In Tim Rosser and Charlie Sohne’s new Off-Broadway musical The Boy Who Danced On Air (now playing through June 11), Nejla Yatkin’s choreography is both inspired by the title and infuses meaning into it. A musical about bacha bazi—“the ancient tradition where wealthy men buy boys from poorer families, train them to dance and often sexually abuse them”—is also a story about a search for identity, freedom, and expression. Dance is unequivocally the focal point, and it is also how we learn the most about young Paiman, played by Troy Iwata, and Feda, played by Nikhil Saboo.
Hailing from Germany, but with familial ties to Turkey, Yatkin drew on her exposure to Turkish wedding and social dances, her training in folk dance, contemporary dance, and ballet to create a portrait of the bacha bazi dance tradition. Here, she reveals how she dealt with such a difficult topic through movement and how she made her boys look like they danced on air.
Is there a movement vocabulary that is specific to the bacha bazi? Did you use it or did you choose to only allow it to inspire you?
Nejla Yatkin: The bacha bazi use a lot of turns and shoulder and wrist movement to mimic delicate feminine dance movements. They also display rhythmical foot patterns danced to complement the music. There was a similar tradition in the harems of the rulers like Sultan Ahmed in the Ottoman Empire. They called the dancers “Köçek” (young boys who were used for entertainment and pleasure).The “Köçek” dances were a blend of Arab, Greek, Assyrian, and Kurdish movement elements, many of which I learned growing up in Turkish folk dance training. I used some of the movement elements from Turkish folk dancing, Afghan wedding dances, Afghan bacha bazi dances but created more of a theatrical version inspired by bacha bazi to support the overall story, music, stage direction as well to properly showcase each performer.
The show is called The Boy Who Danced on Air, although I know that titles often change. Did you have the title before you choreographed or did the title come after seeing your choreography?
Charlie Sohne and Tim Rosser had already named the musical when they approached me to choreograph for the show. The title influenced some of my movement choices. For example at the end of Paiman’s dancing journey [in the opening number] “A Song He Never Chose,” I had him lifted up from the back to the front of stage by the other actors, so that he looked like he is walking on air.
How do you create the feeling of levity and spirituality in movement?
Slow, deliberate, spiraling movements are very spiritual because when you look at nature, everything grows in spirals. The golden ratio with its Fibonacci sequence is a spiraling pattern. While whirling the arms are open, the right arm is directed to the sky to receive God’s kindness; the left arm is turned towards the earth to keep us grounded. Revolving from right to left around the heart, the dancer embraces all humanity with love. [Levity came] by incorporating some of the more classical western musical dance elements like lifts, slides, barrel turns, and jumps into the choreographic moments. Incorporating fabric into the movement also creates a sense of lightness and beauty in space. It makes the invisible visible.
Your philosophy of choreography comes from a deep awareness through movement of the connection of all things. How did this play into your vision for the show?
In Germany we call it “Gesamtkunswerk”—the concept and implementation is that all theatrical and design elements must be an integral part of the work. Elements are not added on but grow together from the beginning. It is a holistic process, and I meditate on every work I create.
Tell me about choreographing for Troy’s character vs. Nikhil’s character. What did their dances have to communicate differently?
Troy’s character is more innocent, sensitive, and delicate, so I created movements that reflect his character and his state of mind in the different scenes. He is also careful and timid, but there is a deep love for dance there. Nikhil’s character is very brash and aggressive as well as athletic. He is older, risk-taking, and more experienced, and he had his share of physical and emotional trauma in his life that he overcompensates with his boldness.
Tell me about choreographing something beautiful, because it’s for the theatre, but a practice that does have questionable roots. When you think about why these boys were dancing, it is disturbing.
Yes, I struggled throughout the process, but in the end I believe it is a story worth telling. What helped me was that I imagined that the only place where Paiman and Feda had power, freedom, and could be themselves was in their dance. Dance is and allows us to get to know ourselves deeply, to be vulnerable, experiential, curious, beautiful beings always in process. It encourages dialogue and discipline and strength and resilience! Good art moves us to want to know the other. Through the dances I wanted the audience to open their hearts to the boys and create empathy for them.
Tell me about choreographing Troy’s final sequence when he dances without his crutch, but with his injured foot, and the creativity those physical limitations forced on you.
I have mixed feeling towards limitations, but sometimes they are very good. And in this case the limitations were appropriate. The limitations forced me to focus the choreography on movements of rolling on, falling into, and pushing of the floor: all the things we did when we learned to walk as children. So I imagined how it would be for Paiman to learn to dance/walk a new dance using the crutch and the floor as a partner.