Choreographer Nakul Dev Mahajan On Working with Miss America Nina Davuluri

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13sep_nakulinterview-01Since season 4 in 2008, Fox’s dance reality contest, So You Think You Can Dance (SYTYCD), has incorporated Bollywood, choreographed by the great Nakul Dev Mahajan, as one of the dance styles the contestants have to perform. If you have read my articles before you probably know I am a former dancer, and an unabashed dance and SYTYCD fan! Last season I was lucky enough to talk with Nakul about the show. Since then it has been a very difficult year for him as he dealt with treatment for cancer. But as he says, he has persevered and lives, loves and dances! This year, while still recovering, and besides running and teaching at his school and other projects, he also was again a part of SYTYCD and one other big project: Nakul choreographed the Bollywood piece for Miss New York Nina Davuluri, the now reigning Miss America.  I was able to chat with the choreographer on Monday right after Davuluri won the pageant, and Nakul was on cloud nine! We had a fun and fabulous conversation about the number and, of course, SYTYCD. In part one of a two part interview (since we talked so long!) check out what Nakul had to say about working with Miss Davuluri and the process of creating the fabulous piece, the negative remarks about her win, presenting Bollywood on such a huge platform, and more!

Tell us about how exciting it is for Miss Nina Davuluri to win Miss America.
It was beyond! It was my birthday! I had just got home from work because I wanted Sunday to not be a stay home lazy day. I wanted to embrace the fact that it has been a challenging year and I wanted to celebrate my birthday doing what I love to do the most and that is working, because I couldn’t work for about 5 months. So I was surrounded by that and then I had plans for a small dinner with friends, we would stay home and get takeout. As soon as we are ordering takeout my friend tells me, ‘Just so you know, your Facebook is going crazy right now’. I asked why? He said, ‘Nina won’! And for us it hadn’t even aired yet, the East Coast had already got the feed and I was already getting messages from supporters from the East Coast saying congratulations, Nina won.

Then I was a crazy person, excited, had butterflies! It was like a proud moment! It was huge moment of like, You are kidding me – this is actually happening and she won! Then since it still had not aired I went online to watch it and saw that she was so generous and so were the organizers, that they were crediting people because they had a little pop up with my name on it. My jaw just dropped. I was like Oh My God that is so amazing and nice and so thoughtful and so many emotions. It was amazing. I am still in shock, but in a very good way! I am on cloud nine now Stacey!

How did the project come about?
She came to me in June and at that time I was only 4 months out of treatment and I wasn’t sure I was going to take on private classes. And it kind of bleeds into So You Think You Can Dance. I got an email from the Miss New York organization asking if I would be interested in choreographing Nina’s Bollywood number for her talent. Then she personally reached out to me saying that my style of Bollywood is exactly what she loves and what she wants to do. Adding, she is the reigning Miss New York, who is going to be in the Miss America pageant and that she is the first South Asian Miss New York and that if she wins Miss America she would be the first Miss America of Indian descent. That just made me excited right there. I didn’t even think of my energy level, my endurance, I was like okay, let’s do it! Things like that don’t come every day to you. And there was something about it that I felt was monumental. I felt that this girl has the possibility of being on a huge platform and if I can help her in anyway possible then that’s my duty, that’s why I am here. That’s why I am doing this; it is to spread the love of Bollywood. At the same time just be true to it, not give a watered down version of what it is. She could have easily gone somewhere else on the East Coast but it was very nice of her to have the Miss New York organization fly her out to LA. Then she learned her number from me in two days.

Tell us about creating the piece she did at the competition.
When I met her in person I instantly got this adrenaline rush through me because she is very magnetic and she has this amazing energy about her. She is very positive, very eloquent, very graceful, very driven, but you would have to be, she is all those adjectives that I am throwing at you because that is what I got from her. It was odd because I had a feeling that this girl was probably going to win.

13sep_nakulinterview-03This is not the first time I have trained pageant girls. I have done it before not at this level, at a community level. I kind of know the pageant world in terms of there is a different kind of choreography and performance when you are doing it for a pageant versus doing it for So You Think or for something else. She was very structured in what she wanted and very clear. When a client comes to you and they are clear about what they want then it gives the choreographer more direction to make sure they are staying in the parameters. Her structure for what she wanted was like hand and glove for me because that is exactly who I am as a choreographer. Her depiction of what she needed was she wanted to do ‘Dhoom Tanna’, which I am sure you remember was my Katee-Joshua number on SYTYCD. It has kind of become a national anthem for me. That and ‘Jai Ho’ are my most requested Bollywood numbers that people want me to choreograph. I am happy; I’ll take it that is fine!

So she wanted ‘Dhoom Taana’. She wanted to fuse Bollywood movement with her classical upbringing because she is Bharatanatyam trained. That was a gift right there. I love when I have trained dancers especially trained classical dancers because my background is classical as well. She was very open to the choreography. She took to everything I gave her and then just did it. When the student is open to anything you have to offer and are very trusting in terms of what you are giving them that in itself is a very humbling experience.

She also needed someone to make her music edit for her. I took it upon myself to do that because I know that music really well, as you can imagine. I know the chunks of the piece that can be sliced up and what the best moments are so she trusted me with that.

Nina and NakulWe knocked out the piece within I want to say 4 hours. It was over two days, it was three hours the first day and three hours the second day, but we spoke a lot. I think that is part of my process, getting to know people when I am teaching them. I am not a teacher that is someone who is here is your steps and go home. I love to know who they are, I love to know what their personality is and throw that in their number. I think that is important.

Another thing was, she was lip-synching the song when she came to rehearsal and I said you might not want to lip synch. She asked, Why? I said because I don’t know, but I think you kind of disconnect with them when you lip synch it. If they don’t quite understand what is going on and then their attention goes to the mouth and they are trying to figure what is she singing and they are not paying attention to the movement – the movement ends up being the supporting role and the face becomes the main role. People who are trying, that don’t speak Hindi, are going, ‘I wonder what she is singing and what does it mean?’. I said don’t sing it. She said, ‘I never thought about it that way. Okay I won’t sing it.’ I think because in America their exposure on TV to Bollywood mainly, if I can say this humbly, has been SYTYCD so they are used to the contestants not lip-synching the song so I wouldn’t throw them off by doing that. I am glad that she didn’t.

It is such an amazing opportunity to present Bollywood on such a huge platform.
Yes! It is a different demographic. Like I said it was my birthday and it is like the best birthday present ever. It feels good!

I am glad that America, they have embraced Bollywood. I am glad that they didn’t have to make a package (small video before the number -ed) to explain Bollywood! That was a moment for me because I obviously have been doing this since the beginning, like 15-20 years ago when people didn’t even know what Bollywood was. I have been doing since it was known as Hindi film dancing. I literally have seen the evolution of whenever this form was showcased on television they had to make a package to explain what it is to begin with. So to watch a television program of this stature that didn’t have to do that it really is a sign of the times for me. It is like, Wow we are now in America at the point that they don’t have to explain what Bollywood is – it is given. It is common and now becoming pop culture and that feels GREAT!

13sep_nakulinterview-04I saw just the picture of her in her gorgeous costume, in a pose in front attitude and she is just so beautiful, of course, and it seems she just totally imbibed the piece you created.
You know, it was just a really great match. I have always taken great pride in owning who I am as a choreographer and what my contribution has been in terms of my style. It has just been wonderful that the type of Bollywood she wanted was something that I have been doing since I was five years old. It is just a sense of validation too.

What do you think this win and that she performed a Bollywood number does for the exposure of Bollywood and Bollywood dance in the US?
It is only going to make it better. As we discussed, this was a different demographic. I am sure a lot of people are going to take this more seriously and take the dance more seriously. You know, some people think that just anyone can do Bollywood. And it is true that I like to preach that anyone can do Bollywood but it takes a certain type of person who embodies a certain amount of talent to execute Bollywood the way a professional would, and that is what Nina embodied. She encompassed what it is to be a talented Bollywood dancer, not just someone who is doing it for fun. I think if anything what this is going to tell people is that yeah there is technique involved in Bollywood. Look at the sharpness; look at the grace – there is a lot of structure in Bollywood. It is not a style where any one can just get up shake their butt, wear a bindi and think they are doing Bollywood. Which is true, you can dance Bollywood, but it is like saying someone can come from the street and they can learn hip-hop – you can, but there is a huge difference between a master and an amateur. Do you see what I mean? She definitely presented herself as someone who has been dedicated and loyal to this form of dance. And she did exactly what she said she would, which was a fusion semi-classical Bollywood number. It was all there.

Now, we must talk about the ignorant horrible racist comments made after her win, do you have a comment on that?
You never want to fuel into negativity. That is something that I have always lived by as much as it is hard not too. I have not learned not read blogs. I learned that years ago. I still don’t. Even if a number on So You Think or whatever I do on television goes well, I try not to read anything because your eyes are going to wander down to that one comment that’s negative and then your whole day is screwed. And it affects you, because as artists what we do is very close to us, it’s part of us. Then when you are putting part of you on a platform that is accessible to thousands of people and when someone says that is horrible and you’re awful, it just makes you feel like inside that you are awful and horrible. I think people can be so rude. There is a lot of cyber bullying these days. I think it is just getting worse and worse. I have always know about the cyber bullying but I didn’t realize how bad it had gotten until Priyanka Chopra’s father passed away. I follow her on her Instagram and I saw the many comments that people were posting and wrote about how she shouldn’t be promoting. She should be sitting at home thinking about her father and being there for your mother and it went on and on. It just disgusted me that this was our own people of our own nation hating on each other. I don’t think it is just an Indian thing it is a people thing. It is awful. I have had that happen to me. I have learned you shouldn’t feed into negativity.

13sep_nakulinterview-02I think that is what is happening right now with all the things with Nina. When we were rehearsing we talked about being a public figure and the pros and cons of it and with that you get the good the bad and the ugly. To address the overall umbrella of what people maybe are seeing or saying about it, the thing is Nina’s whole platform is on cultural diversity. When I met her, I asked her what her reign was about and she said cultural diversity. She said, ‘You know I am representing New York so I feel it is appropriate. Did you know that the first black Miss America was from New York – Vanessa Williams. New York seems to start the trend’. I said, ‘Well, hopefully that is going to happen to you. I have a feeling it is.’

Of course we are in America and it is the cultural melting pot of the world. The world is getting smaller and smaller because of the Internet whether that is a great thing or a bad thing that is a whole different debate. I just think Nina’s win is going to open doors for a lot of people. The beauty about America is that we are nation of different cultures and palettes and faiths and that is what makes this the greatest nation in the whole world – that it embraces everything, but, of course, you are going to get the bad of that as well. There is not much you can do except educate people about what this world is headed towards and that is diversity. It is all about knowing about other people’s cultures, their stories and their background that is what it is all about.

I think America is setting a trend about diversity to the world and I think Nina is all about that and she is the epitome of celebrating diversity right now.

How great is it that she will be able to go out and spread that message of cultural diversity?
It is so great. I was just talking to a friend saying it is so great that in 2013 all these kids that are learning Bollywood in our school are coming back with stories of friends who think it is so cool that they are Indian. I find that to be a quantum leap experience to what it was when I grew up here when it wasn’t cool being Indian. I think this is yet another moment for girls all over of South Asian descent or any girl who doesn’t stereotypically look like the Miss America contestant who wins to go and think and dream and believe that they truly also have a chance to win.

Stay tuned for part 2 as we talk all things SYTYCD season 10, of course Bollywood and more!

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