Do you remember the lithe ballerinas in music boxes which we used to look at in fascination as children? Petite and light as a feather, Ayaka looks like an almond-eyed little girl with a serious face. For the six years she has been in Sibiu, we have watched her dance ethereal and transfigured in tens of performances. Ballet is her life. She gets most main roles, works hard every day, goes on tour in Romania and abroad. Nevertheless, she is one of the most modest artists I’ve ever met. She welcomes me in her simple flat in an old communist block, where she lives with her fluffy dog, Luke. The 27-year old Japanese young woman, a graduate pf one of the most prestigious ballet schools in the world, English National Ballet School, has given up the material comfort of her country to dedicate herself to ballet in an entirely new place, with a totally different culture than the one in which she was brought up.

Mentally strong -growing up working 10 hours per day

Ayaka started ballet classes when she was 4 and never imagined she’d end up doing anything else. In Japan, children study for eight hours daily, learning about independence, respect, duty, and honour from a very early age. I asked Ayaka about her childhood: “It was marked by strict rules. For example, punctuality is very important, as is cleanliness. In Japan, we are given responsibilities at a very early age, and at six we clean our classrooms ourselves.” I launch a challenge: “What happens if a child breaks the rules and is late for school, for example?” She looked confused, looks down and replied timidly: “They are told that their behaviour is inappropriate. If it happens again, their parents are called to school to explain.” I insist: “And are they punished in the end?” Ayaka puts on a puzzled face and vigorously shakes her head: “Nooo! No punishments!”

The Japanese are taught to be fair, polite and always pay attention to the others, not to disturb, offend or intrude. Like all Japanese children, Ayaka grew up in a culture of respect for parents and teachers. During her childhood, she studied for eight to ten hours a day and did another two hours of ballet every day, from Monday to Saturday. On average, ten hours a day, with a lunch break. I ask how she would describe her education in two words. She answers quickly and seriously: mentally strong.

 

She does not complain but tells me about the three years she spent at the famous London ballet school in a serene and humble manner: she was invited to study there based on an international competition where she stood out. At 15, she left her home behind, not speaking English very well. In her first year, because of the intense study effort and the psychological stress, she came to weigh only 34 kg. Her ballet teacher asked to see her and firmly said she could not go on until she reached at least 40 kg. “I found it so frustrating that I cried every night, but at no time did I think about giving up.”

For over a month, terrified she wouldn’t be able to dance, she ate anything at all times: sweets, fast food, fries. She managed to gain weight and successfully returned to the rehearsal room. In her second year of college, she broke her leg, and during the recovery, she ended up at the other end of the spectrum: she reached 49 kg, too high a weight for a petite ballerina, of only 1.61 m. She did graduate, but what followed was at least ten auditions that ended in rejection, either because of her height, her weight, or both. She didn’t lose hope, nor did she blame the exigency of those around her, an unfair system or the school. On the contrary.

“I love how peaceful Sibiu is!”

She went to several auditions in European cities, including Sibiu. She liked the city and the people so much that she chose to stay. In the first two years, she travelled a lot by bus. Her first cultural shock came when she realised that public buses not only did not arrive in the stations by the second, but that they sometimes didn’t make it at all. She laughs like a child and her eyes close up altogether. To fully understand why our Japanese ballerina was baffled by Romanian lack of timing, remember that, about a year ago, when a train in Japan left the station just 20 seconds earlier than scheduled, the responsible railway company repented in dust and ashes and made a public apology.

Ayaka works for eight hours a day, Saturdays and sometimes even Sundays included, for an average salary. Like all the ballet dancers in Sibiu, she has the right to 10 free days per season, but she’s never asked for one since she arrived here. This detail I’ve found out about from her colleagues may seem small, but it’s so relevant, as Ayaka does not brag, nor does she complain. When she is not in the rehearsal hall or on stage, our ballerina likes to cook traditional Japanese recipes. “It’s cheaper and it allows me to save money.” She enjoys Romanian food a lot too, but she must mind the calories.

Our mentality and our concept of comfort makes it almost impossible to understand this. Why would anyone leave a prosperous environment for a more precarious one? Why would somebody go from a country where, on average, a young person makes 3,000 dollars to one where they get a quarter of that? Yet, for Ayaka, the Sibiu Ballet Theatre is a much cherished personal and professional experience. More than that, she loves the peacefulness and the warm feeling she gets from this small town in the heart of Romania.

Besides classic ballet shows, in which she usually gets main roles (Odette and Odile, of Swan Lake, or Giselle of the homonymous romantic ballet, Kitri aka Dulcinea of Don Quixote, Nikiya of La Bayadère, Lisa of La Fille mal gardée, Anna of Anna Karenina, etc.), Ayaka is also a principal dancer in neoclassical ballet performances. She stars in up to three or four shows per month and is well known and recognized by the people of Sibiu who have a passion for classical music and ballet. On 16 March, we will see her again alongside other very talented young dancers in Tribut Ceaikovski, this year’s first premiere of the Sibiu Ballet Theatre.

The Sibiu Ballet Theatre has now grown to be a big multicultural family, with 35 professional dancers from the farthest corners of the world: Venezuela, New Zealand, Russia, Australia, the United States, Japan, Cuba, Dominican Republic, as well as five Romanian dancers, of which only one is from Sibiu. On a small scale, this wonderful community of the mind and art speaks discreetly about the good, the beauty and the bright truth of the world we live in. A world as diverse as it is amazing.

author: Minodora Sălcudean

foto: The Sibiu Ballet Theatre