Close-up: An Interview with Reshma Gajjar

Q: When did you discover your passion for dancing and how did you nurture your talent?

A: MY mother discovered that I had a love for dance at the age of 3, when she put me in ballet, tap and jazz classes.

Growing up, dance was my first love, first friend and first outlet to express myself as an artist and human. I didn’t realize dance was for life until I stopped to start college and study biology. I fell into a strange depression and in the search for comfort with something familiar, I took a dance class. Instantly, I felt like I was coming up for air and could breath again.

The dance teacher saw my potential and introduced me to the world of dance conventions, where, on a whim, I auditioned for a scholarship and won. I moved to Los Angeles on the year scholarship program with The Edge Performing Arts Center and began training to become a professional dancer. That year grew my passion for dance and the clarity that I was supposed to be a performing artist.

Q: Madonna, Ricky Martin and Selena Gomez are just a few of the superstars you have shared a stage with. Do you enjoy the touring life? Are there any stories or titbits you can share with us?

A: I relished tour life and the experience becoming a global citizen. I got to perform on renowned stages in international cities, meet locals and explore cultures. I felt I had so much to learn and I wanted to learn it from the places and people I met.

Working with such superstars was a lesson in itself. They work hard and carry a lot of pressure because, at the end of the day, its really about them. I loved that I was celebrated and respected as an artist amongst them, enjoying all the perks of that life, while also being able to hold onto my anonymity and take a stroll down the street. It was the best of both worlds. A favorite memory I have is on the Madonna’s Reinvention Tour, performing in the rain opposite a castle in Dublin in front of 80,000 people! It was so romantic.

Q: I believe your parents immigrated to America from India. How has the current American political climate effected you and your work?

A: WITH the exceptions of Native Americans, we are all immigrants to this country. Why and how people choose to forget is maddening, think about how peaceful it would feel if we remember.

Q: What have been the biggest hurdles – and triumphs – of your career?

A: AS an Indian American, a major obstacle I remember facing was the decision to pursue dance as a profession. The arts, dance, and entertainment industry, were understandably foreign, scary and unstable career concepts for my immigrant parents.

My being a girl did not help, and they did not approve of my choice to follow this career path. I was ready and willing to pursue it without their support, but I really wanted their blessing, so we made a compromise: I could pursue dance as long as I continued to earn a college degree (in a more stable field). This was quite challenging but I did it, I graduated with a degree in Business Law and most importantly gave my parents peace of mind.

Beyond my family, I faced challenges in America simply for being a woman of colour. When I first started auditioning for dance jobs, for years I was good enough to get to the end of auditions, but I wouldn’t get the job because I was too “exotic looking.” My ethnicity was not yet the mainstream. I was different, a little too different. That really frustrated me because it was something I had no control over.

I took time away to do some soul searching and decided that I wasn’t going to let the industry take two very important things away from me, who I was, and my love for dance. Ironically, when I eventually did start booking work, it was because of my diversity. In hindsight I always find there is divine timing. The world just wasn’t ready for me but also I wasn’t ready for the world and suddenly we both were.

My biggest triumphs I would say is longevity and versatility. I learned very early, that it didn’t matter how beautiful, talented or connected you were, because there will always be someone more beautiful talented and connected than you. Its a last man standing game. I took that message to heart and just focused on working hard on my craft and learning to love the process. I think those qualities along with taking care of myself, cultivating professionalism and maintaining good relationships with choreographers and directors is how I keep continuing to work.

A personal triumph and necessity of mine is maintaining a balance of working commercially and making art.

Q: There is a stunning short film on the front page of your website. Can you tell us more about this project?

A: YES! The short film is called SHIVER, a song by my long time friend and collaborator, singer/song-writer Monica Dogra.

The concept revolves around a central character who goes to audition at an old theatre full of symbolism and archetypal characters depicting an array of feminine expressions, the “sisterhood of the alone ones”. The five-minute-long video scrutinizes survival, admonishment, and whether or not these protected characters truly want to be segregated because they are different.

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Reshma performs in Shiver

The song talks about various issues like the loss of love, how instant messaging has taken over emotions and homosexuality. ‘Shiver‘ was one of the strongest performance art materials released in India that year and a collaboration I was very proud to be a part of. Shooting this project in India was life changing because my two worlds collided. It was a proud moment to showcase a contemporary style of dance and share a deep part of my artistry with the motherland.

I’ll never forget the pin drop silence after the first take, dressed in a small leotard, which in my culture could be considered risqué in this room full of mostly men. To my excitement they were looking at me not like a sexual object, but an alien. Curiosity and conversation followed around art and various social justice compartments like feminism, equality and embodiment. Art connects people by opening worlds and I felt that power first hand working on Shiver.

Q: You are cemented in cinema history as the person who opens Damien Chazelle’s La La Land. How do you reflect on this experience and your place in film history?

A: I still can’t believe it. I never could have imagined that I would be nicknamed by the New York Times the “ingenue in the yellow dress” or as you put it, cemented in cinema history. I am truly honored and excited to be that person because I feel the role I played represents hope, diversity and finding the extraordinary in ordinary, all things the world could use more of. That short opening scene had a big impact for a reason and being part of the change is where I want to be.

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Reshma helps kick-off La La Land

Q: I believe you work with your local community as a mentor. Can you tell us anything about this work and the joys you get from it?

A: HAVING a mentor felt like a vintage concept and a relationship that only a rare few were lucky to experience.

I never had a mentor so I decided to then be one myself! I joined a mentorship program and met kids similar to the one I once was, first generation Americans trying to hold onto and respect where they came from while fighting for who they are in the only world they know.

I love being able to give these kids a listening ear, offer different perspectives and help them understand where their parents might be coming from. Most importantly I try to support, empower and celebrate their differences and relate with them so they don’t feel alone.

Q: What are your goals for 2018 and beyond? What kind of art do you want to create?

A: THIS may sound strange but I don’t have goals. Instead, I follow a feeling. A feeling of freedom being in alignment with my truth and the joy of collaborating with artists that inspire me. I would love to find more opportunities to do more immersive dance theater. I want to keep creating art in collaborations especially in worlds involving film, dance, performance art, acting and style.

La La Land put me on the map as an actor, which has been great because I’ve been heading in that direction naturally. I’ve also recently got into visual arts, specifically ceramics. I love working with my hands and being able to make a tangible piece of work to compliment the fleeting art of performance.

Q: Lastly, do you have any upcoming projects you can tell us about?

A: I worked on Sia’s directorial debut film called Sister that will come out this year along with a new Beck music video, both with one of my favourite choreographers, Ryan Heffington. Currently, I’m workshopping a lead part in another musical feature film as well as another art video project that will be shot this year. More to come… thank you for asking.

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