Bollywood and beyond

French dancer Gilles Chuyen has incorporated Indian influences at many levels.

Gilles Chuyen.dances Bollywood 370 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Gilles Chuyen.dances Bollywood 370
(photo credit: Courtesy)
When Gilles Chuyen landed in India in 1994, his mission was clear: research the country’s caste system to work toward a PhD related to cultural issues. Born in Toulon, in the south of France, Chuyen had long been interested in Eastern religious traditions, and he sought to understand how the Hindu Brahmin priest class adapted to contemporary Indian society. It was heavy work, so it only made sense that Chuyen needed a way to unwind. And he found it in Chhau Mayurbhani, a form of Indian dance.
Seventeen years later, 41-year-old Chuyen travels the world leading workshops in Indian dance – specifically Bollywood – in between stints of choreographing and acting in Indian films, working on internationally touring dance shows and performing with his own dance troupe. On May 2 and 3, he’ll bring his Bollywood workshop to Israel, teaching in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, as part of the Indian embassy’s second annual “Celebrating India in Israel” festival, which also includes events showcasing Indian food, film, music, yoga and theater.
So how did a French researcher become one of the world’s leading teachers of Indian dance? A long, long history of rhythm was certainly a start.
“My mother tells me I was always dancing, from before I could walk,” laughs Chuyen in a phone conversation from his home in New Delhi.
By five years old, he was playing the piano. At eight, he joined a teacherorganized folk dance group and began performing in local towns and villages.
By the time he was a teenager, Chuyen was studying folk, ballet, jazz and contemporary dance. But dancing remained a pastime, much like his interest in India.
“I used to love reading about Hinduism and Buddhism,” he says, “but they were just concepts to me back then.”
He first visited India on an exchange program in 1992. Immediately enraptured by the country’s colorful extremes, he returned in 1994. When he finally finished his PhD research – which was published in 2004 under the title “Who is a Brahmin? The Politics of Identity in India” – he found himself at a crossroads.
“I didn’t want to be a researcher or a teacher forever. So I said, ‘Enough of doing other things,’” he recalls. “It was time to do what I really, really loved. And so I took a leap.”
Chuyen began his Indian dance education modestly, first studying forms like Kathak, Bharata Natyam and Chhau Mayurbhani. His work soon led him to a burgeoning form of Indian dance – seemingly the culmination of so many traditional forms fusing with Western dances: Bollywood.
The term itself refers to an iconic form of Indian cinema: Bombay’s version of Hollywood – dramatic, sweeping stories of love and betrayal, illustrated with wildly colorful costumes and epically choreographed song-and-dance scenes.
“Bollywood dance includes different classical styles but also folk and modern and hip-hop and salsa and tap and so many others,” says Chuyen.
“It’s because every song in a Bollywood film calls for a different type of dance – the wedding song, the first love song.”
Bubbling with energy and joy, Bollywood dance resonated with Chuyen as he adapted to his new home. Quickly, he began to understand how Bollywood was so intrinsically Indian.
“I live in a country of extremes,” he says. “Bollywood, being so packed with colors and music, reflects the culture. Bollywood is over the top; it’s larger than life. And yet, it’s still a simple celebration of the joys of life. The noise, the colors, the smells of India – it’s all in your face. Bollywood shows that.”
Chuyen was a quick learner. By the early 2000s, he was not only studying Indian dance, it had become his lifeblood. Bit by bit, he began working within the Bollywood industry, and before long he was drafted to work, dance and teach international workshops in England, Singapore, Pakistan, Mexico, Colombia and more. Bollywood Love Story: A Musical, which he choreographed, toured through South Africa and much of Europe. The rising profile of Bollywood around the world, partially thanks to films like Slumdog Millionaire, didn’t hurt, either.
“Ten years ago, Bollywood simply wasn’t as well known internationally,” says Chuyen. “I’d teach a workshop and someone might ask, ‘This is dance? What is this?’” The fun for Chuyen, then, is bringing audiences to understand the dance as he does – as a transformative power.
“The biggest shift that Indian dance taught me is that dance is much more than just doing shows in front of an audience,” he says. “It’s about connection, it’s about the change people go through, the full, round experience.
It’s reaching beyond the differences in people who don’t know each other. When you dance Bollywood, you connect, and you’re just human beings.”
He admits that he occasionally encounters workshop audiences slightly surprised that he is, in fact, a Frenchman, a cultural anthropologist who has adopted his subject as his own culture. But he likens his synthesis into Indian dance to a traveling painter: “When he travels or lives somewhere else, his painting will change. My body has learned how to move in India.”
Now nearly two decades into his life in India, Chuyen has never been busier – or more engaged.
“India is a country that doesn’t sleep,” he says. “Every day there is something new that shocks or surprises you or makes you question your values or choices.”
And just like Israel’s relationship with so many Israelis, “India is a country you love or hate,” he says. “There is no, ‘Oh, it’s okay.’ There is no black or white. Everything is in color.”
Bollywood Workshops with Gilles Chuyen. May 2-3, at various locations in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. Free. Visit for more information.