Interview: Darshan Singh Bhuller, Inspired to Dance

By: Sep. 25, 2017
Courtesy of Darshan Singh Bhuller

Darshan Singh Bhuller is the award-winning choreographer and filmmaker whose work you've probably never seen, unless you've spent time in the UK. He was an acclaimed member of London Contemporary Dance Theatre, Siobhan Davies Dance Company, and Assistant Director for Richard Alston Dance Company before revitalizing Phoenix Dance Theatre as its Artistic Director, during which time the company was awarded the 2006 Critic's Circle National Dance Award for Outstanding Modern Repertoire. He has choreographed for a wide range of companies, including: LCDT, Rambert Dance Company, Richard Alston Dance Company, Shaolin Monks: Wheel of Life, Scottish Dance Theatre, CandoCo, Nordic Dance Theatre, CeDeCe, Zero Culture, and Companhia de Bailado Contemporaneo.

Though effectively retired from performing since 1996, he recently started taking classes at Gibney Dance and rehearsing at Mark Morris Dance Center in NYC. The reason? He is dancing at the upcoming gala celebration honouring Nadine Senior, the founding principal of the Northern School of Contemporary Dance who passed in January 2016. While Bhuller moved to London at 16 - to train with Graham Company luminaries Robert Cohan, Jane Dudley, and William Louther - it was Senior who introduced him to dance. Recently we spoke about her influence and his career.

Photography credit: Anita Griffin

At that time she was a gym teacher-cum-headmistress, teaching dance and drama. There was no technique. She hadn't studied dance herself. She would give us exercises and basically let us use our imaginations to make dance. Her main thing was to get boys to dance somehow. I was the captain of the football team, so she got me involved, and the rest of the kids followed. The area was predominantly Indian, West Indian, Chinese- some white working class people. It was rare that anybody was teaching any kind of art form in a state run school. We were lucky.

What was her teaching like?

She tapped into imagination. She would find the narrative of something and ask us, "How would you imagine it?" Rather than her saying, "Well I think you should do this" she'd say, "How would you imagine it if something happened to you? How would it feel?" That was the important thing. "What would that feeling make you move like?" So we were choreographing before we had any technique. Then she would take us to go see Rambert, London Contemporary Dance Theatre, and so forth. Eventually I was dancing with people I'd seen at the age of 12.

That's quite the introduction to dance. What is it that drives you to choreograph?

I feel this urge of... expressing myself. I see things around me. I see interesting narratives. It's like one big soap opera. I see different layers. Pretty much like a film where there are so many characters going on- how they intertwine. I find that really stimulating.

Bhuller and his wife, the film producer and former dancer Sallie Estep, relocated to New York a few years ago to be near their grandchild. Though fully immersed in this new role, he has continued working, choreographing for the Ailey/Fordham BFA program, resetting his work on Graham II and Nimbus Dance Works, and setting Robert Cohan's Forest on the Graham Company.

Nimbus Dance Works in Darshan Singh Bhuller's MAPPING
Photography Credit: Megan Maloy

Do you enjoy resetting work? Some choreographers hate it.

I don't mind it at all. I think it's fun because it always changes. Then it becomes something fresh. It's quite difficult to go in with the well-established companies without having something... I think it's always good to have some structure of the work before. There's little time to do anything sudden.

Is the lack of time a change for you?

I did a piece with Rambert after I became director of Phoenix. They gave me two months to choreograph, an orchestra, and a set that covered the whole of Sadler's Wells. You know, real kinds of luxuries. Fast forward to now and I'm helping to hang a camera or get a cable. It's just as exciting. And the dancers, in a small company are the same as in the Rambert or Ailey. You treat them the same.

What advice would you give to budding choreographers?

Patience. Your work is going to develop slower than you think. It's a little like when you're training your body. It takes years and years to mold your body into something that you want. Be patient with people in rehearsals, because repetition is pretty boring. In a repertory company how do we keep it fresh? You're doing the same thing, you're doing the same steps, and it always comes down to: What are you trying to say? That's what I would say.

Darshan Singh Bhuller performs in The Celebration Gala for Nadine Senior at West Yorkshire Playhouse on Sunday October 8th, 2017 at 7pm. Performers include Phoenix Dance Theatre, Northern School of Contemporary Dance, RJC Dance, and many guest artists who worked with Nadine over the past 40 years.

For more information and tickets, visit:


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