An Israeli-American ballet teacher is helping popularise the classical dance among the young and restless of Mumbai, writes Ranjita Ganesan
Article from Business Standard Weekend, March 7, 2020
Yehuda Maor’s jaw drops. He is reliving a moment from his childhood in the 1950s when, aged six or seven, he had just seen the film version of a Bolshoi Ballet recital of Swan Lake. “It was just ‘Wow’. I can’t explain,” says the Israeli-American, still wide-eyed some 70 years later. He grew up in the culturally rich, mostly unreligious atmosphere of a kibbutz (commune) near Haifa in Israel, where Brahms would play at home, the opera and theatre were weekly fixtures, and children took piano and singing lessons. But nothing caught his imagination quite like the light, graceful movements of ballet. His parents did not entirely understand his fascination but they were supportive of his ensuing resolve to learn the classical European dance.
The kibbutzniks would give him a few lira for the bus ride to the city, where he studied ballet twice a week. By his late teens, he was taking full-time lessons by day, and dancing for a Tel Aviv production of Fiddler on the Roof by night. He pirouetted his way into the famous Bat-Dor Dance Company, owned by the Baroness Batsheva de Rothschild, coming into contact with stalwarts such as Jeannette Ordman and Alvin Ailey. He remembers vividly two other performances he had seen growing up: the Indian classical dancers RamGopal and Shanta Rao. Perhaps that had been an early sign. The subcontinent beckoned decades later. For six years now, Maor has been introducing ballet to young dancers in the suburbs of Mumbai.
His initial experience of India was not idyllic. He landed in New Delhi well past midnight, and was put up in a place where he had to step over sleeping bodies to reach his room, and there was no water or food. “I woke up and everybody was speaking Hebrew,” he recalls. “It was an Israeli backpackers’ hostel.” Maor had been invited by choreographer Ashley Lobo to join The Danceworx, his academy for international dance. Although Delhi didn’t agree with him, Maor took Lobo’s offer to move to his school in Mumbai, a city he loves except for its reckless auto rickshaws. There, he took on the task of preparing economically weak but exceptionally gifted dancers for programmes in major international schools.
Of his students, Ma’or says, “They get into the schools on merit, not because they are poor.”
The story of how he discovered and trained Amiruddin Shah and Manish Chauhan, both young dancers from impoverished neighbourhoods of Mumbai, inspired the plot of a recent film, Yeh Ballet, written and directed by Sooni Taraporevala who had earlier made a short documentary on the subject. Somehow in its expansion from Europe to the Americas and South East Asia, ballet “skipped India”, says the instructor. Back in San Francisco, where he had taught for twenty years before this, the fact he had trained with Natalia Makarova impressed one and all. In Mumbai, facing his class of first-time learners, the names of some of history’s best-known ballet composers, Tchaikovsky and Mozart, were received with blank looks. Their parents would sometimes mistake “ballet” for “belly” dancing. Now, the children have developed recognition for even less obvious references and terms. Maor leaves them with names of dancers and compositions to look up on Google.
Ballet is fundamental to Western dancing, Maor observes. Training in this form is built into curriculums elsewhere in the world, and it prepares one for picking up other styles. He believes his classes at The Danceworx now match any international school. Students pay ~3,000 a month for eight sessions or, if they have the talent but lack the money, are funded by the academy. Chauhan has returned after a year in Portland’s Oregon Ballet Theatre on scholarship, and Shah is on a full-ride scholarship to the Royal Ballet School. Two more students, Dipesh Verma and Bobby Roy from West Bengal, are attending the Paris Marais Dance School in France. Of his students, Maor says, “They get into the schools on merit, not because they are poor.” The ballet master’s connections to global theatre circles do allow him to make appeals for any balance funding for flights or housing.
Maor’s chosen dance form is all about “excellence”. In his experience, ballet dancers have to be athletes, gymnasts, contortionists, and actors, and have a sense of music. It needs nuance: in performing one type of plié, dancers must act as if sinking under the weight of a brick, and in another type, they must appear like flying birds. He describes his role as that of a “sculptor” who shapes the bodies of students into “instruments”. His eye—developed over fifty years of teaching — is able to spot a potential “ballet body” from the arch of the foot, the contours of the leg, and the silhouette of the muscles. A good teacher, he reckons, must know whom to nurture and whom to push. Those who have the potential are rigorously coached.
His eye — developed over fifty years of teaching — is able to spot a potential “ballet body” from the arch of the foot, the contours of the leg, and the silhouette of the muscles. A good teacher, he reckons, must know whom to nurture and whom to push. Those who have the potential are rigorously coached.
Cultural differences were a challenge for him at first. In his earlier career, Maor was used to seeing dancers privileging professional needs over personal ones. But in India, family comes first. Boys tend to outnumber girls here. Sons are more often given permission over daughters in India to dance for long hours in tight costumes, he shrugs. Still, demand has only risen, with the academy considering making batches of 60 students instead of 40. At The Danceworx’s Andheri rehearsal studio, limber boys and girls in their teens and tweens arrive for classes through the day. A hip replacement two years ago has slowed him a bit so that Maor presides from atop a red stool and walks around the class now and then to manage the playlist and correct the dancers’ postures.
After an hour of warming up on the barre, a whole 40 minutes more generous than in international schools, the ballerinas and ballerinos push them away to make room for centre work. They take to the floor in batches of four, performing short choreography that includes well-oiled spin cycles and feather-light soubresaut jumps. “There is a photographer here,” Maor informs the room, and adds half jokingly: “Careful not to kick him.” Throughout the hour-and-a-half duration, he sings instructions that remind them to move upwards or outwards, and execute promenades and arabesques. Sweat slowly begins to soak their t-shirts, and the dancers use their brief breaks to stretch in corners or snack on nuts, seeds, and sensible sandwiches. Maurice, a slender 14-year-old of modest means who has trained for a few years now, has the potential to go professional, Maor points out. He separates him from the class for a quick solo. Maor doesn’t hold back from being partial. “It creates some competition.”
Ballet dancers are at their peak relatively briefly: from the teens to mid-30s. Around the age of 30, Maor transitioned from dancing to teaching dance because his body could not compete with younger contemporaries. Because Indian dancers tend to discover ballet rather late, he has introduced a method here which he calls the “Maor Placement Technique”. It uses belts to exert muscles and “maximise one’s training time”. Now that his stock of custom-made belts has run out, some resourceful students have been using the inner tube of bicycles instead.
The Danceworx’s Lobo is upbeat about the potential for creating a stronger dance culture with ballet at the core. In his view, dancers who have emerged from poverty and excelled at street dancing must fortify their talent with classical knowledge. “If you don’t know the rules, how will you break them?” Where ballet dancers tend to move upwards and off the floor in controlled ways, contemporary styles are danced more into the floor. With Maor leading classical training, Lobo’s ultimate vision is to put Indian dancers in international schools, theatres, and dance companies. For this, the school which has bankrolled students on its own hopes for corporate funding.
While Maor enjoyed Taraporevala’s film, he notes he is not as grumpy nor as emotional as the teacher played by Julian Sands. Remembering how the protagonist gifts his students vintage ballet dolls towards the end, he rolls his eyes and says, “I would never do that.” But the struggles of students here did remind him of his own childhood. In other ways, things were more difficult than in the movie.
His first rehearsal studio in Bandra was dingy with no mats or ventilation. Still, him and his star students would train for hours there and leave totally exhausted. “On the way back,” the teacher says, sounding nostalgic and ever-so-slightly paternal, “we would stop at a Starbucks and I would feed them.”