Rukmini Vasanth is an actress and a dancer who draws strength from her strong roots and looks to the future with passion, commitment and a sense of purpose. In her interview, Rukmini shares her thoughts on a career in the arts, and how dance has shaped her as a performer in theatre and cinema.
Tell us a bit about your background. When did you train at TLFCB? How did you find Yana? What were you doing before you started training with TLFCB? Did you study anything afterwards?
I was born in Bangalore to a family that has always encouraged dancers. My mother is a bharatanatyam dancer so I grew up in an environment that nurtured art.
The story of how I found ballet and Miss Yana is one of my favourite stories to tell! On the auspicious day of Vijayadashmi, when I was 6, my mother took me to her guru Narmada to begin bharatanatyam lessons. I had my first lesson and after class, we needed a ride to town. Rukmini Vijayakumar, another of Narmada aunty’s students kindly offered us a ride but told us she needed to stop by her ballet class. Mum and I were curious so we asked if we could come up and watch a little bit of the class. I don’t know what I saw in that class, but I sat in the corner of the Chisel studio and was mesmerised. And shortly after, I began ballet classes with Miss Yana.
After finishing high school, I was accepted into the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts in London, for their Foundation Course in Acting. I was trained primarily in acting for the stage, singing and dance.
What are you doing nowadays?
I am an actor. I work in theatre and film, and as a voice artist and model. I have done one Kannada film, and stage productions in India and England. Like a lot of actors my work sometimes involves acting in advertisements.
You are an actress – what were the influences that took you in that direction?
In school I discovered that I loved performing. I loved to communicate with people through the stage, and I also found that I was good at it, which was wildly encouraging at a time when I was trying to find the things that I was good at and that made me happy.
Did ballet or other dance forms help or influence you in choosing your profession?
Absolutely! Ballet has set the foundation for the way I approach stage work. In drama school, when I was learning about the roots of mime or Commedia Dell’arte, my mind was drawn back to the little exercises in
imagination that we did with Miss Yana, playing elves and fairies and enchanted mushrooms!
Does it help to have had a background in dance in the movie industry?
I believe it does. I feel that a foundation of any classical art really does ground an actors performance. Ballet, has such an encompassing way of making you aware of movement and the strength of your body. While I found that the manner of expression in ballet and the Kannada film industry is quite different, that base of expression and training requires only a little time to adjust to the aesthetic of that specific industry. I feel lucky that I had an avenue to be imaginative and creative (and even silly) when I was so young, to develop a rich imagination and to be able to use it unabashedly, something that is so essential in my line of work today.
Do you still dance? If yes, what style(s)?
Unfortunately, the lockdown has interrupted my dance classes. Pre COVID I had begun training in a dance style for films but now that has been put on hold for the duration of the pandemic.
What does your regular day look like at the moment?
The beautiful thing about a job in the acting industry is that you never really have a “regular day”. The requirements of the job change depending on what you’re working on and you adapt to the demands of that particular job. For example, when I was working on the Disney musical Aladdin, a typical rehearsal day involved a morning physical warm-up, a vocal warm-up, scene work and then dance rehearsal in the evening with meals and snacks squeezed in whenever we could! On the other hand, a typical show day had us in the theatre early enough to warm up in morning/afternoon and then head in for makeup and costume before the show.
When I am not working, my regular day involves a workout, reading, an online class (Italian language and culture right now!) and an audition if I’ve been called for one.
How has the lockdown changed things for you on a daily basis? What about long term?
Lockdown changed a lot for me. Naturally in the early days, non-essential spheres were completely shut down. I lost out on a film that was due to start just a few days before the first lockdown.
In the long-term, it has made me appreciate what I once had, onstage or on a set.
What has been your biggest challenge so far?
My biggest challenge thus far, and I think one that many people in creative industries face (and don’t talk about nearly enough) is how much time you might spend between jobs! Once a project or season is finished, a performer can find herself/himself without the rigorous routine that it once provided. And that lack of structure can be very difficult to cope with, especially as a young artist. So my biggest challenge has been to overcome the fear of not constantly having an immediate project in hand.
What has been your biggest success?
Following in that vein, my biggest success has been working and crafting a routine for myself in spite of not having an immediate project. Anytime I commit to a warm-up or rehearsal of lines when I don’t have a performance, I consider that a success. It has taken me a long time (and I still struggle with this) to reach the point where I am patient and commit to my regular practice simply to ensure that I am at my best, and ready when work does come.
Who has been your most significant support through the years? How have they helped you?
My mother, Subhashini Vasanth. When you are in this kind of work, familial support can make or break your efforts to assimilate in this industry. I am so lucky to have my mother, who has come to nearly every film narration and every set usually bringing with her a box of fruits and coconut water to make sure I’m well-fed and hydrated while on the job. In terms of my work, my drama teacher Kirtana Kumar has always been a supportive presence. She has been a kind, constant person I can always reach out to when I’m overwhelmed.
Along the way there have been countless professionals I’ve met at each assignment who have helped me, guided me and affirmed my steps in this industry.
Who has been the biggest influence in your life?
My mother again.
Who is your greatest inspiration? Why?
I’m sounding like a stuck record now but it would have to be my mother. When I was 10 years old, we lost my father, an army officer, to an insurgency attack in Kashmir. Not only did my mother help her two young daughters cope with a shattering loss, she started an NGO to help other women and children who were in the same position.
The grace and strength with which she has led her life is something that inspires me every day.
Where do you see yourself in 5 years? 10 years?
In 5 years I hope to be recognised as a proficient film actor, I hope to have been a part of good films that elevate the industry and challenge me as a performer.
And in 10 years time I hope that I will have continued working in films but also found my way back to the stage. I believe acting in films and being recognised as a competent actor requires an undivided focus on this industry but I hope to come back to theatre after some years. I also hope to have a strong family life to return to after pack-up!
What has been the greatest lesson you have learned so far professionally?
The greatest lesson for me personally, one that lockdown impressed on me, is that I need things in my life, skills and interests that are not linked to my work. I have discovered over the lockdowns that I really enjoy cooking so when I am having a bad day professionally I head into the kitchen and try and cook whatever it is I am craving that day. I have learnt, especially for myself, that it’s important to find an arena that is very different from your work, that does not carry the same pressures but crucially gives you as much satisfaction and joy as your work.
How did your time training with Yana shape you as a person and as a performer?
I have known Miss Yana since I was about 6 and she has been a formative presence in my life, as far as my training and interest in the arts is concerned. During my training with her, I tried to push myself in every class, to get out of my head and smile while I danced!
But most importantly, as someone who had to drop out of ballet class for years at a time when my family moved out of Bangalore, Miss Yana taught me that it’s never too late to come back to class. I would show up in the studio after a year or two of being away, and be greeted by an enthusiastic “Hello stranger!” and a reminder to “squeeeeeze” my bum. I’ve taken this attitude to other aspects of my life also, it’s never too late to start and there will always be things you need to fix, just start!
When you are not acting, what do you do?
When I’m not dancing or acting, I am usually watching a film, reading or painting. I enjoy the slow, meditative process of painting watercolours.
If you were not an actress, what would you be?
I would’ve been a dancer or a teacher to very small children, maybe kindergarten. I’m not sure this job exists but I would also love to do something that involves just travelling, not writing about it or talking about it or sharing it in anyway, just travelling.
If you could be amazing at any skill, what would it be?
I’ve always wanted to be a polyglot, so I would love to be amazing at picking up languages.
If you could go back in time and meet anyone from history, who would it be? What would you want to ask them?
If I were able to go back in time, I’d like to watch renowned performer perform live. I’d love to listen to Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan sing, or watch Margot Fonteyn dance.
What is your advice to dancers who are unsure how or if ballet will help them in their future careers, whatever they may be?
Ballet will always be useful. If you become a dancer, it will become your lifeblood, your foundation and the strong basecamp from which you explore other styles. And even if you don’t become a performer, ballet will give you a respite from your line of work. I think its important to have that space of respite, because no matter how much you love your work it can become overwhelming sometimes and an escape from that will allow you to approach it again, with a rested and rejuvenated attitude (pun unintended!)
What three words would you use to describe yourself?
Shy, observant and graceful.
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