By Maya Haridas from En Avant magazine Jan-Feb 2023
Two weeks at the Australian Ballet School with Jazmine Bhanushali and Radha Nambisan
How and why did you decide to attend the Australian Ballet School Summer Program?
Radha – Ballet has always been a passion of mine and I’ve been looking to be a professional. In order to do that I wanted to have varied experiences with different teachers and methods, and of course the Australian Ballet School has this really great summer school.
Jazzie – I chose to go because I was looking into musical theatre and ballet school and I wanted to see if I liked that environment. I heard about this when we went to the UK and visited Nana Oto (a former student at TLFCB). I was talking about how I wanted to get involved in the dance world and she mentioned this summer school she had attended at the ABS and suggested that I try it too. When we came back, Miss Yana spoke about it to Radha and we decided to go together.
What did you expect?
Radha & Jazzie – This was our first time entering a professional environment and we expected a lot of high class dancers and a high level of teaching. We just expected to gain a wide range of new ballet and dance experiences for which, as yet, there is no scope in India.
What kind of people were your fellow students – did you face any cultural differences?
Radha – Everyone there was really nice and it was really interesting to meet people who were so involved in the dance world. The majority of the people were from Australia or New Zealand, with a few from Japan as well. I think the biggest thing is just their access to the ballet world. You know, ballet in India is very limited. In Australia they have such wide access, like exposure to a lot of ballet to watch live, different brands of ballet shoes coming to Australia, and so on. Of course, they have the ability to dance full-time, too – not doing normal school but dancing. Those kinds of things aren’t accessible to dancers in India as yet. I think that’s the biggest difference.
Jazzie – Yeah. That is the biggest difference. And they’re all really nice people and it was great to learn from all of their experiences. They’ve been to a lot of major ballet companies/schools for summer schools and competitions. At first we assumed that they were going to be really over intense or, well, maybe unfriendly.
Radha – There are a lot of stereotypes about the dance world. Ballet in particular. You always see the mean girl who’s a ballet dancer. Everyone here in our studio in Bangalore is so nice, but we had heard stories from a lot of people about how the atmosphere can be quite unpleasant. So we were a bit worried about going out into a dance world where we might be fish out of water. We didn’t know what to expect, but it wasn’t like that at all at ABS. Once we got to know the dancers they were all really friendly and basically nice.
What was each class you attended like?
Radha & Jazzie – This was something we were very familiar with, it’s what our usual classes look like.
Jazzie – Some things were different, though. We did every single section in the syllabus in every class. Usually we would do either frappés or rond des jambes. But there it was everything, everyday. Radha – What stood out to me was that everything was very fast paced. The teachers would tell you the combination quickly and you would do it (only one set on each side) and they would immediately move on to the next combination. That enabled us to go through the entire syllabus in one class.
Radha & Jazzie – We would warm up like regular pointe class. And then move on to variations. It was a unique struggle, because here we go through a regular ballet class on pointe with emphasis on demi-pointe work and relevés. We usually learn variations on flat and then convert it onto pointe whereas there we learnt variations directly on pointe.
Radha – I learnt a Swan Lake Act 3 Variation, Bluebird from Sleeping Beauty and Raymonda pizzicato variation.
Jazzie – And I learnt Swan Lake Act 3 Variation, Bluebird from Sleeping Beauty and a Le Corsaire variation.
Radha & Jazzie – The warmups were super upbeat and fun. They were like ballet, but not ballet. There was an emphasis on strengthening . We would do abs and pushups every day which really prepares you for the rest of the class. Then we would do turns. We did a lot of turns a la seconde, which was a little bit different because they are often considered a boys’ step. Then across the floor work – that was a challenge because we did a lot of ‘tricks’ or high level jazz steps like axel turns and double back attitude jumps turning.
Radha – After learning the steps, we moved on to choreography, which the teacher created herself. That was really interesting because we got to experience a whole variety of styles. In my mind before, jazz was a category on its own but there I found that there are so many types and styles within jazz.
Jazzie – Yeah. Both weeks we had different choreographies and the contrast between them was very striking. My first week one was very ‘Broadway, Fosse’ style while the second one was more upbeat and quick paced and felt more familiar to me. Radha – For me the first week felt hip-hop-esque and the second week felt more modern.
Radha & Jazzie – So this was not a dance class as such. As the teacher described it – he wasn’t teaching us to dance. He was teaching us to be dancers. So he would guide us every day on a different way to create choreography. He did teach us one phrase of his own creation, but everything else we ourselves created through fun exercises.
Jazzie – We created a solo where he gave us a set of numbered steps, for example, hop was 1, drag – 2, walk – 3 , leap – 4, roll – 5, etc. All the way up to number 9. And then he told us to create a phrase using our phone number and its corresponding steps!
Radha – We also created a duet where he gave us these coloured sticker circles and we played twister! We stuck the circles on our joints – elbows, knees, wrists, ankles etc. Then he would spin a colour spinner. If the colour was blue then we would touch our blue, say wrist, to our partner’s blue ankle, and so on until a phrase was created.
Radha & Jazzie – We learned the general basics of flamenco and some technique too. Radha – Well, in flamenco I was really out of my element. Both Jazzie and I had never done flamenco before and quite honestly, we were really unfamiliar with what flamenco even was. So, it was really interesting to get to try something so new.
Jazzie – Yes, we basically had no idea what we were doing! But for me, at least, once I got the hang of the style, it was really fun to embody and find this different kind of character that I’ve never explored before. The first week was especially fun, when we did a lot of swishy work with big skirts. After that it was flamenco technique which was mainly flamenco porte des bras – left arm twirling up, then right up, then left down, right down, both up, both down, and on and on. Which was, if I may be entirely honest, just a teeny bit boring.
Radha – Also all the teachers were really eccentric.
Jazzie – Yeah, that’s the word. They would make all these noises when they were teaching like – Pah! It was entertaining just watching them teach.
Radha – There is one thing I would like to add, which is that during ballet technique and pointe variations, we had a live pianist. Oh, and during flamenco we had a live guitarist! I think that was a really unique experience. Here of course, ,we have recorded music. So it was really interesting to hear how a class functioned in parallel to the music.
Jazzie – Yeah, because there was a pianist we didn’t have to do the exercise more. The music stopped when the exercise stopped. The teacher would tell them to play a four count introduction or a two count introduction. It was like the music was customised to what we were doing. That especially came into play during variations class. For example, if there was one section that was maybe too fast, the teacher was like, can you slow it down a bit, or can you speed this up a bit? They’ve got it already. We tried practising the variations we did there from the music on YouTube when we got back and it was very different because the musicians were there in the room and they played the music to us.
What was each day like?
Radha & Jazzie – 8:45 Arrival time, 9:15-10:45 Classical ballet, 11:00-12:15 Contemporary choreographic workshop, 12:25-1:45 Pointe/female variations, 2:00-3:00 Spanish/Flamenco, 3:15-4:30 Jazz/Broadway. Classes ended at 4:45.
What about meals? Was lunch provided at the centre, what did you eat?
Radha & Jazzie – Generally they provide food at the ABS canteen but this time they could not. Due to covid or the fact that the AB company was using the space as well. We are not sure, exactly. So we had to take things from the apartment kitchen, mostly we took tofu sandwiches:)
What did you do in the evenings? Did you explore the city?
Radha & Jazzie – In the evenings we mostly just recovered from the day and stretched out our muscles, but we did find time to enjoy the sites Melbourne had to offer. We visited parks, markets, and museums, went ice skating, and even got to see Phantom of the Opera. We would have loved to be able to spend much more time exploring, though.
Overall how was the program different/similar to what you expected?
Radha – I was expecting it to be a lot more intense than it was and the teachers, they took it quite easy. The classes, though they were long, weren’t particularly tiring. One thing I was afraid of was being far behind the other students, because we don’t know what they would be like. For all we knew we could be like way, way behind everyone else.
Radha & Jazzie – We definitely weren’t the best. There are obviously so many talented dancers who are doing it full-time and they’re, of course, much more advanced than us. We have a long way to go to be at their level. But we also weren’t the worst.
When you returned to India, what aspects of your dancing have grown, been discovered?
Radha – I think the biggest thing for me was just the artistry of it. They focused a lot on the flair. The use of your body, your upper body, the use of your arms. They didn’t really focus as much on technique. Miss Yana has a really strong emphasis on technique, which is good for the basics. To build on. As we already had that strong, technical foundation we were able to use our time at ABS to grow from there in different ways.
Jazzie – Yes, though we had a certain amount of technique before we went, there was always that element missing. That ballet school flair and finishing. When we came back, we noticed that we looked more like vocational ballet school dancers.
What are your plans for the future now that you have experienced life at a dance school?
Radha – So personally, this was an experiment to see what I really wanted, and I have never had a better experience. It was really one of the happiest times in my life. For the future, I am looking at full-time schools as well as summer programs and spring programs to do in the meantime. We have both been preparing to send our photo auditions to these schools and colleges.
Jazzie – I feel like it was a really eye-opening experience. I went to see if I wanted to pursue dance in my future, and it was definitely a confirmation of yes, that’s exactly what I want to do.