In conversation with Yuriko Kajiya, the swan queen
Concierge meets Yuriko Kajiya, Houston Ballet’s principal ballerina, ahead of her performance in Swan Lake. In the world of ballet, Swan Lake is one of the best known and most universally loved. Composed by the legendary Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky in 1875 and first performed by the Bolshoi Ballet in 1877, it is based on an old folktale about a beautiful princess Odette, who is turned into a white swan by the evil sorcerer Rothbart. Only the love of the handsome Prince Siegfried can save her. Traditionally, the lead ballerina of the company plays two roles: Odette, the white swan maiden, and Odile, Rothbart’s treacherous daughter, who takes the form of the black swan maiden. This month, the production is being brought to Dubai Opera for the first time by the Houston Ballet. Taking the challenging lead role in Swan Lake is Yuriko Kajiya, a talented principal ballerina.
Yuriko Kajiya, a principal ballerina:
“In most productions, if you are dancing the lead, you really only dance as the white swan and the black swan. But with this production, I also dance the role of Odette as a maiden. She has a beautiful pas de deux with the prince in the first act and a dramatic one in the last act. There are a few times during the ballet that I have to make a really fast change into another role. It’s not easy; you feel very rushed, and you don’t really have much time to calm down or rest between roles. I find that listening to the music definitely helps me to transform myself.”
No stranger to starring roles, the ballerina has performed in everything from Madame Butterfly to Giselle to Manon, all ballets with captivating heroines at their hearts. “I love story ballets because I love to act and transform into these strong, interesting characters. Plus, I really enjoy the experience of interacting with the other dancers on stage, when we are all trying to tell a story together.” Kajiya began dancing at a young age, when she moved from her hometown of Nagoya, Japan to attend the Shanghai Dance School in China − a government-run school with its own set of challenges.
“It wasn’t easy to be a foreign student in China at that time. Most of the students were hand-picked because they had the classic ‘ballet body’, which I did not. I entered the school simply because my parents paid the fees. “I was always at the bottom of the class, but I worked extremely hard, always in the studio, always practising. I was a total ‘bun head’,” she laughs. “Those years were tough but they definitely helped shape the person I am today. I wouldn’t change a thing.” Eventually, her hard work was rewarded when she won a scholarship to Canada’s National Ballet School. And the rest is history.
Being a ballerina involves a tremendous amount of discipline. A typical day for Kajiya starts with class at 10am, followed by seven hours of rehearsals (with an hour-long break for lunch). She’ll use any spare time to rehearse for a specific role, do some cardio at the gym or see her physiotherapist. The intensive rehearsal schedule is key to keeping nerves at bay. “I don’t usually get stage fright, because I spend enough time learning the steps and practising my own way for the role. By the time it’s opening night, I do get a little bit nervous, but once I’m on stage, I just can’t wait to dance.”
Today, the principal ballerina is a role model to dancers everywhere, especially those from her home in Japan. “I’m very honoured to have young girls and women looking up to me,” says Kajiya. “It’s such a privilege and it motivates me to be the best I can be.”
Swan Lake will be performed by the Houston Ballet from October 24 to 27 at Dubai Opera.