Kamal Singh did not even know what ballet was when he turned up nervously at the Imperial Fernando Ballet School, in Delhi, during the summer of 2016. But the 17-year-old, known as Noddy, whose father was a rickshaw driver in the west of the city, had been transfixed by ballet dancers in a Bollywood film, and wanted to try it for himself.
Four years on Singh is now one of the first Indian students to be admitted to the English National Ballet school. He started this week.
The school fees and London living expenses totalling about £20,000 were far beyond the reach of Singh’s family, but a crowdfunding campaign, backed by some of Bollywood’s biggest names, managed to raise all the funds needed in less than two weeks.
“I cannot explain how it feels, it is all my dreams come true” said Singh, 21. “It’s amazing, I’m enjoying every day. “My family do not know much about ballet but they are very happy and very proud that I am at the English National Ballet. I am the first in my family to come to London.”
When Fernando Aguilera, his teacher, mentor and the founder of the school in Delhi where he danced, first encountered Singh, he recalled his astonishment at the boy’s natural gifts.
“I knew immediately he was such a talent,” said Aguilera, who is from Argentina. “He was completely flexible, like a rubber. He had a body that was ready-made for ballet by god – he just needed to be taught how to use it.”
Singh told Aguilera he desperately wanted to carry on with classes but could not afford the 3,500 rupees (£37) fees per month. “In that moment my heart broke into pieces. I told him ‘come back tomorrow. I’m not going to charge you, just come because I want to keep seeing you in class’,” said Aguilera.
After Singh’s second class, Aguilera said he realised the boy had a “true gift, even though he didn’t know it”. He later took Singh on as a full-time student with a scholarship, even paying for his lunch and transport to the school, a two and a half-hour journey from the boy’s home.
Singh had never heard classical music or even a piano before his first lesson, but under Aguilera’s private tuition he learned not only ballet but the basics of reading music, the stories of famous ballet dancers, and all the storylines of the great ballets such as Swan Lake, Romeo and Juliet, and Giselle. He studied at the school for 10 to 12 hours every day.
Aguilera said: “He was very dedicated, he worked very hard and he wanted to learn. I taught him for four years, and he never asked for a break, he never missed a single day.”
He also made Singh and his family realise that there was a future in ballet. “He made me watch videos of professional ballet dancers and taught me that it can be a career, just like a doctor or an engineer, and he also met my father to explain. After that my father allowed me to study full-time.”
Under Aguilera’s sponsorship Singh went to Russia in 2019 to take part in a prestigious summer ballet course. He had been granted a scholarship to return this year but the Covid-19 pandemic happened and everything was cancelled.
Just as it seemed as if the opportunities were disappearing, an advert on Instagram said that English National Ballet in London was looking for male dancers. So Singh applied.
In September an acceptance email landed in Aguilera’s inbox. “I read this email seven times, I could not believe it,” said Aguilera. “I even translated it into Spanish just to make sure I was reading it right. And then I started crying.”
Singh’s first response was “‘sir I don’t think so, read the letter again”. But the initial celebrations swiftly turned to worry. The fees of £8,000 plus living expenses of £12,000 were unimaginable for Singh’s family. Aguilera, determined for money not to get in the way, was on the brink of taking out a loan to fund his student, when they had an idea to start a crowdfunding page.
Within a week they had raised 1.5m rupees (£16,000); by two weeks more than 1.9m rupees after several Bollywood stars such as Kunal Kapoor caught wind of the campaign, donated and shared the information widely. In the final week of September Singh boarded a flight to London.
Viviana Durante, artistic director of the English National Ballet School, said the year-long programme would provide Singh with “intense training in classical and contemporary techniques”, and he would be taught how to adapt to a dance world drastically altered by Covid-19. “Talk about passion, optimism and education. That’s what you need in these times and the students have it, including Kamal,” she said. He is one of only ten male dancers and ten female dancers who were selected this year.
Having only started training at 17, Singh’s capabilities as classically trained ballet dancer developed relatively late. But Durante said he was in good company. “Rudolf Nureyev started quite late as well. Obviously, if you start earlier you have more time to train. But you do get cases like Kamal where they start late and passion comes through – and his devotion and ability as well.”