Written By Chhitra Subramaniam.
The first time I met Ashley Lobo 13 years ago, he was different from the other choreographers I had worked with. His language, grammar, style of teaching, all of it was different and awe inspiring; but I was not sure that he and his dance would ever be accepted in India, especially in Bollywood. He was doing jazz and ballet. It was pure, pristine and breathtakingly beautiful. I am glad I have been proven wrong because today Ashley’s Danceworx and Navdhara have taken India by storm with at least 6,000 students annually learning, living and breathing dance. Ashley has succeeded in his goal of bringing international dance to the Indian audience and has made his permanent mark in Bollywood, beginning with his groundbreaking “Dhoom Machale Dhoom” song followed by so many films, like “Jab We met,” “Guzaarish,” “Love Aaj kal” and “Cocktail.” He also judges one of the leading dance shows on TV, making him a household name. He has put India on the world map of dance with his creation “Amaara,” a breathtakingly beautiful dance theatre musical that is wowing audiences across continents.
What’s his groove? What were the steps he took to get here?
Ashley Lobo is from Chembur, Mumbai. His father, an army officer, and his mother, a banker by day and an acclaimed opera singer in her free time, understood Ashley’s creative genes. He attended St. Mary’s boarding school in Mount Abu, and later studied at St. Xavier College in Mumbai. During vacation, to keep him out of trouble, his mother got him involved in one of the musical theatre productions that her friend, Salome Roy Kapoor, was directing. He soon became a starring dancer in local community shows that ran dozens of times per weekend and quickly realized that this was both a fun way to get attention and attract girls. His grades fell and his mother pulled him out and told him to pay for himself if he wanted to chase dance and the girls. (He finished college through correspondence.) He wasn’t earning much with the theatre productions, and whatever he was getting he was spending on going out after hours with the cast. After graduation, he got himself a job in a clearing and forwarding company, riding on the back of trucks from Bhutan to Kolkatta, sleeping in dhabas, and going hungry for days for lack of money. He was just 19. By then, his mom was the CEO of Chase Manhattan so he continued to live in two extreme worlds — swanky corporate cabins and grungy, downtrodden trucks. It was a struggle. He saw hunger in the eyes of children, poverty, but it started shaping his vision of the world. “
The universe has a plan, and we don’t always understand it,“ he says.
Choreographing West Side Story
His job took him to Delhi. He worked hard, his salary improved, and he managed living in a oneroom apartment. He became a survivor because his mother had put him on the street at a young age to learn and appreciate life. He says, “I learned to be self-reliant because of this.” One day, one of his supervisors told him he had to leave early to audition for “West Side Story,” a Modern School production. Lobo decided to go along with him. Once they had auditioned, they found out that the choreographer, an American, was not going to show up, so the producer asked Lobo if he could do the choreography since he had some previous musical theatre experience. Always one to look at every opportunity positively, Lobo agreed. He had fun choreographing the musical, which was successful in Delhi and received many accolades in the newspapers, particularly for the young choreographer. Lobo decided that this was more fulfilling than the forwarding and clearing work and decided to pursue it as a career. After struggling with a decision on what was practical and what was his dream, his cousin told him: “Pick what is your passion because it will never feel like hard work. And you can do it 24 x 7 with joy.” With great hesitation, he asked his mother for financial assistance — as an opera singer and artist herself, she understood his passion — but it was clear that he had to return the money he borrowed — $10,000 — to study dance. He chose to go to Sydney, Australia to be close to his sister who lived there.
Hitting Bottom in Australia
Lobo studied dance for three years in Australia. He was able to pay his mother back in eight months by doing odd jobs, such as working as a janitor in a nursing home. He was so tired from the grueling schedule that each night he would just eat beans straight off the can and go to bed. At first, he was embarrassed in front of the other students because he lacked their technical training, but after three years of diligent study, he started dancing professionally and earning as much as $1,000 per show. His success did not last long. During a production of “The Wiz,” he popped a disc in his back because of an on-stage error on the part of another dancer, and he could never ever dance again. He had no money for therapy so he went without food to pay for his treatment, until one day, his roommates offered him their food. In his depressed state, he continually delved into self-pity and wondered why he was being punished? One fine day, fed up, he got into his car and drove straight from Sydney to Brisbane, where his sister lived. As his eyes were shutting from the long road trip, he lost control, and his car skidded to the opposite lane, where a huge truck almost crashed into him. But miraculously he was saved. He then realized that he had spent too long being a martyr and had wished this near death upon himself in his downtrodden mental state. The reality jolt of near death woke him up. Sitting on the side of the road, grateful that he was alive, he says”, “I wanted to live, I wanted to start my life again irrespective of whatever I would have to start with.”
On arriving in Brisbane, his brother-in-law helped him with preconditions. Lobo would have to prove his commitment by first getting a job independently, and only then he could get into business with him. He got two part-time jobs: cutting fish and delivering ice cream. After he had saved some money from these activities, his brother-in-law hooked him up to sell beads imported from India at the crafts market. Lobo was able to save up to $25,000 through this trade. In the meantime, he was also teaching dance in Brisbane and taking dance classes for himself as therapy.
Finally, he took a vacation to India. There he realized that people still remembered him for choreographing “West Side Story,” and he got several requests to do other shows. He felt perhaps he was meant to be a choreographer, and not a dancer: “I have always been a person who believes in being in the moment. If you are given something and you don’t have a choice, you might as well have fun with it.” He did three musicals and received a few advertising awards. While he was choreographing “Fiddler on the Roof,” he met his wife, Ramneeka. She was one of the actresses.
Despite his success in Delhi, he returned to Brisbane because Ramneeka’s parents had stipulated that the couple remains apart for a year to test their love. They stayed in touch and were eventually married. They moved to Brisbane, where they started a clothing store. Lobo was dancing in his spare time, and things were going well for the new couple. One day, he told Ramneeka about his true dream, which was to start a dance academy in India. He loved teaching dance, feeling dance, and living dance, and he wanted to share it with others in a country where many people did not have the opportunity to follow their dreams and where international dance was not widespread. She supported him fully. In what seemed like madness they sold everything they had in Brisbane and moved back to India.
Lobo’s company Danceworx has been active for 15 years now with 6,000 students learning dance every year. He begins each dance lesson with a meditation period because he believes that “ the body needs to come to nothingness and become uncorrupted of prior experiences before it is given something to do.” One day, he noticed that one of his students was always falling asleep during the meditation sessions. In anger he brought him a nightgown to send a clear message. To his astonishment, he found out that the student, who was from a poor family, had moved to Delhi just to study dance with Ashley, and in order to make ends meet, he worked as a night guard on a construction site.
Raju became the impetus for the “Going Home” project, which Lobo founded to support students like him. Funded by Lobo’s personal earnings, he pays for housing, food and travel for students who cannot afford to become dancers, regardless of whether their families are poor or not (some families just choose not to support their children even if they have the means). Raju today is an amazing dancer and artist. Lobo says” He is amazing because he has paid his price: “If one does not find their death, then they don’t find their crest”.
Although his dance company has made it in Bollywood and the world stage with “ Amaara,” Lobo aims to turn Navdhara into one of the top 10 dance companies in the world that would tours 200 days a year.
“I want Navdhara to be in the top five dance companies in the world, so that youngsters can train professionally instead of copying steps off TV, and take this to smaller towns in India so that kids like Raju can pursue their dream.”
He is also putting finishing touches on his first Bollywood theatre dance musical for the world audience and gearing up to start Danceworx in 15 cities in India in three years.
Asked what his mantra is, he says:
“Its important to finish what one has started. Do everything that you take up, properly. Don’t be in the in-between zone, as life is about being there fully. That’s what my dad told me. If you become a sweeper, then do it really well.”