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Madoka Kariya
May 4, 2023

Chapter 19, Madoka Kariya: Stepping Beyond Ballet

Dancer with Netherlands Dans Theater (NDT)

My parents found dance for themselves. It was quite common in their generation in Japan. They began dancing in small groups as beginners and actually became quite serious in their practice. They even performed semi-professionally in their free time outside of their jobs. During this time, a Peruvian artist visited Japan and my parents had the opportunity to learn about the music and movement of that culture. As this new passion grew, so did their romantic relationship and, eventually, their family.

When I was a kid, that was the kind of music I was exposed to. That was the music my dad would put on in the car when we drove instead of the standard Japanese pop songs that other families might have listened to. They loved the music of Peru. I’d often watch them dance in the living room during the week or on the stage at a weekend performance. When I was young, this made me a bit embarrassed. I asked myself “Oh why are my dad and mom on stage doing things like this?” But, as I started to develop my own interest in dance, in using my body to express feelings, I began to understand why they loved it so much.

I guess that exposure to dance from an early age made me want to try it for myself. But I wanted to do something different from my parents. I wanted my own focus. There was a local cultural center and I think I had seen that they offered ballet lessons, so that’s where I got the idea. And, truly, since I started ballet I wanted to be a dancer. That was the dream when I was four and sometimes I still feel like I am four because I’m living that dream.

SHOOT THE MOON 2019 ©Rahi Rezvani

My ballet training continued while I was living in Japan. I was fortunate to have a teacher who brought in guest instructors who focused on other movement practices, like Tai Chi. My ballet teacher was always inspiring us with different perspectives on how to use our bodies. Though I was exposed to different movement forms, I didn’t have any formal training in other styles until I went to school in Germany. There, our schedule was split, half ballet and half modern.

It was a dramatic shift. I didn’t know the spoken language or the movement. Some of the students around me were more familiar with modern dance and, honestly, I felt very uncool. I felt awkward and out of my comfort zone. I knew what to do in ballet class, but I did not have that confidence in the modern class. It took me longer than others to figure out the steps and the quality and the coordination.

I didn’t know how to enjoy class with this uncomfortable feeling of fear and panic. Many of my friends from Japan also struggled their first time being abroad because they did not have modern dance training. We confided in each other and shared the same emotions. While it was nice to have that support and friends who could empathize with my experience, I didn’t want to feel that kind of suffering. I had worked so hard to get into Palucca University of Dance Dresden and, while there were options to change to a classical ballet school, I knew that being in a more versatile program would benefit me in the long run.

Photo of Madoka Kariya ©Rahi Rezvani
© Rahi Rezvani

So, I shifted my perspective. Instead of focusing on the discomfort, I focused on my choice for myself and my career. I asked myself, “How can I really motivate myself to take advantage of this experience?” Since that day, I focused on it being an opportunity to learn something new and add to my toolbox of skills. That new mentality really changed how I took in information in my body. I was able to become a sponge, learning from and being inspired by my teachers and classmates. It prepared me for what was to come.

When I auditioned for NDT, it was an open call. You just had to send in an application and show up. I think there were over three hundred people at the audition. It was known to be a long audition day. First, you arrived at the theater around nine o’clock to begin registration. There was a lot of waiting throughout the day. The first dancing you did with your group was a 45-minute ballet class. We waited. Then you learned repertory. We learned two pieces and everybody had to show them. We waited. The next step was a solo, this was something we prepared beforehand and brought with us. We shared solos one by one. We waited. Then they called people for an interview, again one by one. By the time I was called for an interview, it was almost midnight. I was sitting on the couch with Paul Lightfoot and I didn’t know if it was a dream or reality because I was so exhausted. Then, we waited some more. Paul was present for the day but Gerald Tibbs was sick. We waited for Gerald to watch recordings from the day, speak with Paul, and make decisions. I had a really good feeling from the day so I was excited but you never really know what the answer will be. You have to wait. I waited for a week or so before I got the call.

NDT is always changing, but they always look for quality ballet technique. That’s why the classical ballet class was the first part of the audition. Obviously, everyone had experience and was trained in ballet, but not all to the same degree. That did not keep some people from making it to the next part of the audition. For the dancers who didn’t have as strong a ballet background, they highlighted the command they had over their bodies. Creating that exact and perfect line wasn’t necessary. What was necessary was sharing the unique quality of your instrument. And now, that is what I experience in company class. Everyone has a different body and everyone shines brightest when they share their individual gift. When they use their personal toolbox of skills.

The sabbatical system became part of our rule book at NDT a few seasons ago. I think it is an amazing thing and really healthy. When we work as full-time dancers, we are so busy. We don’t have time to discover and experience opportunities outside of the company. I am taking a year off now and it was so necessary for me. I have been dancing professionally for about ten years. Now is the time to see outside of that bubble. The dance world is small and beautiful, but I want to know more, especially when dancing full-time isn’t something we can do forever. I always had the thought in my mind: what’s next? I have had this passion for dance since I was four and ran towards that goal. Now, I want to continue challenging myself and see what else I can accomplish and learn. That is my motivation and purpose. I am always looking for something else; my brain is like a shopping mall of interests and career transition is a big store there.

Madoka Kariya dancing © Joris-Jan Bos
© Joris-Jan Bos

While on sabbatical, I’ve been modeling. Through modeling, I affirmed that I like being a performer. I love that time on stage and I experience a similar feeling in front of the camera. I can express myself through my body, especially when I’m hired as a dancer model, moving in different looks.

Another new area I’m exploring is acting. My acting class has become a kind of therapy because, for the first time, I am using my voice to express myself. It is out of my comfort zone but I wanted to face that fear, much like I did when starting modern dance.

I enjoy collaborating with artists from other mediums. I love to offer what I have in my craft to make something entirely new with someone else. I don’t know the exact career I will transition into after dancing, but I’m gathering my past experiences and exploring my current curiosities to put something together that highlights all that I have in my unique toolbox.

Connect with Madoka via

Instagram: @mado_kary

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