Yasuomi Akimoto in 'Le Corsaire' © Kiyonori Hasegawa

Yasuomi Akimoto: his life, his childhood memories and his work ethic

The Interview by Alessandro Bizzotto was publisehd in our issue 6/2019

He is proud of his Russian technique, he is not afraid of pain and tiredness, and he never forgets he is playing a character when he is on stage. Yet he is not competitive and he would even be up for trying and doing a Broadway musical. The Principal dancer of the Tokyo Ballet talks to ALESSANDRO BIZZOTTO about his life, his childhood memories and his work ethic, and reveals him what he does to ease pain and even how often he tidies up his house

As I meet him in the backstage after a performance of Maurice Béjart’s “The Kabuki”, in which he has just danced the lead, he sits down with the stars in his eyes – his body might be tired yet the adrenaline of the performance still animates his voice and his look. Yasuomi Akimoto takes a deep breath before telling me, “I feel empty. It always happens after dancing ‘The Kabuki’ – it is like having just a body, but not a brain nor a soul. It is difficult to articulate it clearly…”. Is it such a tough role? “Yes, it is. I’d say it is even tougher than prince Siegfried in ‘Swan Lake’!”

The day before – We meet for the first time in a hot afternoon, less than two hours before the daily class of the Tokyo Ballet. Yasuomi Akimoto looks quite shy at the outset, and extremely polite.

Born in Kanagawa, Japan, he studied for six years at the Bolshoi Ballet Academy, where he graduated too. He has been a Principal of the Tokyo Ballet for four years now. A finalist at the Moscow International Ballet Competition in 2005, he had won also the second prize at The Russian Open Ballet Competition “Arabesque 2014”.

We start talking about his childhood and his training in Russia, and I immediately realize he can fill our conversation with very interesting details.

Why did you choose to leave Japan at 12 and to join the Bolshoi Ballet School in Moscow?

I started studying ballet when I was only three… just for fun. When I was seven my parents were told I was gifted and I could become a professional dancer: that’s why they started looking for a good school for me. So, I joined a Russian school in Tokyo – I had my first professional approach to ballet there, with several Russian teachers. More than a teacher started recommending me to go to Russia: I should study in Tokyo for six more months, they said me, and then go to Russia in order to have the best possible training. I was ten at that time and I had no idea about what was going on – my teachers and my parents had several conversations about it and my future and, when the time to choose what to do came, my dad encouraged me to go and not to be scared. I had never been in another country before, nor far from home, yet they sent me to Moscow. Furthermore, when I take a decision, I am quite stubborn and I go for it: I wanted to be a professional dancer.

Arriving in Moscow on your own – was it tough for a 12-year-old boy?

Leaving on my own was not easy: a teacher of mine came with me and stayed in Moscow with me for a week. At the outset, anyhow, I was desperate – everything was dark in my eyes, I was surrounded by extremely tall people whose language I could not understand. I started thinking I wouldn’t have seen my home and my family anymore, so I was definitely frightened. I felt lonely, reaching my family via Internet was not as easy as today for a young boy.

How did you communicate in Moscow?

I had had some Russian lessons, but it was not enough to understand nor to be understood. I was able to read but not to translate. The lady who owned the boarding house I was living in at that time tried to help me… but she wasn’t able to understand Japanese! So, I gave her a Japanese-Russian dictionary and we started trying to understand each other. My classmates helped me as well. I think I learned Russian quite quickly, then!

Do you still speak Russian?

I do!

Was the method different at the Bolshoi, even if you had already studied with Russian teachers?

Yes, it was different. In Japan teachers noticed how high I could jump or how many pirouettes I was able to do. In Russia they were focused on the perfection of my positions, of every single muscle of my legs – everything had to be polished and perfectly executed. I spent hours and hours at the barre! I can say at the Bolshoi I seriously established the base of ballet for my future dance classes. My body followed this kind of process: it changed, it evolved, and I felt I could control it.

A ballet teacher once told me that Russian dancers use to jump a lot during the morning class, and that is the secret of their stamina and endurance. Do you agree?

At the Bolshoi teachers used to train a lot our muscles. At the outset we did not jump a lot, we started doing it more and more over the years. According to my experience, Russian teachers pay attention to the preparation and to the way dancers land and stop. A grand jeté was not just a way to strengthen our body or a way to warm up – jumps had to be properly executed. It was incredibly difficult. But I am very proud of my Russian training today!

Yasuomi Akimoto in ‘La Bayadère’ © Bernd Weissbrod

Why did you get back to Japan, after the school?

At 18 I felt I really wanted to be back home and to find out how ballet had evolved in Japan. In addition, I wanted my parents to be able to see me performing…

Did you miss home?

Yes. Definitely. I wanted to stay. Yet it is not easy to be a dancer in Japan – many small companies can’t pay dancers much and have not many performances each season. So, I started thinking about getting back to Russia. I studied over there, I told myself, but I have not experienced the life of a professional dancer in Russia. That’s why I flied back and joined the Chelyabinsk State Academic Ballet Theatre.

How did you enjoy the food in Russia?

I can very well remember the food of the school canteen in Moscow… acceptable, but never too good nor tasty. Once we saw a big cauldron full of buckwheat or something similar, but before getting served we realized some cockroaches were in there! We all left the canteen! Anyhow, I loved eating both pirozhki and borscht in Russia, when I went to the restaurant.

Do Japanese people treat you like a star today?

When I came back to Tokyo in 2015 after three years and joined the Tokyo Ballet, I noticed the company has a huge number of performances – I am happy to be a Principal of this company, we often tour and have several fans. I feel like I still have to grow professionally, yet I can tell fans treat me like a star today!

What distinguishes the style of the Tokyo Ballet?

It is a Japanese company but it has an international soul. Our repertoire is incredibly wide, world renowned choreographers come to Tokyo to stage and create ballets for us: ours is the sole Japanese company to have this privilege and to travel to dance in Europe and in US.

Yasuomi Akimoto in ‘Remains of a Cloud’ © Shoko Matsuhashi

The repertoire includes many Béjart’s creations. Is his heritage strongly perceived from you?

All the choreographies he left us are a kind of treasure. We are the only company that has some of his creations, such as “The Kabuki”, that has a very particular Japanese style. Maurice Béjart knew our history and traditions very well and I guess he loved our country in a way. Think about “The Kabuki” again – it represents Japanese culture incredibly well.

 How do you train your classical technique?

The morning class every single day. And I work a lot with the assistants of the choreographers of the ballets I am rehearsing. If I am preparing Balanchine’s “Serenade”, as an example, I work a lot with people from the Balanchine Trust in order to train both my technique and my style to execute the choreography the best possible way. I work almost every day on my classical skills, however – our morning classes are ninety-minute-long, it is a fantastic way to start the working day in my eyes. After a short break, we rehearse for four hours more or less. Sometimes I don’t even have lunch during the break! At times I forget, at times I am not hungry!

Don’t you need food to keep working?

I am used to have a hearty breakfast and then dinner in the evening. During a working day I often have neither the time nor the will to eat something.

Is it tough to be a Principal?

Yes, I can feel the effort. But I do love my job. It is not a normal life, I think – my life and my routine are not comparable to the ones of some friends of mine. Keeping in shape is not easy, there are weeks during which my body is prone to pain. Passion drives me, however, as I love dancing: it makes me happy. I have no regrets. Even when I am super-tired in the evening, I know the morning after my enthusiasm will lead me to the studio again.

Sue Jin Kang, who directs the Korean National Ballet today, once told me she barely remembers the very few days spent without feeling pain, during her career as a Principal dancer. Is it true for you?

It is! I totally agree with her. If I am not injured and I am not forced to rest, I know that every day I will have to deal with pain.

What do you do to ease it?

Massages, acupuncture and some specific muscular exercises.

What makes a dancer a Principal?

When he dances a classical ballet, a Principal is not out there just to show off his technique but to tell a story and give some emotions to the audience as well. The toughest thing for me is being on stage when someone else is dancing, such as my stage partner during her variation, and keeping on being focused, being in the story, without losing concentration. We cannot stop thinking about the story when we are not dancing – a true Principal is someone who keeps in mind he is telling a story and who is the character he is playing from the very beginning of the ballet until the orchestra plays the final note before the curtains go down.

Yasuomi Akimoto in ‘Serenade’ © Kiyonori Hasegawa

A choreographer whose ballets you never danced but you would love to.

The ballet I’d really love to perform is Balanchine’s “Theme and Variations”. I have already danced Balanchine, but I must mention this ballet – I would really love to dance it! I would like to try and dance something choreographed by Alexei Ratmansky too, by the way.

How many holidays do you get in Tokyo?

Two weeks a year. And I like to spend them at the seaside. We have some days off at the end of the year too in any case.

Are you competitive?

I am quite self-confident and I know my strength points – every dancer is unique after all; I want to give my best and true self to my audience and to keep improving… which means fighting against myself every single day in many ways. I don’t think this means being competitive anyway.

You mentioned tension, adrenaline, hard work – do they influence your private life?

I have days during which I keep thinking about ballet, steps… then I go on stage in the evening and I have no time for anything else. Yet there are days when I leave the theatre before the sunset and I feel free. I can tell that rehearsal periods are tougher for me, anyhow – I feel particularly tense while learning and preparing a role, it drains my energies in some ways. As far as my life is concerned… well, I’ve never liked cleaning my house, just to make an example! Yet I have become tidier over the years, now I always tidy up my home before going to the morning class.

Your favourite music.

Every genre. Classical music, pop music, J-pop music… I use to listen to J-pop a lot while studying in Russia and living on my own – when I felt lonely, Japanese pop helped distract me.

Would you be up for performing in a Broadway musical?

Yes, I would like to try something different. I like the reaction of the audience when I go and see a musical, they have fun, they keep singing and applauding… it must be very rewarding! So never say never – it would be a nice challenge!

Whom do you call first when you get back from a tour?

My girlfriend!