Photo: Robert Bloomfield

Choreographer Balbir Singh has developed a distinctive approach to making work. Difficult to categorise, it crosses disciplines and styles, reflecting Balbir’s relationship both with western contemporary dance and traditional North Indian Kathak. David Andrassy, designer and long time collaborator, asked Balbir about creativity, culture and diversity within the arts.

 

You recently visited India, the first time you’ve been there since moving to England as a baby with your parents. What motivated you to go back – why now?

Firstly, my Guru [Padmashri Pratap Pawar] was embarking on a tour there. So at a basic level there was an opportunity to see him perform and support him in whatever way I could. I was keen to see how his work played to Indian audiences. He’s known as ‘India’s divine dancer’. What that means is that he’s a kind of dance superstar there – and the reaction of audiences was amazing. Culturally that was a pleasant surprise to me.

As a British choreographer, I’m used to popping onto the stage at the end of a piece for perhaps a minute at most. But Guruji was almost mobbed at the end of each show. It would take a full half hour before he could leave the stage, everyone flocking around him to ask questions, for photos, wanting to thank him, congratulate him. That was a huge cultural difference from here.

And the second reason?

Well, I don’t know if you’d call it a reason, but yes I admit I was curious. I have spent a long time, if not denying, then certainly not giving thought to the connection with India.

I trained in contemporary dance before I’d even heard of Kathak. But for me, as an artist, a person’s supposed cultural background is not necessarily the key to understanding their art. In a sense the ‘traditional versus contemporary’ is just another duality, among many. So my work looks at what happens when you bring together dance and painting, dance and science, dance and sport – dance and synchronised swimming, even! And yes, of course, traditional and contemporary dance styles too.

When first I interviewed you in 2007, you were keen to point out that when we talk about being brought up in two cultures, for you that means something slightly different. When you said the two cultures in your case were ‘Bradford and Leeds’, I don’t think it was meant purely as a provocation was it?

That’s right. There was a huge difference between the provincial life I had experienced growing up in Bradford, and the cosmopolitan, artistic culture I then encountered at the Northern [School of Contemporary Dance] in Leeds.

So, of course I am Indian by birth, but actually, in terms of my creative influences, it was always the western cultural tradition that attracted me.

In fact, I would say if anything I reacted against family expectations. I don’t suppose many people who know me today would realise that as a youngster in Bradford I wore the turban, had the long hair, spoke Punjabi. I think I reacted against these kinds of influences. And creative exploration was one way of doing this.

But dance wasn’t originally part of the plan?

No, in fact I originally studied law. And even creatively, I was drawn as a teenager much more to other art forms, especially theatre, music – and painting. I would take myself off to lectures about the Renaissance masters. I’d be sat there, this turban-wearing boy from Bradford, feeling slightly incongruous but lapping up the culture and losing myself in the magic of it all.

What other influences were there?

Well, films, books: Tolkien, Orwell, TS Elliot, Shakespeare, Stephen King, James Herbert. Literary quotes, film quotes still feature in my work. But it’s more about a child-like wonder for me. Laurel and Hardy – another influence!

I do wonder, if I had not come to England, what would have happened – would I have still been making theatre? I suspect I would. I do believe that dance found me, rather than the other way round. And in terms of dance as an art form, as my Guru teaches, it’s very much about a responsibility to serve the art form. That’s what we, as artists, must do.

Your learning as a disciple of Padmashri Guru Pratap Pawar has undoubtedly left its mark on your work. I wonder whether the essential impact of this is less in the subject matter or style of the work, and more about the way in which it’s made? Alongside the highly structured time signatures and narrative conventions of Kathak, there also is a huge amount of scope for improvisation. I’ve noticed that your work often comes together in a very short period of time, often evolving right up to the day of its first performance, and even after that it’s open to change, with artists very much in a collaborator role, helping to shape the work.

Some of this is definitely a result of my Guru’s teaching, yes. I have a magpie-like attitude to knowledge. India, its art and particularly the approach to making work that you see in traditions like Kathak, suits my sensibility so well.

Without even setting foot in India until just last year, I think my relationship with my Guru has brought a different dimension to the way I work artistically. I think this is what Guruji means when he says he’s been my ‘bridge to India’.

The thing about bridges is, you can cross them both ways.

Yes. I met some relatives when I was in India earlier this year, who commented on the fact I left as a baby and never came back. I guess they never crossed the bridge the other way, either.

As artists that’s what we do, find ways to cross bridges where people maybe can’t see a way.

The current debate around diversity and how we make work that fully captures the richness of diversity here in Britain has an obvious relevance to your work. But perhaps not in an obvious way. Where, for you, does diversity ‘live’ in your work – if at all?

I have asked myself if just ‘being me’ makes my work diverse? I could simply say ‘yes it does’, and leave it at that. But I have a restless nature, a natural curiosity and I like to question things.

On one level I see the world and make sense of things as a globalised citizen. On another level, I am heavily influenced by my cultural background. My blood is Indian, having been born there. But, as a consequence of my upbringing in the west I’ve taken on a mixed perspective. I value that, and I want to keep it alive in me. I may have discovered that I’m Indian rather late in the day. But equally I don’t want to be too Indian. Artistically and culturally, I am about synthesising the best of both worlds.

So it’s the perspective that matters. The work with Sheffield University for KrebsFest is a good example. The process of collaborating artistically with molecular biologists – real hard core scientists, some of them – was actually enhanced by the duality of my own life experience.

So is science a foreign country?

In a way. But you can visit it. And you can take something with you, in this case dance, movement, creativity. And you can bring something back.

So to return to your question about diversity – is my work diverse? Perhaps.

But is my modus operandi diverse?  Definitely. Because it is driven by a belief in the intrinsic value of the exchange of ideas – by my Guru Pratap Pawar’s ‘Indian bridge’.

That’s the ‘through line’, if you like, whether I work with artists, scientists, sports men and women… the list could go on, and probably will.

My experiences and learning have enabled me to thrive in a constant state of change. I actually enjoy being outside my comfort zone; it helps me to grow as an artist. So, new challenges and new collaborations are the lifeblood of my art. That’s what diversity has given me.

Explore all

The Idea (learning to dance)
My destiny to bring them together
Natural curiosity and questions (learning to dance)
Composer thoughts (learning to dance)
The story (love and spice)
Dance with live cooking
On the trail of love and spice
Love, spice – and healthy eating
Breakdown of The Strategists
A dancer reflects on The Strategists (1)
An interview with Kuldip Singh Bist of the Delhi Hurricanes
Overview of The Strategists
Decreasing Infinity in India
Painter research
A dancer reflects on Love and Spice
Sooraj Subramaniam
Breakdown of the piece (12)
Dancer notes performance (flatlands)
Breakdown of the piece (love and spice)
Moon, dance
The Collaborators
Bones, Bodies and Beats
Peacock Lake – genesis of the concept
Script (12)
BMX and Flatland terminology
A dancer reflects on The Strategists (2)
Running order (full contact)
Watersplash! Uncovering hidden histories to reach new audiences
When Worlds Collide
Immersed in music
In the presence of geniuses
Namron
Olga Maloney
Exploring hidden worlds
Gary Beacom
A bridge to India
Jesse Bannister
A lost art?
Full Contact – highlights from the script
Kimberley Hardy
body/painting – dancers at an exhibition
Firing up the Mehfil Machine
Baines Cards
Who was Sir Hans Krebs?
Synchro in the city
Kali Chandrasegaram
Creative Case – challenges along the way
The Guru-Shishya relationship
Padmashri Guru Pratap Pawar
What is Kathak?
Life blood
A new aesthetic in the sport-art of synchro
AquaKathak – the creative water workout
Balbir on working with Gary
Colouring your emotions
Abirami Eshwar