Chapter 12, Iori Araya: Seize the Fortune by the Forelock

Dancer with Ballet Memphis

Photo by Tim Allhoff

I do not have a typical ballerina body but I always believed that I could work hard with what I have. At the age of 14, I entered the Asian Pacific International Ballet Competition and to my surprise, won a scholarship to the Australian Ballet School (ABS). My family and my ballet teachers and I were all in shock that I received this amazing opportunity but back in 2005, ABS was not a well-known school in Japan and being so young at 14 it was hard for my parents to let me take up the opportunity. All I knew was if I didn't the opportunity wouldn't come again and just like what my mum used to say, "seize the fortune by the forelock," this was just that moment.

In 2006, I quit school and moved to Australia and began professional training. At first, I often got depressed in class as we only worked on the basics which clearly showed my weaknesses: lack of turnout or nice legs. It was difficult to not compare myself with my classmates who had such beautiful bodies with their long limbs, turnout, and nice feet. It felt like no matter how hard I tried nothing looked pretty in the mirror. I was in constant need of proving myself. I was also incredibly homesick and not being able to speak English properly made it that much harder, I remember crying almost every day on the phone with my mum.

The scholarship I then received was originally only for a year and a half but seeing as I wanted to stay longer I knew I would have to work smarter and learn to master the basics. So I started to apply the corrections that the teachers were saying working with my facility instead of comparing myself to others. It resulted in me staying until graduation, a total of 4 years at ABS! In the last 2 years, I also had a lot of opportunities to perform which allowed me to showcase my strength and having laid down the foundation in my early years at the school this also meant that I was able to grow consistently as a dancer. 'Be the best dancer you can be', the motto that got me through the tough times and helped me make it happen exactly as I am.

After graduation in December 2009, I sent emails to about 30 companies to audition and the first one that got back to me was Singapore Dance Theatre (SDT). The company invited me the following month to fill a 3-month contract for their production of Giselle. I knew a few dancers from ABS who were also in the company so I said yes immediately-- even though I only had 1 month to prepare. During those 3-months I was in Singapore the director, Janek Schergen offered me an apprentice contract and I was then promoted to company member at the end of 2010. I was lucky to have had many opportunities to dance lead roles and was exposed to a diverse repertoire like that of George Balanchine which ultimately inspired me to want to dance in America. After 4 years at SDT, I handed in my resignation and departed on a 3-month audition trip.

Photos by Ngiap Heng Tan & Ziggy Mack respectively

I auditioned in both Europe and America. My auditions in Europe were not so great as I was too short for most of the companies there and my style of dancing didn't match either. However, I got much better responses in America. I felt that my dancing style was much more suitable to the repertoire and I was more confident and comfortable. Height was not a huge problem there either. However, the problem with wanting to dance in America was the visa. The next challenge. Though I made it to the end and got the chance to speak with the directors, as soon as they learned that I needed a visa they somehow lost interest immediately. The application for filing an O-1 visa (the one for dancers) costs around $4K USD alone-- so for a company to hire you they have to see something very special to go through that process. I ended up doing about 20 open and private auditions from January through to the end of March but still did not get a definite yes from any of the companies. My audition tour ended up costing me almost $10K to which I used some of the money I had saved from SDT and my parents also supported me with the money they had saved for my future wedding. There was no way I would have been able to afford another audition trip again so this was my very last chance to find a job.

I returned to Japan after the audition tour and sent emails out to some companies that had expressed interest in me. It turned out that the New Jersey Ballet, the last company which I had auditioned got back to me offering me a contract with the O-1 visa! I was so excited that I would get the chance to finally dance in America! I then started immediately with the visa process. The more research I conducted, the more I found out that the O-1 is an extremely difficult visa to get approved. I knew it'd be a risk but I wanted to fulfill my dream of dancing in America so I started collecting all the documents including past programs, reviews, recommendation letters, and anything that made me look like I was an accomplished dancer. The entire process took about 6 months and it was finally approved in October 2014. I still remember that warm feeling in my chest when I picked up my visa at the American embassy!

Photos by Irving Kwok & Ziggy Mack respectively

A few days later I flew to the States and started work at the New Jersey Ballet. The artistic leadership gave me plenty of opportunities for principal roles during my time-- one of my most memorable roles being Aurora. I learned a lot about partnering and how to own the stage, however, I was still looking to expand my repertoire and felt that it was time for me to take another risk. I auditioned every year while I was at New Jersey Ballet and it wasn't until 2 years later when I auditioned for Ballet Memphis that things started to change but very slowly. I attended their open audition in New York but was not selected for the 1-on-1 with the director Dorothy Pugh. I was extremely disappointed but 2 months later, I received an email from the ballet master, Brian McSween inviting me to take company class a week later, I was shocked and surprised. So, of course, my answer was yes and I booked my flight even though the only flight available was one that would arrive 2 hours before the company class. However, it was a risk that I was willing to take. On the day of my audition, my flight left New Jersey a little past midnight and at the layover, I found out that my connecting flight was going to be delayed. This meant that I would miss the company class. I remember bursting into tears because the ballet master had told me that that was the only day available for the director. I emailed him with the news devastated that I lost the opportunity but decided I would still show up at Ballet Memphis and speak to them in person, after all, I had flown all that way.

Upon arriving the company was already doing petit allegro and watching them from afar made me want to burst into tears again. The director came to speak to me after hearing about the news of my delayed flight and came over to give me a hug shortly before she shared with me the update that her schedule had changed and asked if I'd be available to stay one more day in Memphis to watch me take class. She even went as far as to arrange and cover my return flight and accommodation!

I was so relieved and felt really good about the private audition the next day even though I hadn't taken the class yet. I knew that I just had to be myself and show them my inner confidence and that the rest would fall into place. Surely enough, a week later, and on my birthday, I received an email from Ballet Memphis with a contract for their 2017/18 season! I then found out later once I joined the company that a Japanese dancer had left the company which was how the position opened up. It just goes to show that even if you don't have the ideal ballerina physique, it's possible to get to where you want to be if you continue to persevere and take risks, without second-guessing yourself.

I was also very lucky to be at the right place at the right time. Confidence and timing are very important in this career. You need to always be ready to move when the time comes so that you won't miss the opportunities waiting to happen.