By Rati Pednekar
One of the most memorable anecdotes from my interview with Aishwarya Raut is the story of how she got into dancing. It comes up in the middle of our interview, when she tells me that her mother saw her “bouncing around the house all day” and decided that that bucket-load of energy needed to be channelled elsewhere — ergo, dance class!
Clearly that was the right decision, since Aishwarya is now a professional contemporary dancer who has been working with the renowned UK dance company Rambert for five years. From the age of 8, she learnt dance from Shiamak Davar’s dance classes and eventually joined the company. For this interview, she was kind enough to give me some of her time and let me pick her brain on the experience of studying dance at an international university and later becoming a professional dancer at a company like Rambert.
Becoming an International Dancer
How did you decide to study abroad?
When I was 17, I decided to study dance and train specifically in contemporary. I was performing all the time but I wanted to learn more — the history, different types of movement and floor work, techniques I didn’t know yet. In India, I learnt to follow choreographies but there weren’t a lot of tools for creative thinking. At uni, I learnt a lot more improvisation and I was able to express myself the way I wanted to.
At the time, there weren’t a lot of options in India and the US was too expensive, so I decided to go to the UK instead. London was expensive so I looked at courses in other parts of the country. I did some research and found Jacqueline Jones, a teacher at Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts (LIPA) who used to be a dancer at Rambert. I found her CV and looked up the kind of dance she taught and decided that that’s the kind of dance I wanted to do.
What difference did the university make to your dancing?
At LIPA, I studied hip hop, ballet, jazz, and more but it all fed into contemporary. The difference, for me, was that the university looked at the art form as something to explore and not just learn. It helped me develop my own voice. In India, of course I was younger then and this was a few years ago, the dance environment was very passionate but there was little scope for individual practice. There wasn’t much encouragement to be individualistic. I found that freedom while studying at the university.
I was never encouraged that way In India, importance was given to tradition and technique before anything else. To be a full-fledged artist, you need technique in place but you also need to nurture the artist. When I started working I realised just how important having your own voice is. Everybody has a different way of moving. Training helps but what you bring to the choreography is different. And creators want to see you.
Did you face any obstacles?
I’ve been in the UK for 7 years now and there have been hard times. It was very physically demanding but being sore and exhausted felt good. It amplified my love for the art. But performers in the West start training at a fairly young age, even at 3 years old, and learn ballet and neoclassical styles of dance early on. I didn’t have the same training. The most important thing is to not be ashamed. There’s no point in telling yourself that you should have trained more or trained earlier. It took me a while to come to it, but I told myself that who I am now is equally valid and equally powerful. Those ‘weaknesses’ are my biggest strength because it makes me who I am today.
Also, people there can be ignorant. I got a lot of questions about how I know English and people made a lot of assumptions about my abilities and family background. It is not your responsibility to educate others but if you’re interacting with them every day, it is best to stand up for yourself when they make assumptions.
How did your experience affect your art?
One of the biggest things was moving from home and leaving behind all familiarity. You’re in the unknown and you have to become an adult, an individual. You’re living in a state of uncertainty but you make defining choices about the friends you make, the opportunities you get, and even the way you approach dance. Finding yourself can be scary but it is the biggest catalyst in your art.
Does your Indianness play into your dancing?
It does! It influences every moment of interpretation and gives me a unique perspective. I feel more confident when I draw from authenticity, although it has taken a lot of self-reflection to get here. And I’m always learning. I’ve developed my own individual voice. It’s grounded in my experiences and I generate movement from that, but it’s always changing.
Did you miss home?
My course was for 3-years and I visited my family in India once a year. I also met friends and took workshops. But there’s definitely a disconnect. Something feels missing but I would have to be home if I wanted to reconnect with dance in India. I would like to collaborate with people back home and create with them. If you move abroad, you will feel disconnected from home. But the knowledge, experience and different perspectives that you get in exchange make it worth it.
What is one performance that means a lot to you?
It has to be my audition for the junior company of Rambert. The auditions had gone on from 7am to 6pm over four days! Out of 500 people, 18 of us were selected for interviews. The hardest part was the waiting. I was staying with a friend and two weeks later, I got a call saying I got the position. The director said he saw my hunger and realised I wasn’t afraid to be an individual.
Can you tell me the process of how you got into Rambert?
So, I graduated in 2017 and returned to India but kept looking for auditions. And all that while, I did some short courses and kept myself in the loop of the dance industry in the UK. Then, my ballet teacher from LIPA mentioned an audition to me. I visited the UK on a tourist visa and auditioned at two different places. Spending that time and money was definitely a risk but I was sure I wanted to be there and keep performing.
Tools of the Trade
What advice would you give to other dancers who want to study abroad?
Do your research. Look for dance companies or theatre groups. Look them up on Instagram and read about what they do. Look for the institution’s teachers, dancers, alumni and reach out to them. Ask about their experiences and see if it aligns with what you want. Once there, you need to be curious and willing to learn. Seek out new people and dance with them, exchange ideas, make connections with incredible artists. Also, don’t stick to one way of moving. At your core, be like a sponge, soak in everything but make it yours.
Apart from contemporary, are there other dance styles that people can pursue abroad?
Yes. Contemporary was an obvious choice for me since they had the base training that I couldn’t find in India. Otherwise, there are a lot of opportunities for musical theatre and ballet. Musical theatre and places like the West End are very popular. And people go to watch ballet a lot. Ballet schools are very well recognized. There’s a good amount of commercial work in and around London as well — ads, movies and other screen work. At the moment, contemporary is more popular in Europe while hip-hop is still up and coming in England.
What is the financial scene like for professional dancers?
As a job, working in a company is financially stable but living in London is very expensive. So you meet all your expenses but it’s hard to save money. So dancers can do other projects like commercials to save up. Rambert allows us to do outside work as long as there’s no interference, so I suggest always asking your company if you can take up other projects. Outside London, it’s easier to save money but your pay also reduces by a little. Ballet companies are known for paying much more.
Freelancing as a dancer is tough. You would need to sign up with an agency that would then get you acting, modelling or video gigs. After doing some mock auditions at LIPA, an agency approached me and I still do some work for them. Doing both [a full-time role with a company and freelancing with an agency] is best. Don’t stick to one or the other but remember to always prioritise your company.