“I'd love to be an inspiration to the diverse Asian communities that I'm from.”
Sarah Kundi is one of the most prominent British Asian ballet dancers of today.
Training professionally since 16, she danced for Northern Ballet and Ballet Black for almost a decade, enchanting audiences with her graceful twirls and gorgeous poses.
Since joining the English National Ballet in 2014, she spends over 40 hours a week rehearsing, stretching and perfecting her pirouettes, whilst regularly performing in Europe.
In an exclusive Gupshup with DESIblitz, Sarah Kundi retraces her humble steps through to her ambition to champion diversity in the British dancing scene.
What drew you to ballet?
“It was actually one of my younger sisters that got me into ballet! She saw it on TV and asked Mum if she could go take a ballet class. So of course I got roped into going along to accompany her!
“Apparently I took to it like a fish to water, but my sister, not so much! As the story goes, the only reason why she initially wanted to go in the first place, was to only get the ballet slippers and dress!”
Ballet is hardly a conventional career among British Asians. What was your family’s response to your interest in learning it?
“My family, Mum and Dad in particular were and have always been extremely supportive and open regarding my interest in ballet.
“I started when I was 6, locally and just for fun at first, but then it wasn’t until I was about 11 that I realised how much I loved this incredible art form, and that I had the potential to go far!
“It was tough, as I’d complete a full day at school before having to train for 4-5 hours every evening! But Mum and Dad took it in turns to take me to my lessons, and we made it work!
“They never doubted me or my love for ballet, they accepted and embraced it which was (is) a wonderful and amazing thing! So I’m extremely grateful that they fully supported me in fulfilling my dream of becoming a professional ballerina.”
Were there other Asian ballet dancers in your school?
“Over the duration of my training, I was the only Asian!
“It was when I joined Ballet Black, a small company based in London that I realised the lack of dancers from an Asian ethnic background.”
What encourages you to become a professional dancer?
“Ballet and dance has always been my huge life passion, and there was always a determination and drive within me to make something of myself. I wanted to make my parents proud of me after all the time and effort they put into all of my training.
“Also, I had the most wonderful mentor a person could ever ask for, a lovely Scottish lady who I used to call Sheppy!”
What kind of training did you undergo in order to become a top ballerina?
“I wasn’t in full time training until I was 16, when I was accepted into Central School of Ballet for three years.
“I remember being in my element, as it was the first time I was surrounded with people that had the same passion as me all day, every day!
“Although I was naturally gifted in some ways with my upper body, I wasn’t so much with my bottom half, so I really had to work hard on my legs and feet.
“I had quite a lot of catching up to do, as there were girls that had been in full time training since they were 11! We did ballet class everyday followed by pointe work, solos, repertoire and pas de deux lessons.
“As a dancer, it’s important to be versatile in different styles, so we also had to do Contemporary and Jazz. We also had pilates a couple times a week to help strengthen and tone our muscles, and I also used to do gyro-tonics (another form of exercise similar to Pilates, but set on an apparatus and is more fluid/less static).
“I remember when I was in my first year, I had a growth spurt so I had to do a lot of extra stretching.
“My Dad even built me a mini studio at the back of the house so I could have the space to practice, stretch and even have private catch up sessions, so that was wonderful!”
What is your current training regime and diet plan?
“We train six days a week from 10.15am till 6.30pm, although Saturdays are half day till 2.30pm. We start the day with ballet class for an hour and a half, then have a 15-minute break before rehearsals kick off at noon till 6.30, but with an hour’s lunch break.
“Obviously it’s different when we are on tour – we start later around 11.30am and don’t finish till 10/10.30pm (depending on what ballet we’re performing). So long days in general, but they always go by super-fast as I’m mostly so busy at work.
“There’s always something to be doing when not rehearsing, be it Pilates, Sports science fitness, seeing the Physio, having a costume fitting or sewing pointe shoes!
“As a dancer, our body is our tool, so it’s important to feed it with the right foods, fluids and nutrients. I eat a varied and balanced diet with lots of fruit and vegetables and good home cooking. I’m not strict with myself, so I can eat pretty much whatever I want – in moderation of course!
“I try to drink my 2 litres of water every day, if not more, especially when you sweat a lot. I avoid alcohol during the week, but might treat myself to a glass of wine on the weekend if the occasion calls!”
What is your favourite food and drink?
“I just love Aloo Methi! That along with a couple of Gulab Jamans – they’re definitely my favourites! I’m a big fan of bread, especially with jerra seeds in (aka cumin seeds!). I also enjoy Mum’s awesome Sunday Roasts!
“I have a sweet tooth, which means I can’t resist cake, biscuits, chocolate or sweets. I allow myself to indulge on the weekends!
“My favourite tipples are Baileys, or a Vouvray (sweet white French wine).”
What do you do to relax and recharge?
“I love spending quality time with my loved ones – family and friends! I also enjoy reading, listening to music, baking, knitting and taking walks in the park (to name a few)!”
What do you think can be done to improve the diversity in dancing/ballet in the UK?
“It might help if schools introduced ballet into their curriculum. I know there is a scheme called ‘Chance to Dance’ which encompasses 24 primary schools in South London and encourages youngsters from the age of seven to participate in ballet classes.
“When the time comes, you never know, I may even consider opening a ballet school of my own, in an area where ballet could and would be exposed to create interest within an Asian community.
“I’d love to one day be an inspiration to young ones from the diverse Asian communities that I’m from, to demonstrate that you can become a professional and sustain a healthy living from the ballet/dance industry.
“That what started out as a hobby, could in fact become a career that would be fulfilling and rewarding.
“An example of this is a piece called ‘Dust’ which was choreographed by Akram Khan. I had the pleasure to perform this award winning piece last year.
“He’s well renowned in the dance world, and he’s been commissioned to do his first full length ballet, Giselle, for us at English National Ballet (ENB) later this year. I’m very much looking forward to the whole creative process!”
What is your all-time favourite ballet production and dancer?
“It is most definitely Romeo & Juliet. Everything about it is just amazing and iconic.
“I mean [Sergei] Prokofiev, what a genius! That score is just stunning and I still always get tears in my eyes whenever I hear that last Crypt scene pas de deux right at the end of the ballet. It’s incredibly moving and so powerful to listen to, just wonderful!
“My favourite all time dancer is the beautiful Margot Fonteyn. I was never fortunate enough to see her dance live, but I used to watch videos of her and Nureyev dance together, Macmillan’s Romeo & Juliet in particular!
“She had a certain grace and elegance about her when she was dancing, that I almost felt like I could relate to.”
Watch a clip of Margot Fonteyn and Rudolf Nureyev in Tchaikovsky’s ‘Swan Lake’:
What is the biggest gift ballet has given you?
“I love being a creative artist and I love the fact that I get to express myself on stage. There’s something about being in that moment on stage performing, knowing that I’m bringing joy and happiness to all the audience watching.
“I enjoy the physicality that the job requires, at times of course it’s extremely demanding, but it’s all worth it to hear the applause at the end. I just feel very lucky to be able to do something that is my passion as my job, and to be able to continuously grow and develop as an artist.”
Who inspires you?
“My boss the lovely Tamara Rojo has always inspired me since I first saw her when I was 13/14.
“My mentor Sheppy used to take me to watch her perform at any chance I got! I fell in love with the way she moved, turned and how beautiful her legs and feet are! It’s amazingly ironic after all these years that I now work for her!
“On a more personal level, I’d say that my parents always inspired me growing up and even more so now. I realised how hard they’ve had to work to bring me and my sisters up and what a great job they’ve done to keep us healthy and happy.”
What is your advice for young ballerinas, particularly Asian, considering dancing as a career?
“’BELIEVE IN YOURSELF’ My Mum used to say this to me all the time! Go for gold, go for it because you have nothing to lose at the end of the day. Everything is a learning curve and you grow and evolve from everything that happens to you.
“Always be open to opportunities that may cross your path and follow the instincts in your heart. Never see yourself different from anybody else, and never compare yourself to others, because we are all on our own journey in life.
“Always stay happy, positive and strong within yourself, and last but not least keep smiling!”
An elegant role model for all British Asians, we wish Sarah Kundi all sucess with her career as a ballet dancer.