Ash Mukherjee, in the programme Move Like Michael Jackson, mixed classical Indian dance with MTV-pizzazz to the tune of Jackson’s Man in the Mirror as he made the finals of the series. Not a sight you’d easily forget. The judges thought so, too. Though the prize eventually went to a more conventional street-dance crew, the panel singled out Mukherjee not for moving like Michael Jackson (that’s what everyone else was doing) but because if Michael Jackson had been there, he would have been moved.
My first sight of Mukherjee, though, showed a very different side. He was the stand-out dancer in Nina Rajarani’s bharatanatyam quartet Quick!, winner of the 2006 Place Prize. His performance, in strict bharatanatyam style, earned him a nomination in the 2007 Critics’ Circle National Dance Awards.
Yet there are still more sides to Mukherjee, as I discovered when I met up with him at London’s Royal Opera House (where he once worked as an usher). He spoke to me about his varied background and surprising inspirations. Soon it became clear that behind the many faces of Ash Mukherjee, there’s really only one man in the mirror. It’s just that he moves with ease between many different frames: classical and popular dance, stage and television, high art and commercial culture.
How did you get started in dance?
As a child in Kolkata, I was thalassaemic (a blood condition), and one day from my bed I heard this wonderful music from the TV. It was Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake, and I literally got out of bed and started dancing to it. That’s how I began. At first I wanted to be a ballet dancer, but there was no classical ballet in India, so I learned Uday Shankar style, which is an amalgamation of folk dance, natya shastra, and different classical styles. Then I learned bharatanatyam proper, and that whetted my soul so much I’d be practising all the time, all over the house.
So bharatanatyam was your main training?
Yes, but not the only one. As a teenager I discovered Hollywood film musicals, and I’d copy Gene Kelly or Fred Astaire by myself, in my room. Then I came to study at the London Studio Centre, where I really focused on ballet, together with jazz dance and some contemporary dance.
That’s quite a mix!
Well, I’d also go out clubbing, and I learned a lot from that too! I think a lot of dance comes from popular styles. Back in India, the margia [folk/regional] forms developed into the shastria [classical] forms. And what are the margia forms of today? It’s what the ‘folks’ are doing: hip-hop, street, club dance.
Did you mix or synthesise those different styles?
When I was in London, I got really caught up with the physicality of ballet and contemporary and jazz. But when I went back to Chennai I was reawakened to a more Indian side. I was working on a piece with a teacher called Sreelatha Vinod, and she told me: you have an audience, and you need to tell the story. So she taught me a varnam that incorporated pedestrian moves with a distinctly Indian flavour. And I realised that in all that physicality I’d forgotten some of that Indian facial and gestural language, which is such a huge part of our culture, and a wonderful part of our dance.
So now, even when I’m doing jazz or contemporary, I think the face needs to be really alive. And if you look at a form like voguing, it’s all about face. I actually did Madonna’s Vogue for Move Like Michael, though it wasn’t televised. Voguing is about stars and striking poses. I took Indian gods instead. For me, gods have always vogued in bharatanatyam, which is so much about striking positions, showing attitudes.
How did you come to be on Move Like Michael Jackson?
I had directed a piece at the Soho Theatre in 2006 called Both Sides Now. It was bridging bharatanatyam and jazz/cabaret. Some of the Indian ashtapadis are about the lover who never came, and some of Billie Holiday’s songs are just the same, except that one is in a smoke-filled speakeasy and the other is in a temple. And I was spotted by Alif Sankey, who was the associate producer of Michael Jackson’s planned 2009 show at the O2 Arena. Michael was looking for mime artists for particular songs, people who could do sign language. But Alif preferred the kind of work I did with Indian classical: she thought the mime was more artistic, not so literal. So initially I was hired as an extra. Then one day Alif called me while I was walking through Leicester Square and said: you’re going to have a duet with Michael! I nearly screamed the Square down!
But that was around May last year, and of course Michael passed away in June so those shows never happened. But friends told me that Lavelle Smith Jnr, Michael’s close friend and choreographer, was the mentor for a new TV show called Move Like Michael Jackson, so I went for the audition. I was in track suit bottoms and T-shirt, but because I had a performance later that night I actually had my temple costume and jewellery with me. And at the last second I thought, hang on, let me do this in full costume, and I ran to the toilets and changed really fast. Some people were like wow, and some people were laughing. I went on and Lavelle asked, why do you think you can do Indian classical dance to Michael’s music? And I said, Michael was influenced by Bob Fosse, Bob Fosse was influenced by Jack Cole, Jack Cole learned Indian classical dance, and created isolation technique with Matt Mattox. At the end of that list of famous jazz dancers, I added, very theatrically: so here I am! And he loved it. I then did this completely improvised bharatanatyam piece, to Jam. Lavelle said he hadn’t thought it possible to do this kind of dance to Michael’s music, but now he would start thinking outside the box. So I got on the show.
What was the best thing about it? And was it disappointing not to win?
What I loved best was that the audience got it. I didn’t have to explain anything about rhythms and gestures. A lot of that was of course because of Michael’s music. But for me that was a huge step. So going from the semi-finals to the finals already felt like a real win. And I really loved dancing Man in the Mirror. I felt a sense of calm that still hasn’t left me.
Did you tailor your performance to the show in a particular way?
To be honest, I just surrendered to the music like I always do, whether it’s Michael, or Erik Satie or carnatic music. Music is the ocean and dance is the ship, and you just have to surrender yourself to it. That’s what drives you through, it’s like surfing. So all I thought about were the lyrics, the content, and how it moved me. That’s the connection that people understood.
Ten years ago things might have been different. I think audiences have come on from only noticing difference between styles to seeing the similarities and celebrating the meeting points.
Did you feel as if you were commercialising your dance form?
Dance has been commercial for a long time. Look at the rates for the arangetrams, or how much a person pays to learn a varnam. Of course, people have to make money. Here, my aim was to bring Indian classical dance to a mainstream audience – but you know, that was the whole point to start with: it was invented because not everybody could read the Vedas, and the dancers were supposed to bring these everlasting truths to a mainstream audience.
And look at the poses in shop-window mannequins. You can see those same poses in temple carvings or natya shastra. Even in this age of size zero, you can see natya shastra principles in the way that models stand. Why? Because that sells.
Do you make a distinction between commercial and artistic dance?
I don’t think it’s key. I think the key is communication, in any form of dance. Art may be subjective, but the execution of art is not subjective, let’s face it. The essence has to be clear, you have to pay attention to feeling and precision and intention. Otherwise it doesn’t communicate. It’s pretty black and white really, if you think about it.
You’re a classical dancer at heart though, aren’t you?
I love classical style. The rules of classical dance have developed to help it communicate. I try to develop a neoclassical vocabulary that uses bharatanatyam to talk about contemporary themes. But if you have integrity and know where you’re coming from, I think you can do anything you want.
What about preserving tradition?
Sometimes I think people miss the point. Rabindranath Tagore, Rukmini Devi, they were pioneers of their time, they reinvented the form. When people stop inventing in order to keep that intact, in a way that actually goes against what they did.
It’s more about the spirit than the letter?
So dance isn’t a thing in itself, but a process, something that you do?
Yes! It’s about the verb, about what you do. The only thing I feel that is really pure about dance is energy. You can’t create energy and you can’t destroy energy, but you can use it. That was Michael Jackson’s genius. He used it to connect with people. It’s what I love, too.