Ashley Lobo on his life, passion and philosophy
He is a dancer, a theatre artist, a teacher, a philosopher, a yoga instructor and a leading choreographer in the Indian film industry. He is a man with many roles and one name Ashley Lobo. Having done numerous theatrical musicals and choreography in movies like Dhoom, Jab We Met, Guzaarish and Rockstar, he is in the film industry to stay. With his latest movie, Cocktail, he has got much to say about life, dance and cinema.
Tell us a little bit about your background.
Well, I was born in Mumbai and grew up here mainly. My father was in the Indian Army. I travelled with him when I was really young. I went to a local school in Chembur. Then I shifted to St. Mary’s Boarding School in Mt. Abu. I was there from grade 6 till grade 10. Then I came back to Mumbai to study in St. Xavier’s college. I studied there till my second year of graduation. I completed my final year through correspondence as my grades weren’t good enough, so my mother refused to pay my college fees (laughs). It was her way to teach me an early lesson to value what I got. Then I went to Australia to study dance.
When did you know that you were interested in Dance?
I didn’t know that I wanted to be a dancer. It just happened. I came back from boarding school and had a six-month break before my term began in St. Xavier’s college. During that time my mother, who was a renowned opera singer was greatly involved in theatre, was directing a musical and to keep me out of trouble, she allowed me to hang around during the rehearsals. She also asked the choreographer to keep me involved. So, in that show, I ended up bagging a couple of solo and duo performances. We rehearsed every evening for about six months. It was an amateur show and Karla Singh and Shiamak Davar happened to come see it. They were doing the musical, Grease at that time. Shiamak was the lead actor/dancer and Karla was the choreographer. After the show, Karla asked me to do her show. So, I did her musical. After that, my mother was directing another musical, which she asked Shiamak to choreograph. Since Shiamak and I had worked together, he asked me to do that musical. That went up to about twenty-five shows. Then I did another musical called the Best of Broadway. We did around a hundred and fifty shows. So, that’s how I got into musicals and dance. We did such shows on the weekends and we got some hundred bucks per show, which we used to spend the same day. It was my hobby. It was not my vocation.
I wasn’t doing well in studies. I wasn’t going anywhere with dance as well. That’s when I picked up a part time job with a moving company called PN Writer & Company to gain some experience work wise and along with that, I finished the final year of college through correspondence. After a while, the company sent me for a project to Delhi. I was doing pretty well in my career. I was being groomed to become the branch manager. Then one day, one of my supervisors asked me if I wanted to go for an audition with him. The audition was for the dance musical, The West Side Story. So there I was, a single, nineteen year old boy living alone in Delhi with not many responsibilities. I ended up going for the auditions. There was an American choreographer who was supposed to come to judge the auditions but he couldn’t make it. So the director asked if I could do the warm up for everybody because he knew that I came from a dance background. I did that and a few days later he asked me to choreograph the musical. The show was a huge hit and I got great reviews for my work from the media. My mother came to watch the show and it was she who advised me to take up dance as a profession. And since there wasn’t any way to get formal training in international dance form India at that time, I decided to go abroad. So, in 1989, I moved to Sydney and took admission at the Bodenweiser Dance Centre.
Tell us about your experiences in Australia.
As far as dance was concerned, back in India, I had been on stage a number of times but the level of dance was amateur. I had the confidence of a performer and had an understanding of rhythm and movement but I wasn’t professionally trained in dance. I could do a few pirouettes and had a little ballet training but that was all. So, when I went to Bodenweiser Dance Centre, I was intimidated at first because there, you had people younger than me dancing way better and who had started learning Ballet when they were four or five years old. I was way out of my league initially. In India, I was a star; many articles were written about my work in various musicals. But in Australia, I was far behind everybody else as far as international dance was concerned. Secondly, the money my parents paid as fees for my dance training, which was around ten thousand dollars, was a loan given to me. I had to pay them back which I did in a year’s time. So, I had to get a part time job. I used to work from six in the morning till three in the afternoon and then attend dance school from four thirty in the evening till nine at night where I trained in Jazz, Contemporary and Ballet for four years. And with time, I got better and better.
Where did you work part time?
I used to work in a hospital. I started off with cleaning the toilets and sweeping the floor and later I ended up getting a nursing assistant’s job. So, I used to take care of the patients. I learnt a lot from that job because it taught me to love people and be patient with them without expecting anything in return. A lot of the patients were old and suffered from dementia, so when I used to take care of them, some used to hit me back because they were confused or didn’t know what was happening. Eventually, they became my Australian family and taught me how to love absolute strangers unconditionally. I was there by their death beds holding their hands while they breathed their last.
After you finished training in dance, what did you do?
After my four years in dance school, I started working as a freelance dancer in various dance companies, though there weren’t many of them in Australia. I did a lot of dance musicals and was predominantly a Jazz dancer. I didn’t do a lot of Contemporary dance, as one couldn’t earn much money with that back then. Now, of course, Contemporary dance is appreciated a lot more.
How did you get into your export business then?
Well, I continued to dance for a while, but then, as luck would have it, I injured myself while dancing. I injured my lower back and I couldn’t dance professionally any more. I had to rest my back for a year. So, I rested for a year and then decided to leave Sydney because Sydney was where all my memories of dance were. I shifted to Brisbane to work with my brother-in-law. But initially he told that I needed to figure things out for myself and then he would let me work with him. I did that for a while. I used to cut frozen fish in shops early in the morning and I used to sell churandoor to door. I saved some money and then my brother-in-law realized that I was serious about working with him. He gave me a job in his shop. I helped him grow from owning one shop to four shops. I was managing his organization. Then, I came to India and met a few people. We had a huge market for crafts back in Australia. I wanted to import some beads from India and sell them in Australia. I did that and it made me quite rich.
What made you decide to come back to India and set up a dance school here?
After my success in the trading business, I went back to India for a vacation and ended up staying there for a year. I met my wife then. I also met interesting people from the dance/theatre field and I realized that the Indian market for dance was evolving. When I had left India, we only had Doordarshan channel on television, but when I got back I saw that people were being exposed to a lot of international TV. Hence, they were also being exposed to international dance. I choreographed a few musicals during that time and I got paid decently for them.
I came back to Australia and after a year, I married my wife, Ramneeka, and we set up our clothing business. We did that for about two years and saved a lot of money. By then the thought of starting a dance academy in India was already in my mind. I felt that by then the Indian market was prepared for international dance. Also, whenever I choreographed a musical in India, I had to compromise on the level of dancing due to the lack of trained dancers. So, I decided to create an opportunity for them to formally get trained in international dance. We sold our business, put our house on rent and came back to India.
What were the challenges faced while setting up The Danceworx?
People in Delhi didn’t know much about Jazz as a dance form, which is what we primarily teach at The Danceworx. Western music was being slowly appreciated in India but people were ignorant about International dance forms like Jazz, Contemporary etc. A lot of people still mistake the Jazz dance form to be an extension of Jazz music. So, I had to educate people about the kind of dance I wanted to teach. And it took some time but we got there. I had set myself a target of going up to a thousand students in the academy by the end of two years and I achieved that.
You are known for teaching your students not only how to dance but to live life through dance. Any comments?
I strongly believe that your art is a manifestation of who you are. If you are a sensitive person then your dance will be sensitive, your students will become sensitive towards their surroundings. If you are very mechanical/physical in the way you dance, then your company will also follow suit. The way you dance is the way you live. So, I thought that if I could give my students more than just the physical aspect or training required to dance, if I could teach them the spiritual and the emotional connection to dance as well, they would progress much faster. They would become thinking artists and not just clones of each other or their teachers. Being an artist is all about discovering yourself and your true potential.
Many of my students stay in Danceworx for some time and then they move on to other things. And that’s alright. Because life is dynamic and I know that dance has done its job. I know that all of them are excelling in which ever field they are in. Not everybody is meant to dance. But dance does clean up your character and set your priorities right. I feel it’s my moral obligation as a teacher to touch my student’s lives permanently in some way or the other. My students are mentored for life. I am not here to accumulate wealth and grow companies. But what is absolutely critical for me is my integrity. I will guide my students the way I would guide my son. I would guide them honestly and sensitively but if I have to be stern with them then I will do that.
Where do you see Danceworx in ten years?
When I started the academy, it wasn’t so much about Danceworx. For me, it was always about setting up an industry for dance. Danceworx was my way of starting this industry. If you go to Delhi, nine out of ten dancers are from Danceworx. Many of them have started their own dance schools. We came to Mumbai some four years back and it will take some time for us to grow here. My aim is to create an awareness of dance everywhere in this country. Danceworx will grow automatically in doing so.
Your style of teaching is influenced a lot by African dance and music. How did that happen?
I love to experiment. I feel that there is something very rhythmic about African dance. And I have come to realize that in a lot of international dance formats, there is a lot of form but little rhythm and feel. So, in my classes I just want to give my students a taste of rhythm and feel along with the form.
Movies happened by accident. I was in Delhi and a friend of mine, who had produced one of the musicals that I had choreographed and directed, was the executive producer of a film, which had Ayesha Takia and Abhay Deol in it. The movie’s name was Socha Na Tha. It was Imtiaz Ali’s debut as a director. So, this friend of mine asked me to do the film because I was fresh and had just returned from Australia and they needed some fresher approach for this new generation of filmmaking. I wasn’t interested at first but my friend got me into talking to Imtiaz. I met him and we hit it off instantaneously. Both of us are from the theatre background and we share common interests. I decided to do the film and I found movies interesting because I was now choreographing in a moving frame and not in a fixed one. After that movie, I did Aditya Chopra’s Dhoom and it was the first time that the audience witnessed western style of dancing on the Indian stage in the song Dhoom Machale. So, one thing led to the other.
Which one of your choreographies is the closest to your heart and why?
I think it will have to be the song Socha Na Tha from the movie Socha Na Tha. It was my first film and it doesn’t seem like the song has been choreographed at all. I just let the actors to do what they felt like doing. I think that the emotions, in the song, got portrayed beautifully. I feel I am more of a director than a dance choreographer. And directors come to me when they have such songs, where there is a story to tell. And now I am writing my own film.
Your latest movie to hit the screens was Cocktail. How was your experience working with the cast and crew?
Homi Adajania, the director of the film, is very chilled out and is a mad Parsi. It was great fun working with him. He is very spontaneous. And all the actors, Deepika Padukone, Saif Ali Khan and Diana Penty, are very sweet and very open to direction. I choreographed the only song for the film called Daaru Desi. And it’s a fun song, a very cute song.
You are also a qualified Yoga instructor. How did that happen?
Yoga happened when I injured my neck while teaching in one of my classes. The doctors couldn’t help me much and told me that I couldn’t dance anymore. I believe that the human body is not capable of injuring itself. An injury is a signal to tell you there is some misalignment in your body. So, if you can just realign your body to its correct form, all injuries will automatically go away. Yoga was my way of healing. And I found that through Yoga, I was healing physically as well as mentally and spiritually. So, I kept at it.
What’s your message for all the aspiring dancers/choreographers?
It’s the right time to get into this field in India. My message would be that don’t take dance as a hobby if you want to earn from it. Approach it professionally. And dance because you are passionate about dance not because you want to make a living out of it. Don’t get distracted by the desire to earn money. It will come if you put in the right amount of hard work and sincerity. It might just be a trickle at first but if you are patient, you will reap the benefits.