A planned vacation to Italy turned into an unexpected twist of fate for Ambili Abraham. This is the story of Italy’s whirlwind romance with Bollywood dance and how she was at the centre of it all.
Deepthi Sreenivasan –
The year 1999 was coming to an end, the world was at the cusp of entering a new millennium and countries prepared themselves for the vicious yet uncertain Y2K bug. Italy too was gearing up to face a virtual uncertainty, something quite alien to comprehend back then. Around the same time, a young dancer from half the World away travels to Italy. Her idea was a swift vacation and then to return home to India. But fate had something different for her. Amid the Y2k frenzy the pasta-loving, wine bibbing Italians learnt something new – Bollywood dance thanks to Ambili Abraham. Born in Aizawl, Mizoram, Ambili is the embodiment of India’s diversity. “ My mom Miriam Abraham is from the North-East and my dad Abraham T K is from Kerala. Though I was born in Aizawl, I did my schooling in Kerala, Delhi, Mizoram and Kolkata. So, in a way, I know a lot about our different traditions and cultures and that helped me develop knowledge about the different kinds of dances. I have travelled so much within the country, I could say the whole of India is my hometown,” she says as she goes down memory lane.
Ambili’s tryst with dance started when she was fairly young and for that she thanks her grandmother. “My grandmother, Joy Abraham, is the reason I started dancing. I used to be very shy and reserved. When I was five she forced me to dance because I was not interested in taking part in extracurricular activities in school,” she says with a chuckle. Dance is something that helped shape her as a person, she says. “It has always given me strength, courage and respect.” Ambili says she still looks back at all her dance performances from her school days “ I remember we had so many teachers who taught different kinds of dance forms and I can still recollect a lot of the things I’ve done, even some of my costumes. It all had such an impact on my life.” Her first stage show was when she was just five years old, a group dance. These experiences eventually led her to take up formal training in Bharatanatyam at the age of ten. A proud ex-Teresian, Ambili has had the opportunity to participate in many dance competitions during her college days at St Teresa’s College, Ernakulam. “I dedicated the most important parts of my life to Bharatanatyam and while I was in Delhi I also got to learn the basics of Kathak.” Her knowledge of two major Indian classical dance forms along with her understanding of folk dances helped her become a versatile dancer.
A life-changing vacation
Ambili went on a vacation to Italy with her family in 1999, she planned to return. “But then life just changed, that was destiny and I stayed back.” Sounding elated she says, “So I have been doing stage shows from the 2000s and started teaching here too around that time. This is the 20th year of my dance career in Italy and I think I should be celebrating it!”
How it all began
Ambili’s first show in Italy was in 1999 for a cultural programme organised by the Indian embassy. One of the viewers in the crowd, an event manager, who was organising a festival for Asians, approached her and asked if she would be interested in doing more shows. While she had no plans of taking that offer and thought of returning to India, she eventually agreed to do the show.
Ambili had the biggest revelation about Italy after she started receiving more proposals for bigger shows. “I needed more dancers and started searching for good dancers. That is when I got to know that Bollywood was absolutely alien to Italians, nobody knew anything about Indian cinema. It was a surprising fact for me because I could not imagine that Bollywood that is so well known everywhere was still a foreign subject in Italy.”
This got her curious. “I was curious about checking what exactly the Italian crowd knows about Indian culture. I just wanted to see the reaction of the public after watching an Indian dance, because after a very small survey I found out that while a few people have performed Indian classical dance forms, there was nothing about Bollywood!”
“Today one can hear all sorts of Indian music in Italy, be it Bhangra or Bollywood, but back then there was nothing,” says Ambili who then decided to rope in Italian dancers to form her dance troupe. “I felt that this would be a good way to reach the Italian crowd.” Her search for dancers ended in the neighbourhood she was living in at that time. “There was a dance school named ‘You can dance’ right next to where I was staying and I approached them. I heard the school had good dancers and checked out all the courses taught there. In fact, I too was interested in taking up one of the Jazz courses. So I went ahead and met the school director Marco Santinelli.”
To her surprise, the director too was hearing about Bollywood for the first time from her and got curious to see the dance form and agreed to help her by providing dancers. “I taught the choreography and got the technical part right. I was not going to touch classical music for the dance and had planned to use modern music. So in a way the dancers already knew how to move and with that, I did a casting in the school and selected two female dancers.”
Ambili went the ‘Gurukula’ way to teach them the choreography for the show, where the dancers would come home and practice for hours. “The show was not too huge; I had a 15 to 20-minute space. But that was the first time we did a group show in Italy,” she reminisced. There was no looking back for Ambili from that point onwards. The director of the dance school approached her and asked her to perform the same dance number at the end of the year annual stage show. “I presented this number and that was it. A crowd full of Italians, they saw something really new that was similar to their moves, as Bollywood dance has a few modern moves, that too along with a completely new kind of music. They were so thrilled to watch it, that they started asking me about conducting a dance course, she said.
“Marco was bombarded with requests that he requested me to start classes in his school,” she says. Ambili took up the offer, but her teaching technique was different. “I decided to share my knowledge about Indian dances and thought let’s see what happens.” Well, that turned out to be the first ‘Bollywood dance course’ in Rome!
“Doing Bollywood dance is not just about Indian cinema, you have so many styles. When you take a semi-classical dance, there are classical moves which are mixed with folk dance as well. It also showcases Indian culture. More people started talking about it and in a way I was so proud about doing all this.” Elaborating about her dance company, Ambili says, “We are a 10-member troupe called ‘Bolly Masala Dance Company’. One of the intentions behind starting the company was to include male dancers as well because to give the authentic flavour of Bollywood you must have both male and female dancers.”
Ambili felt that without including male dancers in the crew she would be giving out the wrong message to the public. “B’wood is such a big fusion, it has so many styles and I think I should be honest with what I’m doing.” She also insisted on having professional Italian dancers in her team. Ambili explains the reason behind the choice “Because I wanted to make this dance known among them as well, and I chose not to go on performing with just my students or just with the female crew.” The Ernakulam native knew that to give the performance the right quality she would require professional dancers, “I always chose versatile dancers through the casting call. I now have dancers from across Italy and the crew is a mix of permanent members and others who collaborate for different shows.”
Over the years the troupe participated in several Embassy cultural events and television shows such as the Italian version of the hit show ‘Dancing with the Stars’ called ‘Ballando con le Stelle’, Miss Italy finals, local TV shows, Capri Hollywood festival and Rome Film festival. The crew has also been working with the Oriental festival called Festival dell’Oriente since 2012 onwards and has been doing regular shows all over Italy, until the pandemic hit. “We used to be booked out for 40-50 dates in a year and were always travelling. Unfortunately, now it has all stopped, but hopefully, we can start again,” she says with an air of positivity.
When asked to pick out one of her favourite performances by the troupe till date she says, “I honestly cannot pick just one right now, because I think the best is yet to come. I am also very critical about everything I do. Each of our performances is precious since it helped me understand the limits and to cross it. All our performances helped me grow as a professional, you learn a lot each time, even if you are making an error. Each show has a story behind it. What I appreciate is that these stories helped me grow as a dancer and choreographer.”
Ambili has multiple roles within her team. She is the team manager, choreographer and takes on the financier’s role and in her words “I also do the costume designing as well.” Ambili and her crew despite being in Italy still manage to pull off dazzling costumes on stage, the kind one might find only in India. “We have a huge Asian market here, where we have Indian cloth materials,” she explains. She makes sure not to have readymade dresses and puts in extra effort to design them and get it stitched from a local tailor. “I tend to make costumes that can respect Indian culture at the same time, something which can help the audience relate to when they are watching the Indian dances,” she says.
“Like I said, Bollywood is still quite new and people confuse it with belly dancing. The costume is something I have to be careful about, even the hairdo and the ornaments the crew is wearing; everything has to be well thought out. The costume should give the right idea – that I’m talking about India and not anything else,” Ambili elaborates.
Bolly Masala Dance Company during their initial days used to participate in a number of competitions as well, on Ambili’s insistence. “So we took part in a dance contest called ‘ Danza In Fiera’ in 2011, we also got recognition at the Capri film festival and the ‘Premio Mediterraneo’ which is an award ceremony for all the artists who have contributed to spreading their culture.”
Four-step teaching style
Ambili’s dance class currently has students aged between 7 to 65, from across the globe. When it comes to her classes, she has devised a four-step method to her teaching style. She explains about it and says, “I concentrate on four aspects before I start teaching. First of all, I should know the background of the person I’m going to teach. Since there are so many kinds of people who join the course out of which some are beginners, some who have never danced in their whole lives, some are professionals and as a teacher, I should know how to handle these groups.” She then goes on to inspect their body movements and postures. “It’s not just about Bollywood, it’s about teaching them the dance aspects. By ‘Dance aspects’ I mean that I am taking care of their body first. That is something that I’m really keen to talk about because people should have a real good connection with their own body, they know their own body the better they can move and there are fewer chances of them getting hurt while dancing. So as a first step I make my students understand their body and what their limits are and to cross those limits very slowly. Slow, yet in a very meaningful way. The importance of knowing one’s own body is the first step.”
She explains the second step of her teaching process which involves the process of giving her students a better grasp of what the message has to be while they are performing. “The student has to understand ‘Bhava’ and ‘Rasa’. If a song communicates a particular mood, the performer must know how to work within themselves to transmit that energy to the public.” While the first year of her classes goes into learning about the body with small dance sequences. When she starts choreographing, they have to learn about the message they are giving through that particular performance. Ambili goes on to explain about the third step and says “Before I select a song I should first explain the different cultural aspects that we have in India. The different traditions, cultures and customs we have. I have to explain the kind of dances that we have and how it is different in the South and North.” She moves on to the fourth step of her teaching process and says “Even if you are acting you should act naturally, use your emotions and expressions and not just copy, that is the fourth aspect that I teach and then I tell them the meaning of the lyrics which would help them interpret the song and perform better.”
Going the virtual way
During the initial stages of the pandemic, Italy was one of the worst-hit nations. Like any other field that has felt the gut-wrenching punch of the coronavirus, Ambili and her team too had their share of troubles. Before the pandemic, she even used to take her students on a study tour to India. “We are all at home. No shows are going on at the moment and I have begun taking dance classes online!” Ambili says she was never one to take classes online. “If not for COVID, I would’ve never done this. So many things that helped me understand a lot and even the way I communicate has changed quite a bit. But as soon as the pandemic is over, my students and I will visit Kerala.”
Ambili believes that her message through dance is to cross one’s limit and never stop. “If you want you can do it. When my students think along this line, when they know their body and cross the limits – that moment when a dancer can achieve what they aimed for – that is the satisfaction they get and I get. It is not just about dancing it is about knowing life and knowing the limits, crossing it and not leaving anything halfway.”