How A Scene From ‘Billy Elliot’ Led Pia Sutaria To A Life Of Classical Ballet

On International Dance Day, one of India’s most popular ballet dancers tells us about her journey and future plans.

Published On Apr 28, 2023 | Updated On Feb 22, 2024

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In a country as rich in art and culture as India, the decision to opt for a Western dance form such as classical ballet comes as a surprise. But there’s no doubt that the delicate plié, enchanting pirouette and strong arabesque spin magic for the viewers. So it is no surprise that more and more young dancers are keen on learning the dance form.

However, for the 27-year-old Pia Sutaria, learning classical ballet from the young age of five, even in a metropolitan like Mumbai, was an adventurous journey. She trained under Tushna Dallas, the foremost ballet teacher in India, for 10 years before she could plan a professional future in the dance form.

It wasn't an easy journey to become a professional dancer and then a trained teacher, Pia shares with us during the interview. To fulfil her dream of becoming a performing artist, she trained in jazz and modern dance. She travelled across the world with Navdhara, a dance collective, and in 2017, completed her postgraduate teaching degree from the Royal Academy of Dance in London. Not one to rest on get laurels, Pia went on to perform in three on stage shows in the UK. She then cracked a full scholarship to study Masters in Musical Theatre at the Royal Academy of Music in London in 2022. 

We were speaking to Pia as a danseuse for International Dance Day. Edited excerpts:

I think for me, it was the music. I've always really connected with Western classical music. Tara and I (Tara Sutaria is Pia's fraternal twin) often joke about how we feel like we're born in the wrong time (laughs). Even today, with ballet music, I feel like I'm in my zone, meditating. Ballet has an extraordinary amount of structure and those guidelines work for me. But more than anything else, it was the film, Billy Elliot. In the last scene, the boy does this leap—that visual stayed with me and eventually inspired me to take up ballet. And I was just five years old at that time. Then, over time, obviously, it took a lot of determination to keep going because it is a very challenging art form and it pushes you a lot mentally and physically.  

I would have loved to have learned Indian classical growing up. The first thing I realised when I went abroad was how much it lends to you as a dancer. And the expression especially. But I feel like there's a lot of similarity between the two. Now that I've done a little bit of Indian classical and many of my students also train in Indian classical, I’ve realised there is a specificity in the two, in the way of learning and the way artistry and technique is developed. So I think there's a big misconception about ballet and Indian classical dance. When I was young and learning ballet, I was told that I could not do both. But after training, performing and dancing all over the world, I know it’s not true anymore. The expressiveness of Indian dance adds a lot of colour to someone who's training in classical ballet. Most importantly, it’s the discipline that binds the two of them together. I feel like they can complement each other really well.

We are living in a completely different India today from when I was young. When I started learning, there was one qualified ballet teacher in Mumbai, and I was fortunate to have access to her. Today, there are schools popping up pretty much every year. There is also a whole generation of dancers who are branching away from traditional and formal educational systems and are open to newer formats. The appreciation and understanding of classical ballet have grown tremendously. A lot of it also has to do with access to YouTube and Instagram—the internet has exposed younger dancers to a larger universe when it comes to classical ballet, something that was not there when I was growing up. There is also a huge difference in training. We have students who are now placed in some of the biggest conservatories in the world.  

Yes, of course. I always knew I wanted to pursue classical ballet professionally. But there was a huge gap in the understanding, in the difference between vocational training and hobby training. Despite having the best of training that I could have had in Mumbai, there was no mentor who could hold my hand and take me from point A to point B and explain that if I wanted to do classical ballet professionally, I need to be training for a number of hours every week or apply to a school to go to a conservatory. There was no one who could talk me through that path. So when I got to the age of 14 or 15, there was no real opportunity in India. But I was stubborn, and while I knew teaching would be an eventuality, I wanted to be a performer. I also realised that I did not have adequate training to apply to the Royal Ballet School in England. I took the decision then to transition into learning jazz and modern and contemporary dance because at least that was an opportunity to perform on stage and grow. A lot happened between the age of 15 to 25, and I finally made it to the conservatory, though not for ballet but for musical theatre. It was a full circle and a lot of work to get there but I made it happen for myself and for which I'm very grateful.

I consider myself fortunate that I am one of the handful of Indian dancers, who’ve trained in India and represented our country internationally. I am grateful that I've been able to live my dream of being a performer on stage, not for just a show or two, but for months on an end. I had lead roles performed in three shows in the UK. The musical, Bombay Superstar was my first show, where I played the character of Mala. Shortly after that, I did a show with the Welsh National Opera, titled Migrations. The third was a play, excerpt from the play Settling, at the prestigious Criterion Theatre.

Each of these opportunities represented, not just me as an Indian performing artist but also my skill and training. At the same time, being on stage and rehearsing for a real show, it is the best education. The practical experience getting on stage every day, doing the same show eight times a week in front of an audience is priceless.

I think my favourite show ever was actually one of the shows I did on Bombay Superstar towards the end of the tour. There's a custom in the UK where you can prank each other during the show in a way that doesn't affect the it. And so I was pranked! I was laughing hysterically on the stage and all the while thinking that this is it and it is the end of my career in the UK. How could I do be breaking character on a professional stage? But at the end of the show no one realised and everyone thought it was part of the show. The biggest learning from that moment, for me, was that you don't have to be perfect but you need to be able to enjoy the process.

It is a personal opinion, and it is subjective, but access to training for classical ballet is far easier in the West and from a very young age. Whereas in a city like Mumbai, the interest and commitment to pursue it only happens during college. So training in classical ballet at that age is difficult but jazz is comparatively easier and might get faster results. Classical ballet is a long-term commitment. Starting at the age of 20-21, the rigour is not easy to keep up with. A lot also has to do with music. Modern and jazz dance is more flexible with the kind of music you can use. Hindi, pop, hip hop or any music that you listen to allows you the joy and that release in dance.  

I must give credit to Tushna. She was a mentor and she really helped me shape a lot more than just my dance. I've always looked up to her and I've always wanted to be like her. But for me, teaching was never my goal. I always wanted to be a performer. I also realised I was naturally inclined to teach. Even today, I'm constantly torn between — should I spend more time teaching or should I spend more time performing? However, I found my real passion and purpose in education. 

This is also at the core of ICMD. It is a space for training, facilitation and learning — that I missed when I was young. It is what has fueled me since I was 21; to build that infrastructure and base in India and bridge the gap between a hobby class and a vocational education for performing arts and for dance. It all started when a lot of young students came to me for advice because I had danced professionally and had studied in London and recently returned. They wanted to know how to do the same. 

I knew that I was doing it for the sake of being on stage, but not because contemporary dance is my passion. That is when I went to London to do my teacher’s training while I started planning what my next steps would be. It was also when I was recovering from my first shoulder surgery. It was telling to realise the difference between how I had trained and how a lot of my colleagues in London had trained and the gaps in India.

When I was 15, my parents were very open-minded, but they still wanted me to finish my graduation, not because of any fault of their own but just because it's the traditional path here in India. If someone had sat them down and explained that ‘your daughter, with her talent, is at the right age to pursue a degree in dance,’ it would’ve been a different story. Traditional college education can be pursued later as well, but formative years in dance, once missed will never come back.  

This is a very real conversation that I have with a lot of parents now. Today, young dancers have the option of getting a bachelor’s degree in performance arts from an internationally reputed institution. It is also a viable career path. At the end of the day, it is about clear information being offered for everyone to make an informed decision. We’ve been fortunate at ICMD that many parents have seen the potential and have encouraged and supported their children. We've also done so much fundraising for some of our students.  

ICMD alumni today are at or have been to prestigious performing arts schools like Juilliard, NYU Tisch, ArtsEd London, Paris Marais Dance School, The Alvin Ailey School, Joffrey Ballet and many more!

It’s been hectic, I'm not going to lie! I’ve spent the last two and a half years shuttling between London and Mumbai. When I'm in London, I've been performing and when I’m in Mumbai, I've been teaching. And I feel the two of them are working well together because the more I grow as a performer, the more I'm able to give first-hand information about what a career in dance really looks like. It's involved personal sacrifice on my end because I've not had much of a life outside of performing and ICMD. But I'm really enjoying it and I'm very lucky that I have a really strong team at ICMD. It is a team of incredible teachers who hold the fort for me.  

Gosh! I’m in the midst of a very tricky and crucial phase where I'm recovering from my second shoulder surgery. I've been a planner all my life, but I've had to rethink and reconfigure a lot recently because my body is taking some time to cooperate with what my mind and heart want, which is great learning! I'm hoping to get back to the stage and continue performing very soon, and for that to lend to what I'm able to offer as an educator and a mentor to my students. That's my personal goal.  

I also feel classical ballet or dance is a gift that I was given and I would love to share it with more people. I had taken some workshops in Bhutan a few years ago because there's literally no ballet in Bhutan! This year, I'm hoping to travel a little bit more and take the dance form to other countries similar to India that don't have access to any classical ballet education. For ICMD, I want to develop and offer a full-time qualification where students can get a degree in dance and performance in India.


Photo: Instagram/Pia Sutaria

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