By Maya Haridas from En Avant Magazine July August 2023
Follow the inspiring journey of TLFCB ‘s outreach alumni – the now established contemporary dancer Anand Dhanakoti. From first being spotted by Yana Lewis at an outreach workshop in Cubbon Park to creating his own pieces inspired by his childhood on the streets. From doing his first ballet class in a t-shirt and basketball shorts to auditioning and winning a scholarship to The School of Contemporary Dance, Hamburg. This is a story of determination, passion and gratitude.
What was your first experience of ballet like?
Well, actually my first experience with Yana was not ballet, it was jazz. I met Yana when she came to the Born Free Art School (where I studied) to perform as part of the outreach program. John Devaraj and Mioi Foster-Nakayama invited the Yana Lewis Dance Company to come and perform at Cubbon Park for an event where there were jazz workshops happening for a lot of NGOs. After that Yana spotted me and invited me to come for free regular jazz classes every Sunday. It was an adults’ class and it was a bit weird for me to be there because I was, at 13, the youngest one in the class.
The jazz class started at around 11 am but I used to come at 10 am to watch the ballet class that used to happen before the jazz class. It was so interesting, all the children who were younger than me and were doing all these beautiful steps. I used to come early every week and watch the ballet classes from the outside. Yana used to observe me watching them and then one day she asked me, ‘Anand, do you want to join this class too?’ And I said yes. Because why not? I was coming anyway and I would get to learn more. I fell in love with jazz immediately but ballet scared me a bit because of the clothes. It felt odd for me to wear tights, ballet shoes, etc. as I wasn’t prepared for that mentality. Yana was so supportive though, she let me wear what I was comfortable with, which was a t-shirt and sports shorts.
So that is how I ended up taking my first ballet class. I couldn’t understand much of what Yana was saying because of her accent and the language barrier. I was just imitating the other people and getting by. I was so nervous! I felt embarrassed too because I thought I was doing everything wrong and was worried that Yana would kick me out! But as the weeks went by, excitement and joy began to get added along with the earlier fear and embarrassment and I started having fun.
As a child did you ever imagine that dance would become your way of life, of making a living?
I’ve loved dance since I was small. But coming from my financial background there was a mental block. I thought I would have a job and keep dance on the side as a hobby. At that time I thought I wanted to be a politician and social worker. I was always interested in going abroad and exploring the world, but as I progressed with my dance training I realised how much I loved it and how I could go abroad through dance as well. At some point I realised that dance was such a passion for me it was going to become a full time job.
Describe your experience learning under Miss Yana, especially as an outreach student.
In the beginning, because of the language barrier, it was very hard for me to communicate directly with her. Other people had to translate. But there was always a close connection even from the beginning. She used to always come to me smiling and happy. She’s never made me feel different from the others and never thought ‘Oh, you are an outreach scholarship student so you are less important than the others.’ Never.
As for the language barrier, she used to correct and help me by using body language to teach me. That made me connect and understand better. I understood that dance is a lot about expressing your feelings through your body. She has always been so caring. I used to go to ballet and jazz classes that she held at different locations in Bengaluru like Richmond Circle and Alliance Française, after school and on weekends. Because I was coming from so far away and I was leaving early in the morning, I didn’t have the time or space to carry food or anything. So Yana used to share her food and fruits with me.
Then she suggested that I do more classes and learn even more. So I used to come and do classes with all ages from little kids to adults. I used to do so many classes. But she always took care of me, getting me the right shoes and clothes and giving me breaks to eat. It formed a really close relationship. I almost spent more time with Yana than with my own mother.
In the beginning there were four other children who used to come from the Born Free Art School to Yana’s classes. They all quit after around one year. Then I used to go alone. But I never felt lonely because I loved Yana so much. It was a full package for me – dance, English, food and a teacher I loved. That connection with her made me strong. And she understood me so well.
When she told me to come for the little kids classes she said, ‘You’ve missed so many years since you started dancing ballet as a teenager. We start young to become professional dancers.’ I was so surprised that she saw potential in me to become a professional. It didn’t matter in which dance form, but she saw it. She used to call me for all these adults’ classes and yoga and fitness and all the other classes and company rehearsals. Finally she just said, ‘You can come to any and all classes, Anand. They will all help you to grow as a dancer’.
One day it was raining very heavily so she said, ‘Come by taxi. I will give you the money’. But I felt really bad. I had to come all the way from JP Nagar and it would cost a lot of money. She said ‘It’s okay. No problem’. But still I came by cycle and then walked in totally soaked. She was so annoyed with me and made me change into dry ballet clothes before joining class.
Yes, she took such good care of me. She never talked down to me. She gave me a lot of her super positive energy. She’s very strict and very powerful, though. She had to be very strong, coming from another country and working in India with a new culture and dealing with a lot of people. Watching her motivated me. I saw her teaching four to five classes in a row and she had the same high energy in all of them. It’s like she’s a machine. I never saw anyone with that much patience and passion to teach. She always gives her hundred percent and expects the same from her students.
That’s when I told myself, whatever you do, however big or small, give your hundred percent. Be patient and passionate, it doesn’t matter what you do.
How do you feel when you dance?
Like I can connect to nature. Each element of nature connects to the emotions of humans and dance ties this together for me.
Dance is such a powerful language, all cultures can understand it. I can use my body to speak to someone whom I cannot communicate with in any other way. That’s dance for me. Connecting with nature, and expressing unspoken words.
How has dance changed/helped you grow as a person?
I went to the Born Free Art school which was an NGO. Most of us there came from slums and were street children. I was a rag-picker and did child labour. At home, my parents had issues of their own. We all carried so much trauma and dance helped me come out of that. It was too much to express. Dance helped me escape from all that. In my background we don’t go to therapy or counselling. I’m not so comfortable talking to people about inner feelings.
Dance helped me to express more from all my experiences. I had so much energy as a child and dance helped me use it up as well as calming me down. Dance and movement in general. I’ve done so many things – football, gymnastics, hip hop, tai chi, kalaripayattu and jazz. And of course ballet.
All these gave me an identity. I began to understand that I am not like everyone else, I am different, special. And I liked that.
What have you performed with TLFCB?
A lot! A whole bunch of jazz pieces with YLDC (the Yana Lewis Dance Company). Cats was the first piece that I performed. It was amazing. So many people watching, the lighting, the costumes, everything! I was like, ‘Wow, this is my first real performance!’. I fell in love with performing in front of a big audience.
My first main character was in the ballet The Nutcracker, where I played The Nutcracker himself. And I was in the ballet Cinderella as well and in The Wizard of Oz.
The first payment I got as a dancer was with YLDC.
What made you choose contemporary dance?
A few contemporary dancers used to come to do ballet with Yana. I used to watch one of them in particular. I remember thinking, ‘Wow! He’s wearing loose clothes in ballet class. His way of expressing is amazing. He is also doing ballet but it looks very different from all the other dancers in the class. Who is this person?’
That was Nakula Somana, one of the first Indian contemporary dancers to work abroad. I spoke to him after class and asked him, ‘How do you move like that?’ I was so curious to know everything about him. And then he spoke to me in Kannada! I was so happy to be able to communicate with him in my most comfortable language. He taught me about contemporary dance and I fell in love with it. I had already done a bit of acrobatics and a bit of folk dance and ballet and jazz but contemporary allowed me to bring all of that together.
I was always like that. Even in school I never liked having to study subjects separately. I wanted to do it all and all at once. So contemporary made that happen for me. Everything is contemporary dance! Even daily life movements and activities. One more thing that inspired me was a performance by Akram Khan that I saw in Chowdiah Hall in 2009. I tried to sneak in without paying a ticket and it worked because I am not very tall!
The performance blew me away and that’s when I decided that I wanted to be a contemporary dancer. Soon after I took my first class with Nakula Somana and Mioi Foster-Nakayama. He gave me the chance to come whenever he was giving workshops and classes in Bengaluru. I started researching and talking to people and I found that most contemporary dancers learn ballet as a base foundation. Well, I already had that foundation so now I could build on it!
Please describe your journey from after TLFCB onwards.
At the Born Free Art School there were often volunteers who came from different countries to work with us and Yana came as well. So from my childhood itself I had this dream to go abroad and experience all the opportunities available there. By the time I was 17 or 18, I had made up my mind that I wanted to continue my dance training abroad. In those days we didn’t have online auditions and with my financial background I couldn’t just go abroad and hope for the best. Then very luckily, I got invited to a Non Violent Communication Conference in Germany to talk about child rights and being a working child. They sent me flight tickets and I said ‘Great! Here is my chance to do an audition at the same time’ It wasn’t the audition season but I was determined. I wrote to SEAD, the Salzburg Experimental Dance Academy, and explained my situation and they arranged a special audition just for me!
It was the first round of the audition which somehow I passed! Then they said I had to come for the final round which would happen after some time. I told them ‘Can’t I do it now, itself? I will have to pay the flight tickets otherwise and I am unable to do that’. But they said no because 600 other people would be auditioning in that round.
So I came back to India and collected all my savings. I sold my bike, asked some of my friends to support me and worked a part time job. I managed to put together the amount in time and flew to the audition. And then before I could perform my solo, I twisted my ankle. The audition was over and I was forced to come back to India without even getting a chance to perform for them. I walked out of the Bangalore airport with only 50 rupees left in my pocket.
I wasn’t ready to give up though, and I got in touch with Stefano Fardelli who was giving a workshop in the city at that time. He is really well connected and he shared my story on Facebook. Stefano Fardelli is a European dancer and choreographer who was working in India at that time. He called me, saw me dance and said ‘You have potential. I am going to help you go abroad.’ He had an organisation called EurAsia Dance Project International Network through which he could connect me to a lot of schools in Europe. He helped me to make a video and I was able to give my auditions without having to travel.
I got into the CDSH, Contemporary Dance School, Hamburg. It is a highly prestigious school and I was so happy. But they were only able to give a 50% scholarship for three years.
So I made a plan. I told myself not to get upset and think step by step.
And because I’d had the special online audition, I was accepted six months before all the other applicants – that was really helpful. It gave me time to prepare and sort things out. First I went to Yana and told her that I got in and told her my plan. She was so happy and I was relieved! I was a little worried that Yana was not going to support me since I had chosen Contemporary.
Yana and Elina Wisung helped me so much. They helped me set up my crowdfunding request. Elina especially helped with the technicalities, from writing a text for the crowdfunding to applying for other scholarships and Visa appointments until leaving India.
Then I got a scholarship from the Inlaks Shivdasani Foundation in Mumbai, India. This is a really good scholarship for students from India to study abroad. There were a lot of applicants but finally I got it. I was even the first ever Contemporary dancer to get this scholarship! So all together I was able to cover my tuition and then my travel and finally insurance for all three years! After graduating they even supported me to do Internships as dancer and choreographer with Adam Linder, the dance company Unusual Symptoms of Theater Bremen and David Zambrano.
To give an example of how difficult the whole process would be financially for someone from my background…Just the application fees (which everyone has to pay just to audition, before you even get in) was between 60 – 80 Euros. That’s my mother’s salary for a whole month.
Even after I got to Germany, Yana and Elina were so supportive. They would call me to check how I was doing and encourage me.
What was a typical day at the Contemporary Dance School, Hamburg like?
We had classes five days a week from 9am to 5pm. We would have a ballet class in the morning. Then we had4 classes which could be anything from – Modern, Cunningham, Graham, Flow Work, Contact Improvisation, Choreography, Choreographic mentoring or Improvisation to Anatomy, Singing, Acting, Pilates and Yoga. We also had masterclasses and workshops.
Now Peter Mani is starting his first year at the Contemporary Dance School, Hamburg. I’m really happy for him. It’s nice to have someone here whom I knew from childhood. He’s like a younger brother to me.
What are you working on now?
I am now creating my own pieces and working as a dancer with European Choreographers. I’m also developing my own teaching, dance and choreographic method. I’m giving workshops and master classes. Sometimes at the same school where I studied.
One piece that I choreographed recently is called Baalaya. It’s a 50 minute piece all about street life and experiences. A very well known Centre for Choreography, K3 Kampnagel, invited me for a residency to create and perform my piece there. I got funded by the state of Hamburg (Behörde für Kultur und Medien and Hamburgische Kulturstiftung) to create this piece. It was performed in June and we had a full house. All the tickets were sold out!
I am still waiting for a confirmation but most probably it is also going to tour Europe later this year.
I created another piece recently called Yali. It is in a dance short film and an installation performance with someone cooking on stage. The audience can come, see and smell. This connects them so fast to the performers. It will be shown at the Fluctoplasma Dance Festival this year.
A piece I created in Bengaluru with local dancers this year is called KeIli, which in Kannada means Hear me. Kelli is a multi disciplinary contemporary dance production, searching for answers to the realities of a society; a society segregated by caste superiority, questioning the physical impact of casteism and untouchability on a dalit body. Combining the elements from contemporary dance, South Indian folk dance, music, Kalaripayattu and physical movements from kabaddi and kho kho the performers will portray these questions that are hard hitting through their bodies. It is supported by the Nava Dance Theatre (The 2023 Unrehearsed Artist Residency Program from USA) and Beru Art Space and was already performed in a few festivals in Goa
I am working as a freelance artist right now but I recently went for a couple of dance company auditions too. Just for the experience. I was so surprised when one of the companies offered me a guest dancer contract. I am honoured but I already committed to other projects this year and I love being a freelancer because it allows me to teach, choreograph and dance instead of just performing. I can choose the people I want to work with and the projects I want to do. In seven months I have actually travelled to seven different countries. It excites me to get to know so many artists from different communities and cultures.
It’s an amazing life, truly. So much has happened in the last two years and I look forward to so much more.
If there is one thing that you could tell your younger self, what would it be?
That it’s okay to be different. Just believe in everything that you have within you.
Be with people who are positive and encourage you. Don’t be with people who give out a lot of negative energy. I did stupid things when I was young, and it is okay to make mistakes as long as you have the right kind of people around you to support and love you.