By Maya Haridas and Siddhie Pillai
We all know Yana Lewis as a teacher, as an Artistic Director, as a person and maybe even as a good friend. But do we know Miss Yana as a student? In this exclusive interview, get to know Yana Lewis AISTD DIP and Artistic Director of TLFCB in a different avatar.
How old were you when you did your first Ballet Class? What was the experience like?
I was two and a half! The experience was… nothing much that I can remember. Actually, I do remember being two and a half and I remember my teacher, she was not really very inviting, she was quite stern and strict but not with me, only with those around me. And I remember that I liked the whole experience a lot and wanted to come back the next day. In fact, I think I didn’t want to leave! I made a big fuss before going. The reason I went to ballet class was because I wanted to be a butterfly, I was not very keen on being a human being. I was not very happy when I was little, I had a bit of a hard time fitting in, and every time I saw a butterfly I used to go “I want to be like that, I want to be able to fly like that and want to do that! I don’t want be a person, like all these people around me!” And so my mum decided to take me to ballet. And that was the beginning of the journey.
What is the difference between learning ballet abroad and at TLFCB?
None, except that we have a much nicer studio than the one I started ballet in. We have a much better floor, we have barres and a mirror. I started ballet in a church hall that had this brown, wooden floor which was filthy and covered in dirt, and it had this little, tiny stage at one end. No mirrors, no ballet barre. So, you are actually really lucky. You have it like full time ballet school, they have studios like ours. But for local ballet classes, like the one I went to back in the 1960s, people just used to rent out church halls, there was ballet on every street corner, but it was in rented church halls. It was not even really in community centres, people couldn’t afford to rent community centres, when I was tiny. Even as I grew up, I went to ballet in a church hall, until I went to proper ballet school. Yes, so you have it really lucky, as beginning students of ballet, to be able to come and learn here at the HQ, which is like a professional ballet studio.
Was the boys to girls ratio more balanced?
It was the same, it was no different. I didn’t grow up with a single boy in my ballet class, at least you all see some boys in classes. When my teacher saw a boy student she used to be so hyper enthusiastic that they used to run away and never come back! She would be like “Oooh! Let him come to ballet!” And he would agree to come for one class, where she would be so enthusiastic that she would put him off! In my full time ballet school it was not very even either, in one class you would get, maybe 30 girls and three or maybe four boys. But they would get taught separately; when you get to that standard you require such different things.
For pas de deux (partnering) class the few boys would have to work so hard while all the girls just sat around waiting for their turns. But I was always the lucky one because I was the smallest and the lightest and I could jump really, really well. So everyone wanted to lift me and I had to demonstrate everything. I would get a hundred turns and everyone else would get maybe one in pas de deux. I was always getting thrown around and I was good with that. Being small has that advantage.
Did you always know you were going to be a Teacher/ Artistic Director? Who inspired you to teach?
This is a really good question. Yes, I always knew I wanted to teach and I’ve taught since I was seventeen. I used to teach at the ballet class that I used to go to before I went to proper ballet school. I used to help my teacher before that but when I turned seventeen she gave me my own classes. For me, teaching was something I always knew I wanted to do, because actually, my teacher wasn’t that amazing. She used to confuse everybody so much with pas de bourrèes that I decided I would learn them all myself and then I used to get tired of waiting for the rest of the class to get it, so I would explain it to them and they would all understand! And as I grew up I was always one of those kids who are like “Why are you teaching it like that! Why don’t you teach it like this? It will be so much easier!” My teacher had two ballet schools and she would take me to the other one as well to teach because she realised how talented I was, I guess. In all fairness to my teacher though, she was very inspiring. She was a performer in the West End and she used to take us into London theatre life. We used to do ballet class on the stage of Drury Lane theatre because she had to fit us in between two shows! So, yes she was very inspiring but a bit all over the place, quite the opposite of me, I’m very focused and clear about things. But she was a really good dancer and a really good singer, and she used to take me and another girl to endless West End shows where she would be performing every night.
So, though I knew that I wanted to perform, I knew that I wanted to teach too. They are two very different things, they require two very different parts of you as a person, they are not connected despite whatever anyone tells you, they are not connected – performing is a very different experience, which is why, when everyone says to me “Miss Yana, we want to see you dance in one of our shows” I’m like, “Forget it”, because I can’t be my Teacher/Artistic Director self while still thinking about my performer side. If I see any of you students, I’m not a performer. The last time I performed was at the NCPA in Mumbai, and that was before I taught any of you here. Performing requires a totally different side of me, and I need to be in that completely, I can’t tap into this and tap into that. I don’t have that skill, my teacher used to do that but I can’t, I have to be consumed by one thing entirely. A lot of performers teach because they can’t make enough money by performing alone, but with me I said I want to teach because I know am good at it and because I know it needs a different side of myself. Another thing, which I realised only recently when I went to a family gathering in the UK, is that nearly all of my mother’s side of the family, cousins, relatives, everybody, are teachers of some kind. They are not ballet teachers, but principal of a primary school, principal of a secondary school, teacher of this, professor of that. And when I found that out I thought – this is a definitely gift that we have all been given.
At what age did you first get your pointe shoes?
Too young, too young. My teacher bought my first ballet shoes because she found them in a dance shop sale on the way to work one day, and she thought ‘Who will these fit? The only person these will fit is Yana.’ And they did, but I barely did any pointe work in them because they were hardly any use. Let me see, if I went to full-time ballet school when I was 11 or 12 then I must have got them when I was maybe nine, but I would NOT put anyone on pointe at nine, and I only had them to try at that age not to dance in. Around 11-12 is the VERY youngest that I would put anyone on pointe and they would have to be at the required Grade 4/5 level as well. But I had to start pointe work at ten because I needed to do it for my full time ballet school audition and it was always very easy for me, but I am very, very lucky that way because my feet have great balance between the flexibility and the strength needed for pointe work. So pointe work for me was fairly easy, but for most people it is not. It’s just luck.
What was your favourite role that you played while you were in ballet school?
I liked roles that were created for me the most, and in ballet school it’s really lucky if you get picked for the leads, because they usually choose the tall, long-legged people, which was not me. There is one piece which I remember liking, it was ballet with a jazz feel and it had a lot of Pas de Deux, there were three guys and me and I was pretty much thrown about the stage continuously. Yeah, that was one of my favourite pieces because it was all about me really! In terms of Classical Ballet I think Swanilda from Coppelia would be my favourite role. I got to play it because it is not that hard for a dancer with short legs to play and it had a lot of fast allegro which I liked and was very good at.
What was the funniest experience you had on stage/ during an exam?
Something funny… In an exam I don’t think I would have found anything funny. I was very serious, like that, I still am. On stage, it was when I was in a touring company, where we used to dance the same pieces over and over and over again. We had to make ourselves nervous to go on stage as we were so used to doing it, I used to work with a deaf dancer. She would feel the vibrations of the music from the speakers through the floor and that’s how she would be in time. The funny incident is that once she came off the stage, and she was like ‘Yana, you know what, you were so out of time with the music today.’ And she was right, it was ironic, she’s deaf and here she is telling me that I’m out of time and I can actually hear the music! But it was an amazing experience working with a deaf dancer, she had developed another sense, you know, her musical timing was so perfect that even our Artistic Director could not fault it. She could feel the music straight into her body, we hear it and process it and then it goes in, for her there was no process of hearing, the music would be translated, as she felt it, into her body. So her timing was amazing, she is the most musical dancer I have ever worked with. And she is deaf.
How do you think life as a student would have been had the COVID19 Pandemic occurred during your time as a student?
It would have been a disaster! It wouldn’t have worked at all! It would not have been an online system for sure, it would have just been that we all had to go home and just stay there, I guess. It would have been a complete disaster! I mean, in that time, if I think back to then, it’s just unthinkable! I would have had to just stay at home and teach myself and my brother! And my brother and I would probably have killed each other. If I had to spend that much time with him then I would not be standing here today!
What was a typical day at your ballet school like?
When I first went to Ballet school where we did academics and dance, we would have academics till twelve o’clock, and then three dance classes in the afternoon. After you finish your academics course you stay for another three years where you have just dance the whole day. We would have ballet at eight in the morning, and after that a jazz class, a contemporary class, and then maybe a drama class. Then in the afternoon, two more ballet classes. You dance for eight hours, except for the singing lessons, for which I would be told to go to sleep instead, because my voice is so loud, as you all know. I have the volume, just not the beauty. So I used to go to sleep. Yeah, there would be three ballet classes a day, maybe a technical class, a pas de deux class and a more free class, and two other dance classes, which could be – jazz, character, contemporary. We had a class called Horton Technique, as well as Graham and Cunningham classes.
Are you aiming for that sort of structure for the future of TLFCB?
Yes, I absolutely want that structure here, that is what we are aiming for. A full time, vocational ballet school. I have students who have gone abroad to train, because what they want is not available here in India. The cost abroad is so huge, it is not affordable. This is why I think it will work so much better if we recreate that structure here so that we can train people to perform and also to teach. We want it to be of a high, international standard, we want to be Asia’s best ballet school. Even in London, when I was teaching, there were a lot of students from Asia who would come to audition.I taught at two full time ballet schools, as well as the school I went to. They had boarding school and I was the person who was sent once a week from our school, to the boarding school to teach. There were a lot Asian students there as well. Yes, a lot of Asians go abroad to train at vocational ballet schools; there are not many schools like that in Asia. This is why we want to be Asia’s best ballet school. We will, of course, have to get other full time international teachers here, we can’t do it all ourselves. We have to keep what we have right now going, while creating the team and infrastructure needed for a vocational ballet school. And that is what we are working for for the TLFCB of the future.
Leave a Reply