Classical ballet

The journey of two boys from Mumbai into the world of classical ballet

Yeh ballet kya cheez hai? What is this thing called ballet? asks Amir at the start of the film. Manish, who had saved up and treated himself to modern dance lessons around the same time, had no idea either. Just two and a half years later, both rose from very humble backgrounds to school at Oregon Ballet Theater in the United States on full scholarships. I had the privilege of documenting the end of their incredible journey.

My road to them was winding. My son Jahan, a student at Brown University, home for the summer, in the car on the way home from the airport, was excited about his new interest – wanting to make a virtual reality (VR) movie. I had just read an article about Anand Gandhi’s VR lab. I put Jahan in contact with Anand who was very welcoming. Jahan started working on his film in the lab and they approached me to make a VR film for them.

Always of the belief that you can teaching new tricks to an old dog, I was looking forward to learning something new. Of all the topics they presented to me, the one that immediately appealed to me was about two boys from very low-income families who had been discovered by an Israeli-American ballet teacher – Yehuda Maor – and were so good that They had been offered a scholarship for the Joffrey Ballet. But they couldn’t go because the American consulate had refused them a visa.

I chose it for personal reasons. I had learned ballet myself as a child in South Bombay.

The day begins

The first time I met them was in a café in Bandra. Manish, 21, with his high cheekbones, like a young Baryshnikov; Amir, only 15, but with the looks of a seasoned ballet dancer. Manish was more talkative; Amir, shy and silent. We crossed the road, the boys helping Yehuda negotiate the crazy traffic. We entered the church grounds, past the open church where a service was being held, to a secluded room.

Then I saw them dancing and they took my breath away. I found myself having tears in my eyes. It’s beautiful and rare to see such natural talent. I couldn’t believe they had only been learning ballet for two and a half years. Of all my years of ballet lessons, with all our privileges, our ballerinas without holes, not having to travel for hours by train to go to class, despite our advantages, there is not a dancer that I remember from my childhood who came somewhere near Amir and Manish.

We started filming them. Manish’s father is a taxi driver; Amir is the youngest of eight siblings and lives with ten happy family members in two small rooms in Sanpada, Navi Mumbai.

The parts I enjoyed filming the most were the class dances. We put the VR platform in the middle of the dance floor and had them dance around it. Even simple warm-ups – when they did them, you couldn’t take your eyes off them. They were effortless in their perfection of line, form and grace.

Amir and Manish with their teacher, Yehuda. Credit: Soni Taraporevala 2016

This time when they applied for a visa, we were there with our VR gear. Amir came in and came out with a neutral decision – he was missing a paper. They hadn’t turned him down but he was asked to come back when he got the fee receipt. Manish came in at 11 p.m. We waited and waited. He was one of the last to come out but when he did he was screaming and dancing. Poor Amir was still breathless.

Amir, who the day before had not cut his long hair, came back the next day with his hair cut short. I was there without cameras. He told the visa officer she looked like Misty Copeland. He also jumped out and did a backflip onto the sidewalk.

Now they had their visas, but as Yehuda said, there was a new problem. Find $10,000 for their tickets and the boys’ personal expenses and clothes for the year.

I approached friends, Yehuda approached his students. A mother of one of his students donated his plane tickets, a friend generously sent a large sum. But there was still a significant shortfall. I approached Tata Trusts. Although there was a time limit – they were due to start school in a few weeks – Tata Trusts generously stepped up and in no time they had the funds they needed in their bank accounts.

I was at Amir’s the night they left – we were to travel together to the airport. The two small rooms were crowded with the ten members of his family he lives with as well as friends and neighbors, all of whom had come to wish him well. I took many photos of Amir among them – their wild child that no one would have imagined would succeed – and that too in such a spectacular way!

When we said goodbye at the airport,

I felt like I was saying goodbye to my own children. Anxious for them, but excited too. As with my children, I urged them to keep in touch and was delighted to receive photos on Whatsapp charting their progress through airports and ending in snow.

Sooni Taraporevala with Amir and Manish. Credit: Soni Taraporevala 2016

Six months later

Yeh Ballet is due out at Sheffield Doc Fest in a few days and in India on Tuesday June 6th.

A lot has changed in the months that followed. While Manish is still thriving at Oregon Ballet Theater, Yehuda called Amir back to India. His living situation as well as his class schedule were problematic. He only had classes in the evening, which left him a lot of free time. Yehuda felt it would be best for him to train extensively with him while they applied to other schools where Amir’s talent would be better channeled.

They hit the jackpot. The American Ballet Theater Jacqueline Onassis School – the highest-ranked ballet school in North America and the fourth-ranked school in the world – accepted Amir based on Yehuda’s home video made in the Andheri studio.

There’s even more than one happy ending. Philanthropist Yusuf Hamied, best known for challenging big Western pharmaceutical companies to provide generic AIDS drugs to the world, made a quick decision about Amir. An hour after receiving an email regarding Amir, he responded. He would finance all of Amir’s expenses in New York for the year. It is not a small sum.

Amir is probably the only Indian in India to have gone to the American Ballet Theatre. Filmed last December, our trailer ends with Amir saying his dream is to be a principal dancer at American Ballet Theatre. Yehuda raises his eyebrows and says half teasingly – oh American Ballet Theatre?

Six months later, that’s where it’s headed. I expect to see him on stage at the MET in the future – dancing with Daniil Simkin, his hero.

Yeh Ballet is a virtual reality documentary experience from ElseVR, Memesys Lab’s non-fiction VR platform. You can download the ElseVR app here for iOS and here for Android phones.

Published in collaboration with ElseVR.