Movement and Memories

'Reflections of an Indian Dancer' heads to Leeds Playhouse this weekend - and Sooraj Subramaniam talks to Jo ahead of his solo show
March 29, 2023

Sooraj Subramaniam is an Australian-Belgian dance artist of Malaysian-Indian heritage. His training in Bharatanatyam and Odissi began at Sutra Dance Theatre, Malaysia. In Australia he studied classical ballet with Stella Johnson, and later graduated from the Western Australian Academy for Performing Arts.

Subramaniam’s first independent work, Nocturne (2011) showed at The Place Theatre, London. nimbus, his most recent solo premiered virtually at Sangam Festival, Melbourne, followed by screenings on online platforms by Maghenta and the India Dans Festival, Korzo Theatre, The Hague.

Subramaniam situates his work in hyphenated identities, drawing heavily on poetic styles and choreographic templates from Indian dance, hinting at magical realism. He is currently investigating the intersections between traditional and contemporary techniques with the aim to arrive at something personal and hybrid.

Reflections Of An Indian Dancer: Sooraj Subramaniam

Tell us about your very first memories of dancing. 

"I was six when I started dancing; a weekend activity that my grandmother insisted that my sister and I do at the local temple in Kuala Lumpur. It was her way of connecting us to her Indian roots, I suppose. I was the only boy in the class, which meant I occasionally got singled out for certain roles. Being a shy kid, that sort of attention wasn’t always welcome. But overall, it was good fun." 

When did you realise dance was going to be your career? 

"By my teens I was performing a fair bit with my dance school, the Sutra Foundation in Malaysia. My teacher, RamliIbrahim, brought me a prospectus from Juilliard, saying ‘if you’re serious about dancing we can find you sponsors and send you to New York’. I knew nothing about Juilliard, and New York was another planet! My mum took one look at the prospectus and said ‘no’. It wasn’t an argument, there was no way she was sending her 17-year-old to New York. Instead, I moved from Kuala Lumpur to Perth in Australia – closer to Malaysia, and I had relatives there – to study veterinary science. After four years, that was put on hold as, sadly, my grandmother passed away, causing a huge shift in my life. I had enjoyed vet school but my heart wasn’t in it in the same way it was in dance. I wrote to dance institutions in India, but they said I was too old – I was 22. My ballet teacher in Perth, Stella Johnson – a super-lovely, generous woman – encouraged me to audition for the Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts. (Hugh Jackman went there once upon a time.) I did the advanced diploma in dance – and it was the best three years of my life." 

Do you ever wonder what would have happened if you had gone to New York? 

"There was a funny moment a few years ago when I was visiting friends in New York. I took a walk around Manhattan and ended up walking past Juilliard. I couldn’t quite fathom what it would’ve been like if I’d taken that path, if I’d come here to this big, mad city. But the sad ‘what if’ was fleeting – I am genuinely happier that I took the route that I did because it’s made me who I am today. Some people regard my time at vet school as years wasted but I say, no, it’s made my life richer. I made so many wonderful friends, so many lovely connections. Perth led to my career here in the UK, and then to my life now in Belgium, it couldn’t have been any other way." 

Is dance an important part of Indian culture? 

"Yes, dance plays a significant role in Indian culture. Going back centuries, it was part of ritual worship, folk activity, court culture, and now, of course, film and pop culture. Post-independence, India was on a mission to establish a public image, much of which was through the arts. Dance was propped up as a ‘respectable’ activity that generations after would come to aspire to. There’s rather complicated socio-cultural politics around all this, but that’s a whole other conversation! Whether professional or not, many people engage with dance in a serious way – it feeds their identity, their feeling of belonging. But Indian dance isn’t a monolith; it’s a rich collection of diverse cultural expressions that fall under one umbrella for convenience. While there’s ample crossover, each of the styles has taken root in distinct cultures across the Indian sub-continent. The accents and idioms of movement are different, informed by the local languages, music and cultural aesthetics. Having said that, all this information came to me second hand via Malaysia, transposed by colonialism. So, you have the added cultural experience of the diaspora. And as the title might suggest, this show serves this diversity even further by expressing the styles via the unique lens of one character."   

Is the autobiographical nature of the show daunting? 

"It’s a huge privilege to be able to convey this show through my experiences, but this isn’t my life’s story. I’m an artist playing a character, so there are layers of distance to ensure I don’t get completely lost in self-importance. It is daunting, yes, but learning to honour the character has helped make the experience smoother."  

How does it feel to perform solo? 

"It’s terrifying. There’s nowhere to hide. When you share the stage with others, despite being aware of the audience, half your mind is on the relationships with your fellow performers, your placement, the timing, the lighting, the music, etc. And that helps ground you. When it’s a solo, there’s more leeway with the technicalities, but I’m super-conscious that all eyes are on me. Every little gesture, every little turn is magnified, open to scrutiny. But it’s also liberating – I could do anything and simply own it." 

What should audiences expect from your show? 

"An introduction to three Indian dance styles by way of one person’s musings. It’s not meant to be encyclopaedic; rather, it’s dance revealed via anecdotes that will hopefully reach out to make a connection with the audience. My love of language is a big part of the work, with recorded spoken text based on my writings forming the score, so it’s a joyful work to perform. I hope when the audience leaves the theatre, they return to their lives with joy and warm satisfaction."   

Reflections of an Indian Dancer, presented by Balbir Singh Dance Company, is in the Courtyard at Leeds Playhouse on 1 April. For info and booking: CLICK HERE