YuYu interview Yoko Inomata


Can you tell us a little about the San Diego Ballet?

The San Diego Ballet is our professional ballet company that was founded as a nonprofit organization in 1991. We always carry about twenty dancers and compared to other ballet companies our dancers have a broader repertoire of roles. In Japan, many people consider ballet to be a difficult and esoteric art that is less accessible to people, whereas in the US it is considered an art for everybody. We, the San Diego Ballet, want our audience to enjoy the liveliness of our performances, so we tend to perform in relatively small theaters, including those at Horton Plaza and at UCSD. In addition, as part of our educational activities we visit elementary schools throughout San Diego and teach ballet.

Yoko (front), at 18 months old with her sister at a nearby park.
—— What made you decide to join the San Diego Ballet?

I joined the Star Dancers Ballet Company in Japan in 1998. While performing there as a professional dancer, I dreamed of performing overseas sometime in the future. Although I considered going to Asia or Europe, my interest in coming to the west coast of the US grew because my best friend from high school was living in Los Angeles. While looking into some of the ballet companies on the west coast, I learned that you could audition via video for the San Diego Ballet, so I applied in fall, 2002. I sent a promotional video that included my performances and lesson sessions. Then I received a reply, asking if I could perform immediately as a replacement for an injured dancer. Usually, the San Diego Ballet selects a few dancers from the 50 to 60 applicants in spring to summer, and they select some dancers join the company in the fall. When I received the offer by e-mail, I felt as if I were in heaven. Although I’d never been to San Diego, I wasn’t so worried because I absolutely didn’t want to blow the opportunity that I had.

I was first hired as an intern; because I was still waiting for my working visa, I had to go back and forth between San Diego and Japan every three months. I finally received my visa, a year and a half after I’d applied for it, so last October, I officially moved and settled in San Diego.

What inspired you to perform overseas?

To be honest with you, when I video-auditioned, I had “dancer’s block.” I’d worked hard in Japan, always trying to as versatile a dancer as possible, yet, I was never able to meet our choreographer’s expectations. We didn’t get along with each other, so I hadn’t been able to dance my dance. I was depressed almost every day, feeling lost. On one such day, I met a dance teacher from Australia. When I saw his performance, I had a hunch that his was the style of ballet that I was looking for. That’s when I started thinking, “I don’t have to limit myself to Japanese ballet.” SO I started thinking about performing overseas and refining myself on foreign soil, where I might discover something new.

—— When did you start dancing ballet?

When I was eight years old. Before that, I’d been taking gymnastics lessons. Meanwhile, a new ballet studio had opened near my home. It was within walking distance, so my parents told me that it was time for me to switch to ballet. As a child in elementary school, I didn’t particularly like ballet, but I went to lessons because they made me.

I started becoming more committed to ballet when I was in junior high school. When I was a sixth grader, I took a 6-month break from ballet lessons to prepare for the entrance examination to junior high. When I returned to the lessons, I found that my friends had become better dancers than I was. That really motivated me, so I practiced as hard as I could. Gradually, I became hooked and developed the ambition of becoming a professional dancer.

Playing the Sugar Plum Fairy in“The Nutcracker.”
—— How and why did you become a professional dancer?

My ballet teacher in those days encouraged her students to participate in as many competitions as possible. In 1994, when I was sixteen, I had the opportunity to participate in the Prix de Lausanne International Ballet Competition in Switzerland, which is considered to be the first step to a successful ballet career. Dancers from all over he world participate because winners receive scholarships to study at some of the world’s best ballet schools. I was a high school student then and leading up to the competition I was practicing hard, six days a week, and yet I didn’t win anything. That’s when I realized how difficult it is to compete at an international level. Still, it didn’t change my mind about becoming a professional ballet dancer.

After the competition, I attended Star Dancers Ballet Studio in Tokyo. That studio appealed to me because it had a great repertoire of artistic works, including some created by well-known American choreographers George Balanchine and Anthony Tudor. Every day, after school was over, I went straight to the studio. It was difficult to handle my schoolwork and ballet at the same time. I always had to cram the night before an exam (laughter).

When I was thinking about what to do after high school, I heard that Star Dancers’ Art Director, Ms. Ruriko Tachikawa, was setting up a ballet department at the Showa School for the Performing Arts and she invited me to attend the new program in its first year. I believed doing so would start me on my way to my future career, so I went. After graduation, I joined the Star Dancers Ballet Company in 1998 and started my professional life.

—— Can you point out the difference between ballet in Japan and that in the US?

In Japan, there are no national or public ballet schools, or national ballet companies. All of the ballet schools are privately owned and run. There are no world-class schools that can claim to be “THE” ballet institute of Japan. Even professional ballet dancers there are rather amateurish compared to their overseas counterparts. Very few can make a living as a ballet dancer in Japan. If you say, “I am a professional ballet dancer,” someone will likely ask you, “That’s your hobby, right? What do you do for a living?” On the contrary, in countries outside of Japan including the US, being a ballet dancer is considered a respectable career. In Japan, I had to pay for tickets for my own performances and sell them, but I don’t have to do that here... (laughter).

I've also seen something quite eye-opening during rehearsals here; in Japan, dancers are required to perform without showing their physical difficulties even when their feet hurt or they don't feel well. That's the way it is, not only in a public performance, but also during rehearsals. Such perseverance is regarded as a virtue in Japan. As a result, however, Japanese dancers may not be relaxed enough to enjoy their own performances, and therefore lack affectionate expressions. American dancers may be more honest about their conditions and say, “I can’t perform today because I don’t feel well.” I’d say that’s very human. Also, teachers trust dancers, so they are relatively tolerant allowing performers to dance the way they like. When they are perform well in public performance, they dance so wonderfully that I cannot not even think of copying it.

In Central Park, New York, February 2004.
—— Have you experienced any difficulties since you joined the San Diego Ballet?

I am different from American dancers in terms of body shape and physical strength, so early on I didn't know what to do. I am 160 cm tall, which is the average height for Japanese women, but I am considered to be small here in the US. Also, Americans have longer limbs and smaller faces, so I used to have a complex about my looks. Yet, somehow, I came to think positively, like, “While I cannot be an American, all I need to do is to make full use of my Japanese body.” Then, I felt better and wanted to express myself through my dancing the delicacy and accuracy that are Japanese strengths. Another thing was my difficulty in saying what I wanted to say. In Japan, I danced in an environment where we were encouraged to avoiding standing out and to be thoughtful toward other dancers. But in America, if you don’t say clearly what you want to say, people don’t understand you. They may say, “I don't know what's on your mind.” Although I’ve learned to say what I think, my colleagues still tell me that I am reserved, from time to time.

—— What are your unforgettable performances?

Let's see...all of them bring back precious memories, so it's difficult to single out only one.... There are dancers who perform as soloists (ballet dancers who perform a solo) as soon as they become professionals. However, I started as a member of the corps de ballet (dancers who perform as a group) and built my experience. Although I was chosen as one of the eight corps de ballet dancers, I was so delighted and worked hard.

It was December 2003, when I first performed as a principal since I had come to San Diego. For a performance tour of Colorado and Wyoming, I was one of the dancers assigned to the role of the Sugar Plum Fairy in The Nutcracker. When performing as a principal in a ballet company, you feel a tremendous pressure that is difficult to describe. I was nervous because I hadn't had any experience in that role, but I was able to carry on the role with help from my partner. I’ll never forget the joy that time brought me.

“The Pirate”by Star Dancers Ballet Company, 2001.
—— Who has a great influence in your life?

When I came to San Diego, I stayed with a Jewish-American family to whom I was referred by the ballet company. My host mother was a musician, a professional vocalist for a Jewish band. I learned a lot from her.

One day, one of the dancers in the ballet company became sick at the last minute and I was assigned to fill in for her. I was forced to perform on stage, mentally unprepared and confused. I didn’t get it because managing one’s own health was part of a dancer's job. I even suspected that she might have pretended to be sick because she didn’t want to perform on a small stage. I carried on my role, with a forced smile anyway, but exhausted myself tremendously. As soon as I came home, I burst into tears in front of my host mother. I was sick of everything. I had a negative attitude toward everything. My host mother gently consoled me, saying, “When you live as a human being, sometimes things don't go as the way you want. You can only get over it…. You did the right thing as a professional.” That was a message from a person who sings as a professional. I was the type of person who would easily get depressed when experiencing minor difficulties, but my host mother’s positive attitude changed me. I learned to think positively under any circumstances and not to be defeated by my own weakness.

“The Blue Bird” by San Diego Ballet, with her partner, Mr. Kenneth, guest dancer from American Ballet Theater, February. 2004.
—— What are your goals for the future?

The year before last, I stayed in New York for about ten days and took lessons from the American Ballet Theater, which is one of America's most prestigious ballet companies where first-class dancers perform. I was so impressed by the high standard of its lessons. I’d like to continue to work hard, without being satisfied with my current skills, so that I can perform in a ballet company of even higher standards someday. I’d like to receive a license to teach ballet in America in the future and it would be nice if I could teach in Japan someday as well. Another dream is to have a shared studio with my sister who teaches piano. I’d teach students the ballet that I love, while I continue dancing...I'd be so happy if I could live such a life.

Yoko Inomata

Yoko Inomata is a dancer with the San Diego Ballet. She was born in Tokyo on September 22, 1977. She started studying ballet at age eight and participated in the Prix de Lausanne International Ballet Competition at age sixteen. After graduating from the Showa School for the Performing Arts, Department of Ballet, she joined the Star Dancers Ballet Company in 1988. Subsequently, she joined the San Diego Ballet in 2002, and has been a soloist in many performances, both in Japan and in San Diego. She has won several awards, including the Yomiuri Shimbun award at the 36th Saitama National Dance Competition in August 2003 and third prize in the 2nd Yokohama Ballet Competition in May 2004. In October 2004, she settled in San Diego and currently performs as a principal dancer. Her upcoming performances include: “The Sleeping Beauty”: Feb.11-12, 2005: “Dance of Love & Laughter”: Feb. 12-13 (both at Lyceum Theater, Horton Plaza); “Eternally Bad”: Apr. 1-3 (at San Diego Museum of Art, Balboa Park). For tickets, please visit http://www.sandiegoballet.org .

(01-16-2005 issue)