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Pivot Pointe
September 8, 2023

In Conversation With Aya Okumura

First Soloist with the Czech National Ballet

Tokyo born Aya Okumura started her ballet training at the age of 3 in Tokyo, Japan. In 2006 winning first place at NBA Ballet Competition granted her a scholarship to study at John Cranko School in Stuttgart, Germany. She graduated with honour in 2009, and joined Dutch National Ballet where she rose through the ranks to be promoted to Soloist in 2017. Since 2019 was a Soloist at Staatsballett Berlin and is currently a First Soloist with the Czech National Ballet.

Photo Courtesy of Aya Okumura

Q: You trained in Tokyo and then at the John Cranko Schule before building a great resume dancing for top ballet companies in Europe. Did you always aspire to dance in Europe?

Aya Okumura: Not really. When I was younger, I wanted to become a musical actress or work in the stage industry, specifically theater. I was interested in performing, dancing, and singing because my parents were ballroom dancers - they used to dance and teach. So, I was always close to stage performers and entertainers.

I didn't have any plans to become a ballet dancer, but I enjoyed ballet training and it was the only hobby I kept doing, despite trying gymnastics, piano, and other activities. At one point, I started thinking about studying abroad, but my parents wanted me to finish school in Japan first. I knew that would be too late to start studying ballet seriously after the age of 18.

I didn't have a preference for where I wanted to dance, but I received a scholarship at a ballet competition and that brought me to Europe. I was just dreaming of dancing, not necessarily in Europe or on any particular stage.

Q: When new leadership brings a particular vision, it can often lead to changes. I understand that's why you started auditioning for other companies. As a seasoned and accomplished dancer, can you share your experience with this process? Does it get easier?

Aya: Basically, I received a letter stating that my contract would not be extended under Christian Spuck's directorship. I was shocked because my career was moving in the direction I wanted, and I was getting great opportunities and performing nice roles. At that time, I was preparing for the role of Aurora in Sleeping Beauty, which was a big role for me. So, I thought my career was going well. But suddenly, I received the letter, and I was completely unprepared for it.

I thought there was still a chance that I could get my contract back, not knowing why I was invited to the meeting. Ultimately, I had a nice talk with Christian Spuck, and he explained that he was afraid I wouldn't have many opportunities to perform under his leadership because he would be working with many choreographers and less classical repertoires. He thought it would be better for me to leave now. I appreciated his decision, and I found a place where I am happy now. But at that moment, I didn't know what to do. I had so many thoughts in my head, and I was devastated.

I thought having a higher rank would make it easier for me to audition or get invited to audition. But in truth, all companies have a limited number of contracts in certain ranks. Even if they are interested, they may not be able to give me a contract because there is no place for me.

When I was sending emails to many companies, I realized that the vision of directors should match who I am as a dancer. It was hard, but being an experienced dancer, I knew what to fight for myself.

When I received the invitation for the meeting, I was already starting to think about writing emails, updating my resumes, editing videos, and preparing to audition for other companies. I knew that the spots were limited, and I had to move fast. So, I prepared everything and sent all the emails out as soon as I received the final decision.

Of course, I was emotional, and I cried a lot. But I knew it was my career, and I had to do something about it if I wanted to keep dancing. I still wanted to dance and believed that there would be some place where I could go in the future.

Photo by Olaf Kollmannsperger

Q: It's truly motivating to witness dancers reclaim their stories and feel empowered in their profession. Have you signed with CODA Classical? Would you suggest that dancers explore new opportunities, whether or not they are actively auditioning?

Aya: I started looking into CODA because I was searching for my next company. I researched articles and stumbled upon an article in Pointe Magazine, so I immediately signed up for the application. That's how I started. CODA offers not only company contracts but also project dancers and modeling opportunities.

I think it's amazing how Rebecca Haw does it; she also helped me send out my resumes and was supportive. As a dancer, negotiating is not something that we are trained to do. We just know how to dance. So it's helpful to have someone like Rebecca to negotiate and support us in financial situations, even for a gala performance.

I have some friends who opened a modeling agency called Fashion Composers, and I think it's pretty cool that they're working on that. Dancers should have a voice and fight for themselves. Especially when you're young, you might be fine with everything as long as you have a contract, but in the end, it's your life and your choice. Sadly, this career is not so long, and you need to secure a life and savings. We should fight for our value, but it's not so easy to do it alone. It's great that there are agencies that are out there to support us and negotiate with the companies or directors for all sorts of situations so that we're not agreeing to something without looking at it first.

Q: Can you tell me about your experience securing your role as First Soloist with the Czech National Ballet? Congratulations on your promotion from soloist! I understand your contract overlapped with that of the one in Berlin, which must have meant some traveling between the two cities.

Aya: I joined the Czech National Ballet as a Soloist and was later promoted to First Soloist at the end of March this year.

During my research into various companies, I became particularly interested in the Czech National Ballet due to their impressive repertoire of classical works by John Cranko and others. As I wanted to join a company with Cranko's works in their repertoire, I began looking into the Czech National Ballet. At that time, I was working with Marcia Haydée, who was in Berlin for Sleeping Beauty. With her help, I was able to get in touch with Filip Barankiewicz, the director of the Czech National Ballet.

Although they did not have a contract available at the time, I persisted in approaching them and eventually asked if I could take a class at the company. After Filip watched me, he offered me a contract, but could only promise me roles in classical repertoire since that was all he had seen me perform. I showed him a solo from David Dawson which was created for me, and Filip was interested in watching it.

Despite being offered the contract, I wanted to further improve my reputation and asked if I could start whenever. Christiane Theobald, who was leading the company in Berlin at the time, was understanding and we negotiated the shows I would still have to perform in Berlin. In the end, I was able to perform in a show by John Cranko.

Although it was a bit of a challenge to travel between the two cities, I was excited to start my new career with the Czech National Ballet, which has around 80 dancers and a wonderful repertoire.

Photo by Ksenia Orlova

Q: What advice do you have for other dancers who may be facing a similar career change or setback?

Aya: You should know your own value as a person and as a dancer, and have a clear understanding of your goals. Determine where you want to be in a few years or even a year from now.

In my case, I knew that I still wanted to dance and that I was capable of doing so. Facing the reality of someone telling you to leave is difficult, and it can be challenging to find a job in the dance industry. Many dancers are struggling to find their place.

It may be necessary to accept a less desirable situation, such as not being able to join the company you wanted. You should fight for yourself and seek everyone's help. Reach out to anyone who can be of assistance, whether it's for psychological support or getting in touch with a company.

It's okay to be vulnerable and ask for help. Show that side of yourself. Timing is also important, so be patient and persistent.

Q: You are also affiliated with an arts organization in Japan. Can you share more information about their work and explain why it is important for you to maintain a connection with this organization, even with your full-time dance career?

Aya: The art project, The Bright Step, was started by my friend and me through organizing a gala a few years ago. The goal, then and now, is to make ballet more accessible to everyone, not just those accustomed to going to the theater.

If you are from the Royal Ballet or have some sort of branding, you have a higher chance of getting guesting opportunities in Japan. However, there are many talented dancers outside of Japan who are waiting for any chance to dance in Japan, but they don't have the opportunity. We wanted to become a support system for those dancers, even after their careers ended, by providing workshops and other opportunities.

We started doing a gala every summer, which wasn't easy financially in the beginning, but it has grown each year. We've had many dancers from different companies and countries perform in the past summers. Although it's challenging to plan while dancing full-time, my friend, who is now based in Japan, organizes most of the gala.

It's important to stay connected with the Japanese ballet world because I'm Japanese, and it would be sad to lose that connection just because I'm abroad.

Top Image: Photo by Serghei Gherciu

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