A Visit With the Orlando Ballet

Last Friday, Jen and Achariya visited the Orlando Ballet’s rehearsal space to observe the company practicing for their upcoming performance of Romeo and Juliet. We were fortunate enough to have the opportunity to speak with Artistic Director Robert Hill and principal dancer Chiaki Yasukawa.  Achariya has a background in ballet, having danced ballet and modern. For her, it felt like a homecoming. For Jen, it was exploring an entirely new country. (Neither Jen nor Achariya received compensation for this blog post, but we are grateful to Orlando Ballet for giving two curious writers their time.)

Romeo and Juliet is playing at Dr. Phillips to live music from the Orlando Philharmonic Orchestra on February 9 (8 PM), 10 (8 PM), and 11 (2 PM).

Orlando Ballet production of Romeo and Juliet (2014) – Photo by Michael Cairns

When we sat down with Chiaki Yasukawa, 17-year veteran of the Orlando Ballet, and Artistic Director Robert Hill, we weren’t quite sure how the conversation would go. Would we stick to ballet, or even this specific ballet? Would we go deep into Ms. Yasukawa’s history, or Mr. Hill’s previous experience? The answer was — yes. Our chat was wide-reaching, spanning this production of Romeo and Juliet, Orlando culture, ballets that Mr. Hill and Ms. Yasukawa have done, ballets that they wanted to do, and how dance can help us process this moment in US history.

The rehearsal that we were there to observe was Romeo and Juliet, Robert Hill’s original choreography to Prokofiev’s music, first performed by the Orlando Ballet four years ago. It is also, we learned, one of Yasukawa’s favorite roles — and the one that she is pleased will be her last as a principal dancer with the company. She loves the role because of the texture it gives her as a dancer — emotions vary between joy and grief, and in one notable pas de deux, Yasukawa has to master a range of emotions as she dances out ambivalence.


Chiaki Yasukawa – photo by Michael Cairns

Acha: So this is your last ballet before you move on to other things. Was it an obvious choice for you to do this role?

Yasukawa: Yes, yes, I always wanted to do farewell with the ballet that I love. Last year I was pregnant and I was talking to him [Artistic Director Robert Hill] and he was telling me that he was thinking about doing Romeo for next season — I was crying. [Laughs] I cried. “Are you serious?” And when he told me yes, I knew that that was the ballet, the one that I wanted to have a farewell with, with the company.

Hill: Let’s use the word celebration, because you’re not going away.

Yasukawa: Celebration. Yes! I am not going away, and I always say, it might be my farewell but not my retirement. You might see me. I don’t want to say this is my last, last — if I show up somewhere you’ll say, “she was lying!” [laughs] It is definitely the end of this chapter of my career. It’s great that he’s given me the opportunity to do this.

Hill: Yes, because when she got pregnant, she said that was the end, she was just sort of going to stop, and I said, “No, first of all, get back in shape and then you can make a decision that you’re going to stop, not because you had an injury, or you had a baby, or something like that.” And she’s still looking amazing.

Acha: Like Juliet, who was 15, 13 years old!

Yasukawa: She’s actually 13.

Hill: I kind of said, “No, you need to do this, we need to celebrate this,” and so —

Yasukawa: Yes, he’s the one that encouraged me. If he didn’t encourage me, I was not going to have this moment, and I really appreciate that he’s given me this. Yes, it’s going to be great, that night. There will be a lot of tears happening: this ballet itself is a great ballet — you cried [Ed. Note – during the rehearsal of the scene where Juliet drinks the poison, Achariya cried] — and listening to the music, and the dancers, and the story, and that’s why. I do hear that when dancers close that chapter of their career, they die once. That’s a metaphor, but you live another life again. That’s what I hear, so I — this is perfect.

Jen: It seems to be what happened for Wendy Whelan, when she left and moved on to something else.

Yasukawa: Wendy Whelan. I have seen her — I did go to SAB [the School of American Ballet in New York City]. I had tickets to go see New York City Ballet almost every day, and I did go almost every day. And yeah, I did see her a lot.

Speaking in Silence

Chiaki Yasukawa and Arcadian Broad as Romeo and Juliet – by Michael Cairns

Acha: [Addressing Mr. Hill] So what particular interesting challenges went into staging this ballet again, four years later, for you? Anything notable?

Hill: Challenges?

Acha: Or opportunities?

Hill: From a choreographer’s perspective it does give you a chance to ameliorate a lot of things. You have time, and then you revisit it. Especially with these kinds of characters, the question is, “Do I believe what you just did or not.” So it gives the opportunity to revisit the interactions, like we did with you [Yasukawa] and Gonzi [Orlando Ballet School’s choreographer Gonzalo Espinoza, who plays the Friar] the other day; it makes sense when you take the potion from him. So I think it’s great, because it gives you a chance to revisit these things and make them better.

Yasukawa: In that rehearsal I remember you asking him, “What would you do if you were saying it verbally?” And that’s how we react with our body. So, Shakespeare obviously has a lot of words in it — versus ballet, which has no words in it — so we have to actually do more with the body language, which is actually really cool to look at, because the audience in the way back can see it as well. And he did that in the rehearsal yesterday, and after he said that, Gonzi, the person that is doing the Friar, understood more because he could interpret it with the words and the movement at the same time.

Acha: So this ballet does have quite a bit of pantomime and almost silent movie motions, and it also has some very classical moments. And I didn’t get to see the pas de deux so I’m not sure what that will look like yet —

Hill: Very physical, very demanding, very athletic —

Acha: When I think Juliet, I definitely think of someone bouncing all over the stage.

Hill: Being thrown around by Romeo, yeah, exactly. One of my favorite Juliets was Julie Kent, and I was her first Romeo, actually. (And speaking of retirement, she retired a couple years ago with Juliet, so that was great.)

But I wanted to say — you know the ballet Onegin? That was the one I kind of retired with. I was fortunate, because the person I was working with was a physical therapist working on my knee, who was also working with an actor named Ralph Fiennes.

So Ralph and my physical therapist came to one of my Onegin performances, and his comment was — because [Fiennes] had just made a film version of it with his sister filming and him playing the part of Onegin — and it was such a smart comment and it made such sense to me and it refers to what you’re talking about, the mime or the physical expression. He said, this is probably the best way to tell the story, the Eugene Onegin story, because the character of Onegin is a man of few words. And yet there’s a lot that’s being said, not with words but with his actions. You know?

So I think that that is similar information relative to [Yasukawa’s] character, more so than Romeo, but especially in the ending scenes. It’s important — and I think that some old, old, old pantomime is just old. [laughs] And we’ve tried to take it and update it so that there is that believability factor, and there’s not just a gesture because someone once said that this [circles his hands] means dance. It’s like, what? You know?

So, part of the fun is to preserve these classics like Giselle, like Swan Lake — [although] Romeo is not in that category — to make it really relevant to the world we live in today. So that people don’t feel like the have to know a lot of the history to be able to enjoy something like this. So that’s been fun, that’s been a fun part of the process.

Good People and the Future of Ballet

Hill: [Yasukawa is] also — one of the other reasons that we insisted that we do this [retirement celebration] with her is, you know, dancers come and dancers go, and she’s been here with this organization for 17 years. And one of the things I encourage is I want the dancers to be good, strong, technical; and good, strong, and artistic. I want them to also be good people. I think it’s really, really important.

And as they become leading dancers, they become examples for our school kids, and the younger kids coming in. And she is a shining example of how one should behave as a professional and as a figure that these kids look up to. And that’s why I say celebration, because it’s a celebration of all of that. And to me it’s important, because you know, life is too short to go through being miserable or bad or temperamental or difficult or all of that stuff. … In the world we’re currently living in especially, where we don’t have so many examples in high places.

Chiaki Yasukawa – by Michael Cairns

Acha: So I look forward to seeing the rest of it, especially the pas de trois, which is my favorite part.

Hill: The three guys [Romeo, Mercutio, and Benvolio], before they crash the party?

Acha: To me it’s got so much energy, and it’s so rare. You never see three male dancers actually dancing with each other, unless it’s a modern ballet. I love that, it’s one of those first moments where you could see, okay, classical ballet could go in this direction. You don’t have to have a man and a woman on stage all the time.

Hill: Exactly.

Jen: I wondered about the possibility of having a ballet where physically you almost can’t distinguish between men and women, there’s no size difference almost. The possibility is there.

Hill: I definitely want to go there. We did a series of ballets called Battle of the Sexes, and we kind of played a little bit with that dynamic. You have to remember, nine years ago when I took over this job, there was still this very anti-gay sentiment. We’ve come a long way in nine years. This is Orlando, and it’s in a big learning curve that is curving very quickly, honestly. Central Florida is one of the second-fastest places in the country for growth in every way, and we have this great new board member who is our board president, who is a very successful businessman. He understands taking advantage of that opportunity to let the ballet get caught up in that growth. It’s going to continue to evolve in every way. But as you were saying, absolutely.

Hill: I did a ballet called Ojala for three dancers. Originally I did it for three men. I had three female understudies, and then we did a mixed cast so we could do any —

Yasukawa: Yep! I was in it, I lifted a girl! It was great.

Hill: I was dancing with the Royal Ballet in Covent Garden. And there was a version of Chekhov’s Three Sisters that was being played by the Redgraves — Vanessa and her sister Lynn and their niece Natasha Richardson. I was so inspired by the story — the story was not uplifting at all, it was actually very dark — so we created this kind of heavy-going [story], it wasn’t that story but it was the essence of that feeling that I remember taking away from that stage, from that theater. And it worked! So we’re going to bring that back next year for our Latin-themed program.

Acha: Thank you so much for your time!


EDs Note: to bone up for this piece, Jen watched the following documentaries on Netflix: 

  • A Ballerina’s Tale – Misty Copeland’s rise to the stage as the world’s first Black principle ballet dancer
  • Ballet 422 – A member of the New York City ballet must prepare, stage, and perform a new ballet in just a few months, including all the nuts and bolts preparation that goes into such a production
  • Restless Creature – A documentary on Wendy Whelan, famous principal with New York City ballet who left the ballet at 47, and her struggle to find some way to fill the void dancing would leave

If you are unfamiliar or new to ballet, I highly recommend these to help orient you.

Thanks for reading, and have a great week!

Author: jennnanigans

Orlando-area writerly person.

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