When Krishna danced to the Beatles in Vegas5 min read . Updated: 28 May 2017, 09:00 PM IST
Once upon a time, a fifth-year IIT student decided he could dancehe went on to star in a Beatles-inspired Cirque du Soleil production
It has been called a rock ‘n roll poem, with over 50 dancers and acrobats on stage, and three Grammy Awards so far. It is the Cirque du Soleil show of The Beatles LOVE, inspired by the music and lyrics of The Beatles.
The first time Samanth “Sam" Vinil watched the show, he was mesmerized, almost in tears. It was unlike anything he had ever seen—or even imagined. This was the early summer of 2013, and Vinil had just travelled from Mumbai to Las Vegas.
The best thing was, in the next few weeks, he was going to be on that stage, part of that show.
When he first heard about Cirque du Soleil, Vinil, then 22, was in the fifth and final year at IIT Bombay, studying for an M. Tech degree. For a “studious" boy from Hyderabad, who had grown up thinking of an engineering degree from a premier institution, this was the perfect career path.
Then he discovered dance.
It was while rehearsing for an inter-hostel competition that Vinil chanced upon videos of popping, a street dance style that, like many good things, originated in California during the 1970s. He started watching videos every chance he got—“everything I learned was from YouTube"—and practised for the next six months.
When the next competition came around, his popping skills made him a mini celebrity on campus. Closely related to the hip-hop style of dancing, popping is typically done to hip-hop or electronic music.
While he kept dancing without any specific goal, his online guru, “Mr Wiggles", made it seem effortless, and if Wiggles could do it, why not he? “I stopped all other activities and just started dancing whenever I had the time," he says.
In March 2013, a year after Vinil first started dancing, he tagged along with a friend, a dancer in the international circuit, for the Cirque auditions in Mumbai; he had no idea what it was all about. Of 30 aspirants from all over the country, eight were short-listed after several rounds.
His girlfriend—now wife—researched the company online, and when he received a contract a couple of months later, Vinil admits that he was unprepared for it. “I sent them more videos saying, this is me dancing, are you sure?" he admits candidly.
Cirque du Soleil (meaning “circus of the sun") is one of the world’s largest theatrical companies, founded in the early 1980s by two Canadians. Their shows are always larger than life, a spectacular combination of dance, music acrobatics and rhythm.
The company itself has over 1,300 artists on contract, from 55 countries, with each show having anywhere from 50 to 100 performers. Apart from a few North American staples like New York City and Las Vegas, several shows are on tour at any given time in places as far away as Australia, Chile and Singapore.
When the auditions team came to India, they were in search of a dancer for the role of Krishna in a solo performance—and that was how Vinil, who had three months to go before his M. Tech degree, found himself playing god.
On Krishna, according to a press statement given by Dominic Champagne, who wrote the original concept and directed the show, the idea was to create a complete Beatles experience “taking the audience on an emotional journey rather than a chronological one, exploring the landscapes and experiences that have marked the group’s history". Therefore, the foray into the aesthetic, political and spiritual trends of the 1960s.
Melanie Lalande, the artistic director of The Beatles LOVE, explains over an email, “The spirituality and culture of India deeply moved The Beatles and the influence is heard in their music, especially towards the end of their time together. LOVE is fortunate to have Indian artists in the show playing Krishna, bringing alive the authenticity of that special time in The Beatles’ legacy."
The show itself is composed entirely of the band's most popular songs. It is now in its 11th year—one of Cirque’s most popular—playing at The Mirage Casino at Las Vegas.
What started as a one-year contract kept getting extended, and Vinil spent over three years as part of the show. When he reached Las Vegas, it took only four weeks before he started performing on stage; two weeks to choreograph his dance routine and two more to polish it to the final version.
But the training was so thorough and rigorous that it was seamless—from rehearsing on stage to performing on stage, in front of an audience. Like with all dance numbers in Cirque shows, his was a freestyle mix of various dance movements.
If Vinil was initially apprehensive about the creative culture at the Cirque, he found that he fit right into the scheme of things, with enough space to experiment and create. “As long as your performance is visually satisfying and you stick to the needs of the script, they were fine," he says.
So, in the midst of the frenzy of the other numbers, Vinil wafts in as a soothing flow of music and dance.
As Lalande says, “When Sam was with us playing Krishna, he brought such a regal quality to the role. The stage filled with this calmness during his number ‘Here Comes The Sun’ that really transported audiences."
His tall, wiry frame was also perfectly suited for a graceful rendition of this melodious number.
In that astounding show that sometimes seemed like visual trickery, Vinil came on stage and ignited an unexpected spark of Indianness in me as I watched (during my trip to Las Vegas in June 2016), the kind of spark that is often passed on through forwarded WhatsApp messages about the incredible (and mostly nonexistent) achievements of our country.
Incidentally, the latest Krishna—replacing Vinil, once he decided to move back to India to complete his formal education—is another Indian from Mumbai, Indrajit Kumavat, whom Lalande describes as “vibrant, taking to the stage like a panther".
That is not to say it was all easy; Vinil’s natural diffidence took over in his initial days, coupled with the awe at performing with acclaimed and experienced artists from all over the world. Many of them soon welcomed him into the fold when they saw him rehearsing; the atmosphere at Cirque was challenging but motivating.
Vinil returned to India last year, married his college girlfriend, Ashwathi Nambiar, and is now working on a three-month project assigned by IIT Bombay to complete his M. Tech.
As it happens, this desire for a degree—four years after he abandoned it in search of a life in the performing arts—is to further another creative dream. While in Vegas, he began to paint and compose music, because, “everyone around me was crazy serious about art and I found that it came naturally to me".
For the kind of advanced diplomas in music he is eyeing, a B. Tech degree is a prerequisite.
“It feels like four years of a dream—everyday there was a roller coaster, every day was new and full of different experiences," says this dream-chaser, a tad wistfully now.
Charukesi Ramadurai’s life mantra goes ‘travel, write, drink filter kapi; rinse, repeat’.
Comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org