Sanjay Khatri talks to Roshni Nair about the trials and tribulations of being India’s first male ballet dancer
By Roshni Nair
October 26, 2014
[Mumbai, Maharashtra, India] – Sanjay Khatri’s life would never be the same after he watched Farukh Ruzimatov dance. “Those jumps and spectacular turns resounded in my head long after I’d switched off the TV,” says the 30-year-old about the time he first watched a ballet performance on DVD. Ruzimatov, one of Russia’s finest danseurs (male ballet dancers), was Khatri’s first exposure to the world of ballet. Hailing from Narela on the Delhi-Haryana border, he’d grown up helping his grandfather on the family farm. Western dance, leave alone ballet, was as alien as it could get.
Khatri, India’s first male ballet dancer, hadn’t even heard of ballet until he was 19. Which means it would be futile to call him India’s Billy Elliot, because Elliot took up ballet when he was 11. Khatri was a year short of 20 when he decided to learn the dance form. Although one is never too old to learn anything, it’s common belief that ballet should be taken up at a tender age. “That’s a misconception,” he informs. “Most dancers in South Korea, for example, start at the ages of 16-20.”
Being a male in what’s perceived to be a female-centric art form brought its peculiar challenges. Khatri, who attended his first ever ballet class at Delhi’s National Ballet & Academy Trust of India (NBATI), remembers it like it happened just yesterday. “It was 16th August 2002. I’d signed up to train under Fernando Aguilera, who has his own ballet company now (Imperial Fernando Ballet Company or IFBC). I was the only boy in a class of 21,” says the danseur. That the few boys who joined thereafter only to drop out later didn’t help matters. “Although my mother was always encouraging, people would ask why I couldn’t do something worthwhile or find a real job. I was looked down upon by many,” he recalls.
Not one to be deterred, Khatri started teaching ballet to children at Delhi’s American Embassy School barely a year after learning the dance form. His steely resolve to become a professional ballet dancer bore fruit in 2005, when he got a scholarship to attend a workshop in Teatro Colón, Buenos Aires, Argentina. This trip would serve as the other turning point in his life. “In India, I was the only boy consistently doing ballet. In Buenos Aires, we had 50 boys in our class,” says Khatri. His two-month stay in Argentina spurred him to become dancer-instructor at IFBC and eventually open two ballet schools — Nijinsky Ballet School in New Delhi and Central Contemporary Ballet in Mumbai.
But things were difficult on the money front. The willowy Khatri, one of three children, was brought up by a single mother after his father passed away when he was three. Financial struggles are something he’s familiar with — such as the time he went to South Korea for a workshop and didn’t have enough money to stay in a hotel beyond a few days. “Even if I saved money in India by teaching ballet, it’d be tough when I went abroad. But my Korean teachers and colleagues were kind. Their hospitality is why Seoul is my second home,” he says fondly.
Khatri has performed abroad with prestigious ballet schools such as Universal Ballet Company and American Ballet Theatre. His repertoire includes Giselle, Paquita, Don Quixote, Sleeping Beauty, La Bayadere, Le Corsair, Romeo & Juliet and Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake — perhaps the most well-known ballet composition of all time. But it was the part of Ali in Le Corsair that he found the most challenging. “It required tremendous acrobatics and artistry. I had just five years’ experience when I performed it. As part of my preparations, I watched videos of Farukh Ruzimatov almost 200 times a week,” he says.
Ballet, being the demanding dance form it is, has a set of criteria — although not written in stone — for appointing dancers. Such as the preference for shorter, small-boned ballerinas. Interestingly, the height criterion doesn’t extend to danseurs, shares Khatri, who is 5’11. “Being lithe is preferable. So is having great agility, posture, balance and focus. Yes, people think ballet is only for the thin and it’s true to a great extent. But these aren’t deal breakers. If not professionally, you can always learn ballet as a way to stay fit,” he explains. The other key difference between ballerinas and danseurs is the frequency of wearing pointe shoes. A requisite for ballerinas, pointe shoes aren’t common among male dancers, except for unorthodox roles in classical performances. Even then, Khatri says, he practices in them to gain strength and flexibility and to improve the arches of his feet.
Ask him to pick a favourite from French, Russian and Italian ballet forms, and he doesn’t hesitate to reply. “Russian. According to me, the Kirov Ballet Academy is one the best schools in the world. Its alumni includes some of the world’s best ever dancers — Rudolf Nureyev, Mikhail Baryshnikov and Natalia Makarova.” His reverence for Russian ballet is particularly why he beams when talking about Prince Sharma, one of his students. “Prince enrolled for our Young Artist Programme at Nijinsky for aspiring professional dancers. He now has a full scholarship to go to Kirov Ballet Academy in Washington D.C.,” shares a visibly excited Khatri.
Of the young dancers who’ve signed up for Sanjay Khatri’s Young Artist Programme, 80 per cent are male. Some parents, the danseur says, are reluctant to have their daughters learn from a male ballet dancer. But the mindset, he adds, is gradually changing. As are the number of students and the approach to ballet.
“Some used to think ballet can be learned in six months. But it takes at least 5-6 years to give a stage-worthy performance and a lifetime to master. People realise that now and acknowledge that ballet is nothing short of art,” he concludes.
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