As the lights went off in the cosy studio at Navdhara India Dance Theatre in Mumbai, dancers entered the frame with masterful agility. At the end of the 90-minute abstract contemporary piece titled Agni, choreographer Ashley Lobo and his troupe beamed as a small crowd broke into cheers.
The team was rehearsing for a series of international performances starting with one at the Suzanne Dellal Centre in Israel on July 23. “Agni is about fire and fire is about passion. This is an abstract painting about fire,” Lobo said, introducing the performance, which was conceptualised in 2016 and has been performed in several Indian cities since.
Lobo, who has been in the performing arts for more than 32 years, said he encountered dance by sheer accident, when his mother, an opera singer, urged him to dance in a theatre production at the age of 15, to keep him out of trouble. After that, there was no looking back.
Lobo went to Syndey in 1989 to study dance. On his return to India, he started The Danceworx Academy in 1998. Apart from training aspiring dancers and coaching professional ones, Lobo regularly choreographs for theatre and film. With his dance company, Navdhara, Lobo also makes his own theatrical dance productions.
Lobo forayed into Bollywood choreography with Imtiaz Ali’s Socha Na Tha (2005). Lobo went on to choreograph most of Ali’s films, including Rockstar (2011), Jab We Met (2007) and Highway (2014). His other film credits include Guzaarish (2010), Aisha (2010), Cocktail (2012) and Parched (2015).
In an interview with Scroll.in, Lobo spoke about the differences between choreographing for film and theatre and the song that posed him the biggest challenge.
How did ‘Agni’ take shape? What was the preparation that went behind it?
I have always been fascinated by the element of fire. When Yair Vardi, director of the Suzanne Dellal Center in Israel, asked me to create a new dance theatre piece, I thought exploring the element of fire would be interesting. The Navdhara dancers were also ready for a different direction, after my last work which had a water element in it.
I usually start with one word or idea. That then inspires another idea and then another and so forth. Also, I am a collaborative director as I believe the experience of many is always better than one. So I then share that idea/ word with the dancers and get them to expand on it. We then start to look for links and put it together.
You were in theatre for 20 years before you began choreographing for films. How did your theatre experience inform your film work?
When it comes to films, if the camera takes away from the actual narrative, it is a bad film. The camera has to add to the narrative. The basic content in film is content. If you have all the camera work and no story, it is rubbish, according to me. You can have little or no camera work and if the camera holds, it holds.
You don’t need to do much. For me the stage is a fixed frame. If you can hold audience there, then holding audience at the films should not be too difficult. Of course it is a different craft. You have got to direct actors to a moving camera. But it helps a lot. In stage we have to rehearse and come to a point where there are no mistakes. There is just one one take. It keeps you honest, simple and focussed.
How different is your thought process while choreographing for theatre and films?
They are at two opposite ends of the spectrum. I did a production called About Nothing, 15 years ago. It was about life, death, respect and other things. It was about 10 different elements in life and how when you see things from different perspectives, it is not a big deal.
One is considered more serious and credible and while the other [film] is considered popular. My question is, who decides what is credible? Because at the end of the day, your job is communication. One is sophisticated and the other is more basic. But it does not really matter to me. I remember a line from the production: “I have two kids, where one is playing with a remote control and the other is playing with a shoe box on a street. Whose joy is more profound? Neither, it is joy.”
To me whether you do a Bollywood film or an abstract contemporary piece, it is joy either way. As an artist your job is to serve the art. It is about communication and not establishing position for yourself.
You made your debut in film choreography in 2005. How did films happen?
Everything has been an accident. Right from when I started dancing. I was 15 when my mother made me dance in a show to keep me out of trouble. Someone thought I danced well and told me I should dance. After that every time I tried getting away from it, I got drawn to it.
Film happened to me by mistake. There was no international dance in India at the time so I went to Australia to study dance and returned in 1994. When I left there was only one channel, Doordarshan. But once I came back to India, there was a huge change. I started the Danceworx Academy in 1999. A person saw a show that I did and approached me for a film. That was Imtiaz Ali’s Socha Na Tha. Imtiaz was looking for a theatre-based choreographer. They saw that I was doing something that was totally different from what was in the market then.
I wasn’t really interested then because I was into the academy. But that person said, why not give it a try. I agreed and then I met Imtiaz. We hit it off and then I did films after films. It was 20 years on stage before I got into films.
Your collaboration with Imtiaz Ali has produced some crackling songs.
He gives me a lot of theatrical songs. He knows that I am also kind of a director. We talk a lot about life and how it constructs and deconstructs. The songs would just happen by the way out of observation, without too much effort.
Could you explain with an example?
I did the whole film Rockstar. Choreographically, my focus was to convince people that Ranbir Kapoor’s character was a singer and not a dancer. That is what I did. I am not going to put fancy steps. I think like a director for the film, instead of how many steps I can do choreographically. Imtiaz is also from theatre and we connect on that.
I am usually narrated the story and where the scene ends and starts. With Nadaan Parindey from Rockstar, the approach would be take the story forward and to take it to its end. In that song, he is singing and then at the end, when he loses it and he is gone and is looking at the crowd, he is thinking who are these people and what I am doing here. There are moments where he has to belt it out and then there are moments where he has to suddenly disconnect and contemplate why he is at the place. It is talking about narrative and steps.
How do you approach a song?
There is a very famous choreographer called Paul Taylor. And one of the things he says is it is not important to be a good choreographer, but a smart one. You have got to know who you are working with and build on their strengths. Your job as a choreographer is to not showcase your portfolio, but to build your dancers.
Your dancers cannot be shown weak on screen. If an actor and dancer cannot do six turns, you do not put in six turns and make him look bad. Choreographically it is more about getting the result with what you have. My process is based out of them. The same goes with theatre as well. It would be hugely arrogant for me to believe that I have more to offer than all of us collectively present on the stage.
Who are some of your favourite actors to work with?
All the actors I have worked with have enriched my life. I do not think I have a favourite. But I love Govinda’s movement style. I like minimalistic movements. He moves so little, but says so much. That is the brilliance of a dancer. It means that you have mastered your sense and musicality.
How important is a director’s brief for a song? Could you speak about a song you enjoyed collaborating with a filmmaker?
I love working with Leena Yadav. She is offbeat. I enjoy working with her because it is not so much about dance. It’s about characterisation. In Parched there is a lovemaking scene, where she will tell me to choreograph. So there I am choreographing a scene as opposed to dance. So it is about how he comes in, how he takes her clothes off. What does he do? How does he touch her feet?
It is not so much dance, but rather an exercise for me to see how to make two people really honest in that space. It is a very awkward situation where two people make love and both are married and there is a whole crowd. Leena usually gives me these different opportunities which I usually do not get in a regular Bollywood film.
I enjoyed working with Sanjay Leela Bhansali for Guzaarish as well. It was a cracker. Jaane Kiske Khwaab, where Hrithik Roshan plays with the ball was very interesting.
Which of your songs have challenged you the most?
It was my first one with Imtiaz. It was a very slow and simple song with Abhay [Deol] and Ayesha [Takia]. It was the title track Socha Na Tha. Two of them are in a room and that is the first time they discover they are in love. There are no dialogues. Constructing such a beautiful and pure scene about two people who were discovering they were in love was the most challenging and interesting.