The Bollywood Dancers of Whitechapel
As a Summery languor settled upon the dusty streets of Whitechapel, I dropped in on the Bollywood dancers rehearsing for their new show which opens next week, where an entirely different energy prevailed. While out on the pavements people drifted like sleepwalkers, in the rehearsal studio members of Flex FX – Britain’s top Bollywood dance troupe – were dancing like demons, leaping and kicking up their heels for joy, and twisting and stretching their limbs to the pulsing music in an audacious display of overwhelming exuberance.
“This is our masterpiece. We want to show you Bollywood like you’ve never seen it before!” promised Naz Choudhury, the impassioned leader of this barn-storming crew who have played the Albert Hall, the Royal Opera House and Wembley Stadium. Such is the success of his company, that Flex FX have become a full-flown commercial enterprise reaching a popular and enthusiastic audience. And they are currently working towards a show at the O2 arena next year in which – turning the tables – they will bring Bollywood stars from India to perform in their production. Derived originally from Hindi cinema, Bollywood dance has undergone a metamorphosis in London, encountering the variety of dance genres and styles that exist here, and emerging as a more complex hybrid with an enlarged vocabulary of moves, and greater creative potential.
It was Naz who had the courage to raise the game, breaking away from the traditional amateur dance scene when he decided that his company would not perform at weddings, the prime venue for most Bollywood dance groups. Instead, he focused upon instilling a rigorous precision of moves in his dancers, to raise the technical standard of performance beyond that expected in Bollywood films. At the same time, he trained his dancers as athletes to encourage a more energetic approach, switching between contrasted styles. The outcome is a sharper, more volatile style of dance, moving between Bollywood, Street Dance and Latin within a single extended piece of up to ninety minutes of choreography. “It’s about showing everyone what we can do!” said Naz plainly.
Key to the development of the company was the arrival of the willowy Leena Patel, principal dancer and assistant choreographer, who studied Indian Classical Dance since the age of eight. Her trained presence at the heart of the company provided a core around which Naz could choreograph. “I’ve never felt so exhilarated in my life,” admitted Leena, her eyes sparkling with delight,“We want to prove that Bollywood can be as good as Contemporary Dance and Ballet.”
When Naz was thirteen, he joined a youth dance company in Brick Lane at the Kobi Nazrul centre and he has worked for the last fourteen years – the last ten as a full-time professional – to reach this moment where now, at twenty-seven years old, he is the director of his own dance company with a major reputation and a wide audience.
It is a long way from the black and white photograph below, taken twenty years ago by Phil Maxwell who lives across the hall from Naz Choudhury in Whitechapel. In the foreground of Phil’s picture, the young Naz is emerging from the lift at the head of a group of children, while in the background the logo of the National Front is written upon the wall. The children appear unaware of the writing behind them and Naz is pictured as an undefined figure emerging into another space.
The development of Bollywood dance and the transformation it has undergone in Britain, absorbing and meeting other styles, to emerge re-energised and triumphant is emblematic of Naz’s own personal journey. Through dance, he has reassessed and reinvented his own culture to create something new that reflects the world as he finds it. And Phil Maxwell’s photograph exists today as a poignant counterpoint, reminding us that Naz Choudhury’s story is one of the triumph of joy over hatred.
Naz Choudhury, Director of Flex FX
Phil Maxwell’s photograph of Naz Choudhury as a child leaving the lift in Pauline House, Whitechapel, where a National Front logo had been drawn.
Readers are invited to the premiere of Bolly Flex at the Hackney Empire next Saturday 3oth July at 7:30pm – a ten pound discount will be given on top price tickets if you mention Spitalfields Life when you make your booking.
Watch a short film of Bolly Flex by clicking here