Interview with Urvil Shah: Dancing Beyond Borders – Part 2

By Rati Pednekar

As a teenager, Urvil Shah loved dancing (and winning) at college fests. One day, his friends told him they had joined a dance class and convinced him to come and watch. He thought he’d go for a half hour or so but ended up staying till 9.30 in the night. And then he kept going back. That is how Urvil came to join the Danceworx Academy.

At present, Urvil’s career has taken him to more than 16 different countries. Not only has he performed on international stages, but he has also worked alongside international dancers and choreographers.  Here are some anecdotes and pieces of advice that could help you on your own international dance journey:

How did you move to the international stage?

After I had been teaching at Danceworx for a while, the director Ashley Lobo formed a contemporary touring company called Navdhara India Dance Theatre. He was making a production for it when he saw me taking a class and told me I should be a part of it. So, I started going to rehearsals and it ended up working out.

We went go on international tours, each one a month or a month and a half long. The training was intense but I really enjoyed it. I even became a soloist for one musical production and one contemporary production.

Can you tell me something about your first international performance?

My first tour was to Israel and it was for a musical theatre production called A Passage to Bollywood. We were performing at the Suzanne Dellal Centre, one of the most prestigious centres there. I was one of the five soloists and I was playing an antagonist. I remember seeing my poster on the wall (each soloist had a poster) and taking a picture with it — it was just very surreal. I never thought it would turn out this way.

I also remember how I felt during the bows on my first show. I bowed down, came back up, looked at the audience and as I was walking back, told myself, “This is what I love doing and this is what I want to do for the rest of my life”. That feeling is something that will always stay with me. It was like suddenly, I felt a sense of purpose. Earlier, I did not know where I was going with my dancing. That first bow was an opening to a world of performing arts that I would come to really enjoy.

How did you decide to do a law degree at the same time?

I realised it’s better to have a degree as a backup. I had seen one of my teachers, an amazing dancer, suffer a bad knee injury that led him to a very different life. It gave me a reality check.

I found a college in Bandra that was lenient with attendance. I gave them letters from the government and from the company. The principal gave me two conditions — first, he told me to participate and make sure the college won in performing arts competitions, and second, he allowed me to skip classes and only attend exams as long as I clear them in the first sitting.

It was difficult. There were times when I would skip a semester and later, when students were giving four exams, I would be giving eight. During lunch breaks at rehearsals, I would open my textbooks and study. I didn’t live a college life, I got disconnected from other friends. At the time, I hated myself for taking this decision.

But now that I look back at it, it was great because there is a whole set of skills I’ve acquired because of law that help me when I’m navigating life. It has made me intellectual and creative in its own way and I can’t deny that.

How is dancing abroad different from dancing in India?

There are two things. One is how the audience reacts and the other is how the employers work with artists. I feel like there is a difference in both.

In India, when people think about what to do in the evening, they go to watch movies. Outside, they look for performances to go to. People get memberships, get the schedule for the entire year and really look forward to it. There is not much government involvement here — government funds, among other things — but it is there abroad. A lot of companies in Europe are State funded.

During my time working in the Netherlands, I realised that people really understood that you are a dancer. They understand the hours of work you’ve been through to get here. But here, I was recently talking to some friends working in musicals and apparently, they’re not treated that well.

It’s a cyclic thing. Here, the attitude is that there are no employment opportunities for dancers and they are only trained for the commercial scene. So they don’t start training early. And because of that the cycle continues. There need to be more employment opportunities, audience awareness and even government support to break this cycle.

In what way did the international experience feel fulfilling?

So, after a show, an audience would usually be waiting to take pictures with us, ask questions, and so on. And I remember meeting so many different people. You don’t know their culture, their language, but they look at you, hold your hands and cry because you made them feel something. I remember after this one show, I met an old woman. We’d never met before but I got the same feeling I would get from my own grandmother, who, in fact, had passed away a while before.

As a dancer, you are meant to get on a stage. Until then, you are just discovering your instrument but you don’t know what your instrument can create. As a doctor, until your first surgery, you don’t really know the effect of your purpose. My first surgery was performing my first show. I realised that that was what I was meant to do.

You’ve worked in more than 16 different countries. What is that like? Does the experience change from place to place?

Definitely. Because when you’re entering a foreign company, you aren’t just entering the company. It’s about how the whole country has lived, their understanding of art, the workings between their government and art. It affects your performance, the way you are looked at by the audience, the way you are paid and spoken to, everything.

For example, Russia is a very ballet-oriented country. They have a lot of funding for ballet but not for contemporary. If you go to Europe, you are going to have a very different understanding of contemporary. It has a lot of theatres and there is government funding. A lot of collaborations happen, so a choreographer from the Netherlands will be working in Germany, a choreographer from Germany will be working in Italy. You get exposed to different information, different resources, and you can build your craft that much more. In the end, I believe you are the sum of the people you have met, the experiences you have had and the conversations you have had.

How was the experience of working with international choreographers?

After I left Navdhara, I went to Russia where I worked with two choreographers. I was in Italy for almost a year, studying and working with a company called the Imperfect Dancers Company. In the Netherlands, I went on a collaborative project where Ashley was one of the choreographers and the other two were from the Netherlands.

Each choreographer has their own way of moving. And the beauty is that you get to understand a whole new kind of movement that is based on their training and experiences. It is like they’re speaking the same language but in a whole new different way.

Did you notice any cultural differences between you and dancers from other countries?

Yes! The Netherlands-based company had a dancer from California, one from Italy, one from Poland, one from Mexico and one from France. Similar to the choreographers, the way these dancers look at the same topic or the same movement will be different. Each one’s strengths and weaknesses are different. Just by being with them for hours in the studio, you get to learn so much!

One other thing I noticed about working abroad is that there is a very strong sense of working and resting. Because you’re an athlete, you need to rest your body. You have dedicated hours and dedicated work days. It does not just go on and on. That is something I learnt there, that if you’re rested, your output can be a lot more and a lot better.

Editorial Desk

Editorial Desk