get to see of NIDT in the near future? What is your vision for the future?
At NIDT, we have been commissioned to create a whole one and a half hour ballet on Jungle Book for a theatre in Israel so that is what we are working on right now. I’m also looking at touring my latest piece which I did with Japanese artist Yuko Harada who’s also my assistant director. I created a solo with her titled ‘Inversion’. Next, I’ve been asked to create a 45 minute piece for an Austrian ballet company. It’s going to be based on death and the afterlife. I’m also looking to create a piece on death for Navdhara as well. I am also super excited about launching the PRODANCE Youth Certificate Program.
I’ve always believed that developing a professional ethic is important for any career. Helping youngsters understand this at an early age will give them a big advantage. So when one of the senior teachers of The Danceworx, Pia Sutaria, approached me to be Chief Advisor for a professional dance training program for the youth, I gladly consented. So yes, I’ve got my plate full.
All images source : https://www.facebook.com/pg/Navdhara.India/
About Navdhara India Dance Theatre (NIDT)
Navdhara India Dance Theatre’s chief mission is to communicate and build bridges within India and the international community through real human connection - byreaching out to audiences all over the world while still springing out of a base that is intrinsically Indian.
Its mission is also to create dance and art that is honest, and which focuses on the human connection through a style that is simple and narrative in nature, with an intention to share rather than tell, be felt rather than seen.