First Soloist, The Royal Ballet
interviewed by David Bain
Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church,
London, 28 June 2012.
DAVID WELCOMED YUHUI who, with Celisa Diuana, had last been our guest in June 2006 after they had come to the Royal Ballet on apprenticeships from the Prix de Lausanne. Yuhui began by recounting a little of her background in Japan where she started dancing at the age of five. Her mother wanted her to learn something like piano or dance and although she’d never seen any dancing she knew that’s what she wanted. From the moment she started at the ballet studio she fell in love with it and it’s continued ever since. Yuhui went to an academic school during the day and afterwards to ballet class, initially four times a week but by the age of 10 she was going every day. She said that a lot of people do ballet to a good technical standard in Japan but you don’t have to be qualified to teach ballet so anyone can do it.
Her teacher, Mrs Myumi, taught Yuhui until the age of 14 when she went to France. It was a big deal for a 14 year old but for years she’d been telling her parents that somehow that’s what she would do. She had watched a lot of videos from Russia and the Paris Opéra and after seeing the latter, and particularly Elisabeth Platel, former étoile and now head of the Paris Opéra Ballet School, she really wanted to be like one of them and since the age of 10 it had been her dream to go to Paris. The family saw an advert for a ballet school in Paris run by a Japanese teacher, Daini Kudo, and this seemed a perfect opportunity. Although Mr Kudo normally only took 16 year olds, he said he’d like to see Yuhui dance, and accepted her after seeing a video. Her parents were happy that a Japanese person would also look after her, so off she went with a few other Japanese students. She was so excited that she nearly forgot to say goodbye to the family at the airport!
Mr Kudo had been in France for 50 years. A former dancer who had worked with many French choreographers, including Béjart, he was also married to Noella Pontois a former étoile of the Paris Opéra and was passionate about teaching their style to his students who were all Japanese. Various teachers including Dominique Khalfouni from Paris Opéra School came to help. Every day they had French and history lessons while concentrating on dance. It was quite tough coming to Europe for the first time with no language and there were many tears particularly with the French teacher as they could only communicate with gestures. But she loved to be there not just because of ballet but also being in a different country and being inspired by so many different art forms. Mr Kudo took them to galleries, museums and exhibitions around France and Yuhui felt that, at the age of 14, to be free to go anywhere was very liberating. There were about seven students in each of the two years though Yuhui stayed three years as she was so young. When she was 16 she entered an international ballet competition in Paris, won a silver medal and was offered a job by Boston Ballet. She signed contracts and was all set to go but the visa situation was tricky as she was under 18 and it would have involved a fight in the courts for her to be given the necessary permission. So she decided to stay in Paris and Mr Kudo suggested she focus on the Prix de Lausanne which she did in January 2002.
Audio clip - Prix de Lausanne:
At the Paris competition, Dominique Khalfouni was one of the judges and Mr Kudo begged her to coach Yuhui and although initially she said she was too busy she finally agreed. Her first class was the Giselle solo and Yuhui was so excited she just ran on, but Dominique kept saying no, do it again and again. She learned about 20 different solos and the Paris Opéra rep. Dominique, who’d been a wonderful dancer and was a very good teacher, also coached her for Prix de Lausanne and suggested Yuhui do the Raymonda solo for it. Her contemporary solo was by a Dutch choreographer, and Mr Kudo also made a solo which was tricky as it had to last less than one minute! Although she’d been doing competitions since the age of 10 in Japan, after Paris this was her first really big one and was quite different. Initially it didn’t feel like a competition as there were solo and contemporary classes with the judges present so it seemed more like a rehearsal. The competition really starts with the semi-finals. The stage rake was so tricky and Yuhui freaked out. There was a wonderful woman, Monique Loudières, who coached them before going on stage and warned them to be careful in case they fell. Yuhui did an attitude turn and fell down so for the semis she was wearing shorts with no tights and two big bruises on her knees! She didn’t really do well at the semis which upset Mr Kudo who said she wouldn’t get to the final. Before the results came out she was sobbing in the hotel lobby and the concierge became very concerned about her. However next morning he saw she’d survived, she got to the final with the concierge in the audience and afterwards he went backstage and said he couldn’t believe she’d been so upset the night before and then won the first prize!
This gave her the opportunity of an apprenticeship from one of 20 different companies and she chose the Royal Ballet with San Francisco Ballet as her second and Hamburg Ballet her third choice. She’d have loved to go to Paris Opéra but that wasn’t an option so being interested in Macmillan and Ashton work she decided to apply for the Royal without really believing she’d come to England. But Monica Mason, then Assistant Director, wrote saying she’d be very welcome and she suddenly realised she was coming to the UK which proved to be the move which changed her whole life. The year before Ryoichi Hirano had joined as an apprentice and the Company seemed not to know how to deal with them. It hadn’t really changed when Yuhui arrived and she recalled a month doing little and without being told what to do. She went to class and did pilates but with no English it was hard to make herself understood and ask what she should be doing. Then they started Swan Lake rehearsals which was very special. Gail Taphouse, the ballet mistress, showed her the Royal style and every rehearsal they spent time on the head and port de bras. Yuhui was a quick learner and they started putting her on stage, at first in Swan Lake and then Nutcracker snowflakes and Romeo and Makarova’s Sleeping Beauty. She was also the dead body for Judas Tree! This was funny as one day her body wasn’t properly covered and she was told off for showing too much leg though it wasn’t her fault! She also suffered a shin injury which resulted in Lesley Collier coaching her for a few months.
Asked if the Royal has learned how to deal with apprentices now, Yuhui said she thinks so but it does depend how capable you are. If you’re good you get put on, if not you don’t. It’s tough but that’s life. At the end of her apprenticeship she approached Monica to ask to join the Company but Monica said there was no vacancy which shocked and disappointed her. Monica said she would write recommendations and call directors but it was tough to continue Company class knowing she wouldn’t be staying on. In April 2003 she thought she’d better go auditioning and decided to go to Monte Carlo but as this would mean having to miss a show she had to ask Monica’s permission. Permission was given but the next day Monica called her to her office which Yuhui thought would be bad news but she said ‘sometimes I change my mind and I know you are going to Monte Carlo but I’d like to offer you a contract’! Yuhui was confused by this change but as she’d booked a hotel and bought the plane ticket she went for the experience but it wasn’t for her as she was very young and they wanted contemporary dancers with strong classical technique. So she returned to London and accepted the contract with the Royal.
After her probationary period she had a meeting with Monica who welcomed her to the Company but said you can leave whenever you want! Now Yuhui understands her but then it was a bit confusing! Shortly after, Monica asked her to learn Bluebird for Makarova’s Sleeping Beauty. She went to rehearsal and Natasha said ‘who are you and what are you doing here’? She said she was learning the role and later Natasha said ‘you do solo now – you’re quite good but you really need to work on it’! This was quite a compliment coming from Makarova, said David. Yuhui kept changing partners which Natasha said would make her strong. Then Jeanetta Laurence called her in to say Natasha wanted her to go on as Bluebird. It was very exciting to happen in her first season with the company. She was told she’d be partnered by Yohei Sasaki but stage rehearsals had already started, so she had very little time with him when suddenly he said he couldn’t walk so they picked on Andrej Uspenski to partner her instead. He was also learning the role but it went quite well though they did leave out one lift which would have been tricky as they’d never danced together. Then it was decided to find another partner for Yuhui, this time José Martin who was also doing the role for the first time. They had about a week of rehearsals followed by two shows and then José was injured so she went back to Andrej!
The remainder of the season is a bit of a blur. She did Symphony in C – her first triple other than being a dead body! It was a big deal to be on the main stage. After this busy start the next season was very quiet so Yuhui told Monica that she would like to dance more but Monica said everyone has to go through a period in the corps and she should enjoy it while she could. Yuhui agrees that it’s an important experience and makes you appreciate the roles you get and she feels grateful to have had that opportunity. Her next ballet was Rhapsody – Francesca Filpi was injured and Yuhui was cover so had to go on. Her fellow dancers were surprised to find Yuhui in the first cast which made her feel a bit uncomfortable but she really enjoyed the ballet. Her promotion to First Artist happened in Washington in 2006 when she was summoned to a dark hotel room and Monica said she was going to promote her (David complimented her on her imitation of Monica!). Yuhui said they have a very good relationship which is why she feels she can speak as she does!
She’s done two versions of Sleeping Beauty, both very different. Makarova’s is very Russian and stylized, the woman who’d come to put it on was shouting at her and was very particular about certain steps but it was tricky as, besides Bayadère, they’d not done much work in that style. The other is very much the Royal Ballet style especially Bluebird pas de deux where the steps aren’t quite in the music. More recently Yuhui was helping Itziar Mendizabal when she was learning the role and couldn’t quite understand the counts. The learning process is difficult but it does make sense. Yuhui loves the Bluebird and also the fairies. She has done mostly Crystal Fountain and Songbird. In the 2007/8 season she did about 12 shows and last time nine and Songbird about five times. In the latest production they had new costumes which were very colourful and quite different. Yuhui counted 10 birds on her tutu and more on the headdress.
In 2007/8 Yuhui did quite well and began dancing away from the Opera House, doing Mara Galeazzi’s galas, growing stronger as a dancer. That season she was first shade and first shade solo girl in Bayadère which was a very important role for her. That time Olga Evreinoff came to mount the work and always pushed her in a good way which was a great experience. It had been planned for her to do it in her first year but someone got injured and she had to stand in elsewhere. Yuhui recalled so clearly the first time she worked with Olga as she kept speaking to her in French. When she asked why Olga was talking French to her she said Monica had told her she’d trained in France. However, they soon gave up as Yuhui had lost all the French she’d every known by then! Olga was always very helpful, giving good corrections and pushing her forward. Sleeping Beauty came back and she did Bluebird for the first time but her first lead role was in Homage to the Queen. They needed someone to learn Queen of the Water in place of Alina Cojocaru who was injured. Two days before opening night they gave her a video and said learn this and she said OK, thanks! Valeri Hristov seemed to know what was going on and helped her in the studio with the pas de deux but really she learned it in her free time without a proper rehearsal. One day Valeri said she should be prepared as he thought she might go on as Miyako Yoshida wasn’t going to be doing it and Alina was off! Monica called on the Saturday to ask how much she knew of Queen of the Water and she said a little bit. What about next Wednesday then? Johan Kobborg was to be her partner though he hadn’t been doing the show because Alina was off and he’d forgotten some of it so they had a couple of interesting rehearsals with Johan asking Yuhui what was the next step! She can’t recall who coached as Michael Corder wasn’t there and never saw Yuhui dance. It went well after an initial hiccup but it was fun and very different. They had to change a one-handed lift to a shoulder sit but Johan is so experienced and very entertaining to work with and since then she’s danced a lot with Johan.
At the end of season they did a five week tour of Asia to Beijing, Shanghai, Tokyo, Osaka and Hong Kong. Miyako couldn’t come to Beijing and they needed a Queen of the Water, so she did one night with Johan and one with Valeri after rehearsing with them both every day. It was a great experience. In Bejing she was promoted First Soloist and did opening night of Queen of the Water with Johan which was quite special. (Since then they’ve done Dances at a Gathering and Les Sylphides.) She was asked to an interview with Monica and recalls having to go along a very long corridor from the studio to the basement. Monica was very quiet then said, ‘you’ve had a good season and I want to promote you to (long pause) First Soloist. And I have put you down as Nikiya in Bayadère. Natasha wants you to do it’. It was amazing and Monica also said she should do the girl in The Lesson. It was just a two minute interview and Yuhui was very cool. But going back along the corridor she kept thinking I’ve just got promoted. She tried to call her mum 10 times and she didn’t pick up so phoned her father and she screamed ‘I’ve been promoted but can’t contact mum’. She was on a bus going home and because of the excitement took the wrong bus. It was only when Yuhui’s sister phoned to ask where she was that she realised she was going in the wrong direction!
Bayadère was her first full length role. Monica said you won’t be doing corps de ballet work any more but you must be strong as it’s a big jump. Her first role was Swan Lake pas de trois opening night dancing with principals which was a big deal. She managed really well and then came The Lesson which was a big challenge. Flemming Flindt was still alive at the time. But when the casting went up her name had disappeared for the role and she was down for Voluntaries – Monica then admitted she had forgotten about The Lesson! Alina had gone off so they needed someone to do her role in Voluntaries and it was to be either Yuhui or Leanne and they weren’t sure who would be chosen when the person mounting the ballet came over. Rehearsals started for both but she was concentrating on The Lesson because that was what she was meant to do. The first rehearsal with Mr Flindt was tough as he expected her to perform but she didn’t know enough of the ballet and had to learn from video, fighting for it with Roberta as there was only one available! Bennet Gartside was reluctant to make another as it might appear on YouTube. She watched every day but the steps in the video were wrong so Flemming was shouting at every rehearsal and made Yuhui so afraid, but for that particular ballet this was no bad thing. After a few days she thought he would take her out of the ballet although she did her best and in the end he said OK you struggled but you have to use your brain in dance so you can do it. She just said thank you. Her ‘teacher’ was Ed Watson. It was the first time she’d worked with him and he was very, very scary but they had a good time and he was very supportive as when he first did the role Fleming wasn’t very nice to him either so you all go through that period and then it’s fine. If you see anyone struggling you always help and Ed helped a lot. She has a really good relationship with him. The ‘pianist’ was Elizabeth McGorian but Fleming liked her!
Her debut in the principal role in Nutcracker was 14 November 2008 for which she had three partners, Steven McRae originally and then suddenly her name was on the website with Slava Samodurov, but no one said anything. Then Alexandra Ansanelli, who was replacing Sarah Lamb, was really ill and for the last stage rehearsal Yuhui was told she’d be dancing with Sergei Polunin. She kept calling his mobile and asking the stage door to find him but they didn’t get together until on stage in full makeup and wig, where they had a few minutes to practice while the Spanish and Arabian dances were on! So she had rehearsals for an hour with Steven, another hour with Slava and a further hour with Sergei during the week. First show was on Saturday with Steven and the next with Sergei so she was feeling strong and the following week with Slava by which time she felt very strong! For Bayadère her partner was Sergei. At the time Monica told her she was dancing Nikiya there was a rumour going round when Sergei was promoted that he’d be dancing Solor but he didn’t know who with and Yuhui didn’t know for certain until the casting went up in Japan. After that they worked together quite a lot but Bayadère was a big challenge for them both. Hikaru Kobayashi was Gamzatti. Normally they get on so well but Hikaru was really scary in the role. They all had great fun in the studio with Jonny Cope, Olga and Natasha. At the first day of rehearsal with Natasha she hadn’t seen Yuhui since the Sleeping Beauty production but when she came in she said ‘oh I remember Bluebird, but this isn’t Bluebird and you have to believe in yourself’. It was quite an experience. She taught a lot of things and one day it wasn’t going very well and she kept saying ‘why don’t you understand, just copy but don’t copy as everyone is different’! She stayed until the first performance and was very happy with Yuhui’s first shade solo but said for Nikiya you really have to push yourself which Yuhui did. She believes that when she takes off the veil it’s a very special moment but when she arrived at that point she freaked out worrying that it was her first leading role and you have to be able to hold the big stage. That’s the thing she really worked on and it gradually got better.
David pointed out that Yuhui had said she joined the Royal to do Ashton and MacMillan works but up to now she’s mentioned the classics and the dramatic role in The Lesson. Yuhui says she takes it as a compliment to be offered these different roles in the Company as there isn’t always an opportunity to do such contrasting roles. Bayadère is coming back next season but she doesn’t know if she’ll get Nikiya again.
She also did Olga in Onegin, another dramatic role. She was supposed to do the opening night with Ivan Putrov but he had left so Steven McRae was to partner her though she was concerned over the height difference. Her feeling was right – when Reid Anderson came he changed the casting without telling her and it was Monica who said it wasn’t really bad news but that she wouldn’t be doing the first night and would lose one show as she was switching partners. It was disappointing but these things happen all the time and instead she got to work with Johannes Stepanek and had a lovely time – it was a good partnership and it worked really well in the end. It was a great experience. Yuhui really loves the scene where he dies because she was really crying and Roberta Marquez (Tatiana) was shaking so she made the most of it! It was very special and she hopes to get the chance to do it again.
Yuhui’s first Ashton principal role was Lise. It was her second season as first soloist. She was preparing for Cinderella at the same time, as well as Concerto and Elite Syncopations so there wasn’t much rehearsal time for each ballet. Alexander Grant came to the studio and he was expecting her to perform but she didn’t know the steps so he was shouting at her and although she tried hard not to she couldn’t stop herself crying. He just said ‘why are you crying – this is a happy ballet’. But it’s very tough when you need to concentrate on new roles while working on old roles at the same time. So she spoke to Monica saying it seemed selfish but she needed to drop something as her brain wasn’t going to stay the course. Lise was a very big challenge and Lesley Collier wasn’t available to coach her, being the lowest rank you don’t get the chance to choose your coach. So they had Alexander who’s great for the male dancers but doesn’t really know the girl’s role. So she kept begging for a chance to work with Lesley but it wasn’t possible so she was learning from the video but didn’t know which version to choose. However, it seemed to go alright in the end when she danced with Brian Maloney. It was also his first full length ballet which needs a lot of stamina so quite a challenge for them both. This time round Yuhui really felt in charge of the ballet. Monica said she knew she’d had quite a difficult time with her debut as Lise though had done really well with little rehearsal but this time she wanted her to start afresh. So Yuhui had Lesley from the beginning but her partner was to be Sergei who wasn’t there any more. A few hours after she heard it would be Brian and Monica later apologised but said sometimes this place is mad and you have to deal with it. Yuhui asked not only for Lesley but also for Jonny’s help with partnering because it’s not an easy ballet. This time she felt more confident with really good coaching .
Currently they are preparing for Birthday Offering with the opening show on Saturday. Yuhui is much looking forward to doing the first variation which was made on Elaine Fyfield. They have the first stage and orchestra rehearsal at 11 in the morning so she’s made her hair appointment for 8.30 as it has to be done before class. Wardrobe are already panicking but she doesn’t want to be chaotic about it so is making an early start. Then they have Titian. She’ll be dancing The Hunt made by Jonathan Watkins. She’s worked with him ever since joining the Company and has done about 10 of his pieces. It’s always fun working with him. If she’s not fully confident of a step she can ask to change it and that’s fine with him. He’s a best friend and to see him doing well is quite emotional.
David said it was delightful talking to Yuhui. He recalled the stage door at the beginning of season when she’d been promoted to First Soloist and Yuhui asked if he was surprised. He said she was the first person to benefit from Monica’s change of mind about dancers progressing slowly through the ranks, jumping up two places at a time. Monica must be very proud of Yuhui’s achievements and members really enjoy watching her dance. We look forward to hearing more of her future and perhaps play a little tape of her interviews with Kevin O’Hare! Yuhui said he’s a good friend whom she’s known a while. They are used to going to him for help but realise not any more as he’ll now be the boss so the approach will have to change a bit! But she’s looking forward very much to him being artistic director.
Report written by Liz Bouttell, corrected by Yuhui Choe and David Bain ©The Ballet Association 2012.