Pia Sutaria: Paving her own path

They say ‘dancing is like dreaming with your feet.’ She embodies it.

Harper's Bazaar India

I can't really explain it
I haven't got the words
It's a feeling that you can't control
I suppose its like forgetting
Losing who you are
And at the same time
Something makes you whole
Its like that there's a music
Playing in your ear
And I'm listening, and I'm listening
And then I disappear
And then I feel a change
Like a fire deep inside
Something bursting me wide open
Impossible to hide
And suddenly I'm flying
Flying like a bird
Like electricity
Sparks inside of me
And I'm free, I'm free
-Billie Elliot 

Besides being a professional dancer, Pia Sutaria is a dance educator, singer, and actor. With a passion for ballet that started at age five, Sutaria has navigated her way through ups, downs, and everything in between to be exactly where she’s wanted to be—on stage, performing a musical. From being centre stage during Miss Universe, to teaching and mentoring kids at her school, Sutaria enjoys the mixes and matches that her career has to offer. When she sat down in conversation with this author, she spoke about the inclination to be a performer, the challenges that came with it, and the tough decisions that she had to take along the way. It was a bit of everything—smiles, tears, excitement, and fears. Read on to know more about her journey and where she’s headed.

Harper’s Bazaar (HB): When did your journey with dance begin? And was it always ballet?

Pia Sutaria (PS): I'll start from the beginning. My mother took me to watch a musical movie titled Billy Elliot, because she says she had an inkling that I was inclined towards ballet, but every time she asked if she could take me to the class, I'd say no. I was quite a tom-boy; I didn't want to do ballet. But when I watched this movie of a boy who fights the odds and learns ballet, something about him really connected with me. That image of Billie Elliot jumping in the air stayed with me, and I knew I wanted to do that. I was five at the time. My mother put me in a class with the only ballet teacher in Mumbai at the time, Tushna Dallas. I remember, Tushna used to audition all the students, and even though my sister and I cleared the audition, the class schedule did not fit ours. I was insistent, and implored Tushna to accommodate me one way or another. We didn’t think she would call back, but she did. She rearranged a bunch of her school and class timings to accommodate my schedule. Mom always said, ‘If you're gonna do this, you do it 100%’. And I took it very seriously.

HB: So, once you grew a little older, how did you make that decision and then pursue it? 

PS: When my sister and I finished school, I knew that I wanted to do it professionally. But when we were growing up, just before the era of Facebook and Instagram, we didn’t have access to what was happening around the world in the world of dance. We couldn’t compare our level with kids abroad, until we had been abroad. What we were doing was not enough. And so, when I spoke to my teacher (I was 15, then), she offered me to teach at her school. But I wanted to be on stage. Thereon, I made a lot of decisions that have kind of brought me here today. 


A post shared by Pia Sutaria (@piasutaria)

HB: How did your parents respond to that decision and how much of a role did they play in the process? 

PS: I think we've been super, super lucky with our parents. Like all other Indian parents, of course, they were concerned about us finishing our graduation, but they never made it seem like we had to give up extracurricular activities for academics; it was always about managing time between the two. Tara and I, didn't go to sleepovers or birthday parties. We had a very structured schedule. And in some ways, I think we’re trying to make up for it now. But it's not like we had a miserable childhood; we had a really great one. I was always good at academics, so my parents were really hoping that I would pursue law, but I think I was very headstrong in my decision and I kept telling them that I can pursue law even when I’m 30 or 40. 

HB: Art forms are perceived very differently in India and abroad—how did you navigate your way through that? 

PS: When I found out that I couldn't perform ballet full-time in a company in Mumbai, I found another company, Navdhara, which taught modern dance and jazz. I was very lucky I was selected. They also made me teach; I realised teaching was inevitable in Mumbai. But I also realised that I loved it. So, by this time, I was performing, teaching, and going to college. With Navdhara, I was travelling and performing around the world. We went to USA, Canada, Turkey, Israel, and even Japan. At the time, I was a student at Jai Hind college and they weren't supportive of me. So, I shifted colleges in the first semester, and completed my degree in marketing and finance from St. Andrews. In a way, it turned out great because I run my own school now. 

HB: So, with Navdhara, was it only ballet? 

PS: No. I ended up learning and performing a lot of modern, contemporary forms of dance, too. But I quickly realised that ballet was my passion. The reason I actually joined Navdhara was because there was an amazing international ballet teacher there, Yehuda Maor (The man who trained Aamir and Manish in the film Yeh Ballet). I just wanted to learn more and grow, and if that meant doing ballet for just four hours and not being able to perform it, I was okay. 

HB: Which artists did you look up to in your field? 

PS: One of my ballet idols has always been Alessandra Ferri, an Italian dancer, who is in her late 50's and is still performing. The one thing I missed in India was that there were not too many ballet dancers growing up to watch / learn from. I feel lucky to be able to do so much work in the field and be recognised as a ballet dancer. 

Photograph by: Meghna Bhulla

HB: How did you then navigate your way as a dancer in India—where it was all too rare to ‘make it?’ What were the challenges? 

PS: I think the most difficult thing to be a ballet dancer in India at that time was the lack of a formal pathway or structure. It was pretty much trial and error—just taking up every opportunity that came your way. Our mother encouraged us to take things head on. So, we were performing at NCPA in Mumbai, when we were four. We got a lot of exposure, which led to us being noticed. Unlike most dancers abroad, I did not get a formal degree in dance and become a professional performer. I consider my years at Navdhara as my formal education, because I was studying and dancing for about 14 hours a day. 

HB: Why ballet? What drew you to it, and what does it make you feel even today? 

PS: The music, the form, and the structure of ballet appeal the most to me. The music takes me to another realm, every time. It’s the only thing that makes me feel completely at ease; it’s my meditation. It comes naturally to me. 

HB: What happened after you completed your undergrad studies? 

PS: I started teaching; I realised I wanted it to be a part of my life. So, after teaching and heading the ballet division of Ashley Lobo’s dance school, Danceworx, for about six years, I felt that  even though I loved teaching, it was definitely a big responsibility. When I was 21, I had my first shoulder dislocation and surgery. I couldn't perform for six months and had to take a break from ballet. That's when I decided that the best thing to do with my time was to actually go and learn how to teach, because I didn’t have the professional training in teaching. So, when I was on holiday in the UK, I went to the Royal Academy of Dance headquarters on a whim and asked if I could apply for the programme. They suggested I apply for the six-month-long post-graduate degree instead of a BA. I got into the programme with a scholarship! 

HB: How was that experience? 

PS: When I got there, I realised that I was with people who have had 10 to 15 year-long, professional careers with the Royal Ballet, English National Ballet, Paris Opera Ballet etc; people who were working in musical theatre on the West End, and I was this 21-year-old from India, who had a very different training experience. Those few months changed my life. I ended up having lots of conversations with them about their journeys. I realised how different it was back home, and what the next generation in India needed to do. Until that time, I was only teaching kids who were learning ballet as a hobby, but a lot of them were really talented and I started helping some of them to apply to schools abroad. Thus, the school was born. I decided that I wanted to teach and train students who wanted to puruse ballet as a career. So I came back and started ICMD India. Of course, I still dreamt of performing on stage, but it wasn’t possible at the time. 


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HB: Tell us about ICMD. 

PS: I started the institute with a business partner, but unfortunately things got really complicated over time. I wasn't able to take important decisions about something, that was my brainchild. So, I eventually parted ways. I almost gave up because I thought I can't do this without someone else. I was devastated. But the parents of students enrolled with me were supportive and put trust in me. I decided to give it a shot for one year; it’s been four amazing years now. 

HB: How did you find your way back to performing? 

PS: I got back to ballet because of ICMD. I started getting some recognition—editorial features, TED Talks and so on. It helped the academy grow in many ways. I was getting offers for films and shows, but all I really wanted was to be on stage and to dance. Luckily, I got called to open Miss Universe, where I performed ballet on the Bollywood song, ‘mud mud ke’, in a lehenga. I also performed at Lakmé Fashion Week. Opportunities like these started coming along, and I was still teaching the kids. Just when COVID hit India, the school had peaked; I felt I had peaked. But I always second-guessed myself—am I actually really good? What would happen if I was to put myself outside of here? Can I still perform? The students I was teaching were doing so well and I thought, if they can do it at 18, I'm 25—why have I decided to stop performing? I spoke to a lot of my friends about going back to learning. And they pushed me! I applied to the top three schools for musical theatre with available scholarships. I had been saving up, but it wasn’t enough, and I wanted to do it on my own. The application deadline was the next day. I sat up all night with a friend and filmed a dance routine, a monologue, and a song. 

Three weeks later, I was taking a Zoom class on my terrace, when I got an email from them saying I had been accepted and had also got the Disney theatrical scholarship. I was overwhelmed. I didn’t have a plan. I had a school to run…I couldn’t decide. With Covid, I was also finding it difficult to put finances together. The director of the academy got on a call with me and asked how much I would need to add to attend. They ended up raising those funds for me. Back home, I started calling up parents of my students and explaining the situation. They were all so incredibly supportive. 

HB: How was that experience? 

PS: It was a dream come true. It was rigorous; we were there every day, morning to night, including Sundays. Every few weeks we had a performance under the mentorship of a West End director. And I got picked up by about eight different agents in my final show. I hadn't really planned what I would do next, because I was quite nervous about working there. I signed with one of the agents to see if I could work there. The idea was also to guide the kids back in India. I was running ICMD remotely, and so, the last year and half has been tough with all the changes. But I had to find my own feet and get a job there, and find my life there, along with my school in India. So initially, before getting all my paperwork in place, I was working in a bar, and responding to ICMD emails. It took me about nine months to get my first performing job but it’s been amazing since. I performed in New York, UK, I did opera and plays, and I have been auditioning for musicals every week. 

HB: Where did this need to be completely independent come from? 

PS: I think I've always been fiercely independent. But when it came to the financial aspect of pursuing this full time, it was very clear from the beginning that we would have to do it with scholarship. Our parents have had that conversation with us when we were quite young. They told us ‘we can support you until your training, but going abroad is something that you have to be really good and find a way financially’. But they always helped me figure it out. It was a combination of my own savings, trust funds, and scholarships that allowed me to do this full time. 

HB: What are your goals as a ballet dancer? 

PS: I think one of the important things as a ballet dancer is to be consistent, and practise it every day. At my age, my goal is also to continue performing safely and take care of my body while being the best performer I can be. This will help me in my role as an educator. So, my largest goals are interconnected. To be a good educator, you have to be growing. And that's something I want to kind of try and live by. It's really difficult though, because to grow you need time away from teaching and the school; and performing gives me that time. So, my goal right now is to perform as much as I can and gain experience. I want to connect with people from all over the world and start a mentorship programme for Indian students with international experts and artists, and help them figure things out. My ballet teacher, Tushna Dallas, was a pioneer of ballet in India and she created a generation of dancers who ended up being good, and I want to create a generation of dancers that will be great and compete at international level. Eventually, once I’m done performing, I want to travel to countries and teach ballet in places where people have no access. My goal is to be able to pass on everything that I have been able to gain access to, to the next generation of dancers and make them even better than any of us could be. 

HB: What do you hope for the future of ballet in India?

PS: I really want us to develop an Indian ballet company. I think the first step towards this is good training programmes for kids, getting better teachers, and hopefully creating some sort of a company where they can perform. We have the amazing Symphony Orchestra of India and some amazing venues, too. We just need to mobilise it. I'm hoping for India to be able to support its artists and its dancers in a way that they can actually have a career in performance without having to do it as a side hustle. 

HB: How do you centre yourself when things don't turn out the way you want them to? 

PS: More often than not, things don't turn out the way I initially plan. My whole life has been a series of incidents, and I would say most of them happened for the best, that I could have never imagined I could have dealt with. I am so proud that I have been able to do that. And I don't think I've ever stopped and been able to say, 'Wow Pia, I'm proud of you for doing this and getting through this.' And today, I feel so grateful that I'm actually able to stop and say it because a lot of people spend most of their lives working hard but not acknowledging themselves. A routine helps me through those hard times. I have had a very high-functioning life at all points, and I realised that it was taking a huge toll on me. About two years ago, I started mediation and yoga practice, and I feel like if I don't do that in the morning now, I can't get through the day without having a meltdown! 

I also feel that I'm ready to talk about this, where I recognised the need for support to get through this high-functioning life, to make sure that I wasn't going crazy. I explored therapy in late 2021, and I feel that it has been a safe space for me. I do it because I want to be efficient and in the best possible mental and physical health. These changes have been amazing. 

HB: What keeps you going? 

PS: My only passion in life other than ballet is food. Jokes apart, my support system—my family and my close friends—keep me going. I feel, being an artist is one of the most challenging careers you can choose, primarily because you have to be so used to dealing with rejection on a daily basis and you have to be disciplined, all the time. It is mentally challenging, and I don't think I would be able to do it without the people who surround me, whether it's my teachers or friends. The last five years, since I've been working independently in Mumbai, without a mentor, I've made many mistakes but have always had the right people to help me move forward with grace and strength. 

HB: What makes you happy?

PS: I haven't really found the answer yet. But what I can say from what I’ve learnt so far, is balance. 

Lead image credit: Simone Gandhi, Shivin Grover, Sunny Grover