(January 3, 2023) At the opening night of Brecon Festival Ballet this Christmas, an Indian took centrestage as the main lead in Nutcracker – the world’s most popular ballet – to perform to packed houses in Wales. Amid the thunderous applause, he couldn’t help but reminisce the time he first saw a ballet in a Bollywood film. And now six years later, the dream of performing ballet has come true for Delhi-born Kamal Singh.
He had never heard of ballet ever until he watched a Bollywood film on his small television at his home in Vikaspuri on a balmy afternoon in 2016. A sweet twist of fate put him in the company of the Imperial Fernando Ballet School that changed the trajectory of his life and made him take those steps toward his dream. Then a 17-year-old, whose father is an e-rickshaw driver in Delhi, he was bewitched by the ballet dancers and wanted to try it for himself. Five years later, he became the first Indian to be selected to study at the English National Ballet School in the UK.
The 23-year-old, who made it to the 2021 Forbes 30 Under 30 Asia list, fought not just social stigma but economic hurdles to make his dream come true. “Coming from a humble background, where I couldn’t afford fees for ballet school to now performing in the UK, I am living my dream. Taking a leap of faith, knowing that I can back it up with hard work is what changed the game for me,” Kamal tells Global Indian from London.
How Bollywood gave him wings to fly
Growing up, the family survived on his father’s meager income that came from working two jobs – being an e-rickshaw driver in Delhi and making charpais (benches), Kamal believed for the longest time that he wasn’t allowed to dream. “While growing up, I was obsessed with fitness and would spend hours running and training in local parks. I even learnt Gatka (Sikh martial art) for six years, and was a part of local jatha (group), where I participated in competitions,” says Kamal.
Financial crunches were the norm at home but his parents never pressurised him into chipping in through odd jobs. At the same time, his life was confined to the alleys of Vikaspuri. “I didn’t dream big till I was 17.” For someone who loved watching dance reality shows, and was often the first one to break into a dance at weddings, his love for dancing remained personal. Until a Bollywood film changed the course of his life forever.
At 17, he watched Remo D’Souza’s dance film ABCD: Anybody Can Dance, and the ballet piece stirred something inside this then-teenager, who couldn’t stop thinking about this dance form. Being a Sikh, Singh always broke into bhangra at every party or wedding, but the fluid elegance of ballet drew him in and he spent the next few days watching ballet videos online. “I had never seen something like this before. I vividly remember, at that moment I told myself that I have to do something. As if some energy was pulling me. Ballet chose me to be a dancer. Moving from bhangra to ballet, it was a turning point for me,” he adds. This newfound passion led him to Imperial Fernando Ballet Company in Delhi. Founded by Mario Fernando Aguilera, a ballet dancer from Argentina, who starred as a choreographer in ABCD, the center seemed to be the perfect place to start.
However, the dance school’s fees were beyond Kamal’s means as his dad was already working two jobs to support his family: ballet tuition was a luxury they simply couldn’t afford. Aguilera, seeing the boy’s agility and flexibility (at the trial class), developed over years of running and stretching in his local park, knew that he had discovered an exceptional talent and wasn’t ready to let go of a prodigy like him. He offered him a full scholarship. The rigorous training sessions were no cakewalk and Kamal had to give his 100 percent to make the cut. “I would train for 6-7 hours daily, as I had so much to learn. Most kids begin training at the age of four-five, while I was kickstarting my journey at 17. So, I had to cram all the knowledge into a short span of time. I had to prove myself and make sure that I was deserving to be at the ballet school.”
From Russia, with love
Over the next three years, he completely immersed himself in the training, and his efforts paid off when he was accepted for a summer program at the historic Vaganova Academy of Russian Ballet in St Petersburg in 2019, where he was cast as a soloist in a production called Gayaneh. For someone, who loved the Russian style of ballet, going to Russia was nothing short of a dream come true. “I was the first Indian ever to make it to Vaganova Academy, and those two months were life-changing. It was my first time outside of India, and I had to prove to myself and my teachers that I am worthy of it. Though those months were quite challenging, they also gave me the confidence that I can do well in ballet.”
This confidence nudged him to apply for a Professional Trainee programme at London’s English National Ballet School. His watershed moment arrived when he was accepted to the prestigious ballet school, making him the first Indian ever to achieve the feat. Being one among a pool of 10 talents selected from around the world, Kamal had a moment of pride. But the course’s hefty price tag did play a spoiler.
Crowdfunding came to his rescue
A year-long course at the ballet school costs £8000, and he had to turn to crowdfunding to pay for his fees and other expenses. Fortunately, he found support from actor Kunal Kapoor, who is also the co-founder of Ketto, the crowdfunding platform. The actor used his star power and social media to spread the word on behalf of the young dancer. This prompted Hrithik Roshan to pledge £3000 to the fund. Within a few weeks, his fund reached £18000.
“I couldn’t believe that this was happening to me. It felt like angels were around me, and blessing me. Though studying in London was a dream, I had the initial jitters about how I will manage on my own. However, I found London people to be warm and friendly. And when I explored South Hall, it felt like I was right in India,” laughs the ballerino.
Kamal is happy that his journey is an inspiration for many. “I just followed my instinct, and it has brought me here. I feel humbled if people are getting inspired by my story.” But his journey wouldn’t have been the same, had it not for his mentor Fernando Aguilera. “Finding a good teacher who believes in you more than you believe in yourself is so important.” However, he also affirms that hard work and self-confidence can “beat any odds”. “We often compare ourselves to others, without realising that we all have a different journey. And it’s crucial to accept yourself.”
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The ballerino, who is currently touring in the UK on his Global Talent Visa, wants to perform across the globe. But his ultimate dream, when he has enough expertise and funds, is to make ballets on Indian epics. “I want to explore and express Indian culture through ballet.” The last six years have moved Kamal from the streets of Delhi to the opera houses in the UK, and he believes ballet helped him blossom. “Old Kamal was small-minded. My thinking was limited to Vikaspuri, but now I feel I can do anything. Every day I am learning and evolving, and this has made me realise, anything can happen if we put our best foot forward,” he signs off.