By Karin Cravotta
A typical afternoon at Oregon Ballet Theatre. Various staff, students and guests are passing through the lobby as they attempt to go about their business. Suddenly they find themselves caught, captivated and stilled, as if time were suspended. Ballerinas stop mid-stretch, limbs high in the air. Employees lean against the walls, near breathless. A young student freezes at the end of my desk, pencil in hand, arm dangling motionless over the sign-in sheet.
What distinguishes the professional from the amateur? The artists who teach us how to transcend ourselves from those merely dedicated to skill and craft? Hearing Yuka speak about her vocation and watching her dance, I begin to understand.
Yuka began dancing at four years old, when her mother, who had a life-long love of dance, brought her to a ballet studio. Within two years, Yuka had already decided to become professional. At twelve, she moved away from her family to live in a dormitory. She attended academic school during the day and went to ballet classes in the afternoon.
“Every single member of my family was 100% supportive of my commitment, especially my mother. I can’t remember how many times I called her from the dormitory phone crying because practice was very hard. She always encouraged me and told me that she’d support whatever I decided to do, so just do my best.”
Yuka’s idol, Kaori Nakamura, was dancing with the Reiko Yamamoto Ballet Company while she attended their school. “Particularly, [seeing] her dance Tarantella really drew me into the world of ballet. I was fascinated by the energy unleashed by her body, [she was] full of joy and she just looked so happy. I thought how wonderful it could be if I could do that, too.”
Later, when Kaori became a principal dancer at Pacific Northwest Ballet, she encouraged Yuka to come to the US. “A little push on my back from somebody to take one step forward.” The directors of PNB at the time, Kent Stowell and Francia Russell, allowed Yuka to take classes for three months. During this period, she met their son, Christopher, and auditioned at OBT, where she has shared her talents since 2003.
Recently, she announced plans to retire and begin teaching ballet. “Teaching at [SOBT’s 2012] Summer Intensive, I had a different feeling inside of me than I have ever had. I’ve always enjoyed teaching, but this summer I realized that this is what I’d like to do in the next chapter of my life.”
“Wherever they’d like me, that’s where I want to be… It will be nice to share what I’ve learned… to be [a source of] inspiration.”
But where does inspiration come from and how can it be shared?
“My old ballet teacher Reiko Yamamoto told me that who you are as a person reflects on your dancing. So she told me that I have to be a generous person before dancing.”
“For me to dance, I have to be rich inside… I think it is important to be aware of any emotions that you feel inside your heart. Not only good or happy, pleasant feelings, [but] devastation, struggle…anything we feel in every day of our lives. Experiencing those emotions is very important to me.”
When asked about Swan Lake, which she will be performing for the fourth time with OBT, Yuka begins to tear up. “I grew up dancing this piece…It makes me think of every part, every time that I spent as a dancer, from a kid to now. All.”
Yuka waves her hands frantically in front of her face to ward off tears, apologizing with a laugh and saying “Don’t mind me…” Even while she maintains her composure, she is still generous with her emotions. This strikes me as a rare and beautiful combination, at the very heart of ballet as an art form. This is why so many audience members become devout in their attendance of performances. Why little girls beg their mothers to let them attend ballet classes after seeing The Nutcracker. And why all of us in the lobby become enraptured, awed and inspired. We are witnessing the vast spectrum of human emotions echoing through the subtlest and most refined gestures, the pouring out of the heart’s contents into breathtaking feats of disciplined physicality, the balancing of body and soul. It is, on some level, an undertaking we all aspire to.
“The thing we seek or pursue in the studio is perfection. It will never be perfect. That’s why we practice every day… Behind the scenes is not pretty at all. We suffer with pain, we sweat and we struggle…” Yuka does not seem daunted or afraid. So I ask her: How do you conquer your fears?
“ I keep encouraging myself and telling myself I can do it.”
Are you ever afraid of giving too much of yourself while dancing?
“No. There are an artistic director and ballet mistress to tell me if it is too much. Until then, I will give it everything I’ve got.”
Everything. How fortunate for her audiences and her students.