Yuhui Choe 2021
- Alejandro Valera
- Anna Rose O'Sullivan
- Beatriz Stix-Brunell
- Christopher Saunders
- Hannah Grennell
- Isabella Boyd
- Johan Kobborg
- Julie Petanova
- Marion Tait
- Matthew Ball
- Mayara Magri
- Meaghan Grace-Hinkis
- Téo Dubreuil
- Valentino Zucchetti
- Yuhui Choe
- Zhan Atymtayev
First Soloist, The Royal Ballet
Interviewed by David Bain
Zoom video conference, Thu 27th May, 2021
David welcomed Yuhui who began by telling us about her life since the birth of her daughter, Myriam, in January. She took three months off and started back retraining about three weeks ago, but there’s no pressure so is taking her time. You don’t realise how much your body changes over the pregnancy, so it was quite difficult to come back. She’s not doing class yet as she had a Caesarean section because the baby was breeched and you need six weeks doing nothing. Myriam is four months old on Saturday but she still can’t put pressure on her stomach or back. It will come but needs healing time. It was a very short season this year and she’s not missed a lot so it was perfect timing. She hopes to be back towards the end of the year and Kevin O’Hare has been very supportive about the timing of her return, so she will see how she feels. There’ve been lots of babies in the Company which is wonderful, and it’s about time they established a creche at the Opera House – Zenaida Yanowsky and Steven McRae have both tried, but so far nothing has happened.
Going back to the beginning of the last season, 2019/20, they started with Manon in which Yuhui danced Lescaut’s Mistress with two different casts, one with Marianela Nunez, Roberto Bolle and Marcelino Sambé. She recalled an unforgettable Saturday night, their second performance, and they had the longest standing ovation/curtain call lasting 21 minutes. It was an incredible feeling with the audience going crazy and she felt privileged to be with that cast. Even Marianela is still saying it was very special. Marcie had done Lescaut before and Yuhui had done a few things with him including Symphony in C. Mistress is technically very difficult but she loves everything about the character. Apart from Lescaut, she’s the first person to dance on stage after curtain up and she and Lescaut are very important characters within the ballet. When Kevin cast her as Mistress, Julie Lincoln was staging it and wasn’t sure if Yuhui was right for the role but Kevin said, trust me, she can do it. Once they started working on it Julie loved the way she was dancing the role and encouraged her to do more and more. The comedy is very important. She doesn’t want to think about it as a comedy as it has to happen naturally. With Marcie it is comical anyway and happens naturally and the same with James Hay - they laugh all the time. She’s also danced with Valentino Zucchetti when she replaced Beatriz Stix-Brunell on the day. She’s partnered several Lescauts, her first was Ricardo Cervera who was very experienced, so he and Valentino in the first year, and then James and Marcie and it is always really fun. Julie isn’t staging the ballet any more, but Yuhui recalls her first solo rehearsal with her. Julie was so passionate about it and she brought out a lot of things Yuhui didn’t know about herself.
The next ballet was Raymonda. She had done it before in 2012 and really enjoys it – it is so grounded and every time the curtain goes up the audience clap, and you feel you are in a grand ballet in a palace. It is also fun. Then in Sleeping Beauty she did Bluebird and the Golden Vine solo which was different as normally she does Crystal Fountain. It was challenging but enjoyable. She did actually do Crystal Fountain as well as someone went off injured so, in the end, she did three shows. There was no rehearsal as she has done it so often, and it was surprising but exciting to go back to it as her comfort solo. Golden Vine is completely opposite and quite a challenge. Darcey Bussell had watched the rehearsal and gave her great tips afterwards which were really helpful. Bluebird was her first ever big solo role in Natalia Makarova’s version during her first year in the Company. Since then, she has done it with so many Bluebirds – more than ten – but this time it was Luca Acri. They had worked together on Coppelia so were building a partnership which was helpful.
Yuhui was in the Company when they did Coppelia in 2006/7 including performing in Mexico City where it was difficult to breathe because of the altitude. She worked on Swanilda with Merle Park which was an incredible experience. She came in with sparkly eyes and is very funny. Federico Bonelli was coaching too so that was fresh and new. They were very fortunate to have different coaches and some worked with Leanne Benjamin and Lesley Collier. When Philip Mosley (her Dr Coppelius) told Yuhui, Marianela and Anna Rose Sullivan that they were to have Merle they were thrilled and it was such a good experience. Merle had worked with Ninette de Valois for many years and it was Merle’s first full length performance so for her it was also a magical and very important role. When Kevin said Luca was to dance with her, she thought it was good for both of them. He is an incredible partner who works so hard and he gave everything, 100% in the studio and 200% on stage. He respects Yuhui very much as a dancer and she wanted to help him to become an incredible dancer so it was a win-win situation. It was also very good for him to have Federico as coach. She had a great time and also enjoyed working with Phil who had been her Widow in Fille and she adores him. He’s another who works really hard, putting in so much effort as well as coordinating all their schedules but he is passionate and so funny. He says ‘just mark it, I can’t do it but I will on stage’ which just makes Yuhui laugh. Act II is challenging for the ballerina but in a good way. It’s a very compact space and you have lots of props which can go wrong but she enjoys every moment and it’s a fun ballet. Merle watched her first show and gave her great advice about Act II. She was a bit concerned about the lack of space but Merle said just let it out, the audience have to see all the expression from your face, eyes, hands and everything, so just “Go Big.”
Previously she’d danced Olga in Onegin. Last time they wanted to give the young ones a go, which is only right, and it might feel strange doing it at her age. It was a really good experience with great partners and she has good memories. She’d love to do Tatiana and isn’t too old for that role – who knows?
Swan Lake came next but they were only able to do six shows. She did princesses in Act III and two sisters, but didn’t do the big swans or the Neopolitan dance as lock-down happened. It was a very strange time, they knew what was coming as everywhere was shutting theatres across Europe. David mentioned being concerned at the stage door after The Cellist in the previous programme when so many people had come from Italy to see the little girl perform.
Lock-down. Initially it was quite exciting seeing everyone on Zoom, their houses and backgrounds. She enjoyed classes and especially Pilates with Fiona and also enjoyed yoga. She joined the Peleton app with amazing instructors. Ross, who is Chris Wheeldon’s husband, ran it and was incredible. Last May the weather was wonderful and she and Nehemiah (Kish, her husband) cycled round their area discovering parks and enjoying themselves. The downside was what was happening around the world which was sad but they tried to stay positive and find ways to brighten their lives. They enjoyed cooking, which they’d never had time for before as they were never at home.
Reverting to Makarova’s Sleeping Beauty in her first year, Yuhui said Natasha was just terrifying. She didn’t know Yuhui and didn’t understand why she was in rehearsals saying ‘who are you and why are you here?’ She said she was covering Princess Florine and Natasha said OK and then ignored her the whole time as there were 7 or 8 people trying to learn the Bluebird pas de deux. Somehow, they finished early and at the end Natasha said ‘you do solo’. She learned it and Natasha said ‘not bad but you need to rehearse a lot’. After that she did lots of rehearsals with her, and she was called into the office and Monica Mason said she had a performance. They were already on stage rehearsing by then, the only time she had was the general rehearsal a couple of days later. She was told she’d be dancing with Yohei Sasaki which was great as he was a great dancer who looked after her when she joined the Company. They had a couple of rehearsals in the studio and then the general. Just before curtain up Yohei came almost crying saying he couldn’t move, his back was in spasm. Yuhui was made up and panicking as she had no partner. Andrej Uspenski was called and she did it with him though she’d never even touched him before! Natasha didn’t stay for the run of Sleeping Beauty and went home after a couple of shows so didn’t see Yuhui perform.
That was Yuhui’s first year as an Artist, having come to the Royal as an Apprentice the previous year following the Prix de Lausanne. She came the year after Ryoichi Hirano who was the first year of the apprenticeships - as a guy the rep didn’t have anything for him. Yuhui was more fortunate as by the time she arrived they had ideas of what to do, there was Swan Lake and there’s always a need for girls so she was on every night and did all the big ballets in her apprentice year.
Yuhui was also in Makarova’s Bayadere. The first rehearsal with her was while they were making ‘A Day in the Life of a ballerina’ for YouTube. Natasha didn’t allow any cameras in as she wanted an intimate rehearsal in the MacMillan Studio. She said ‘hello Bluebird’ when Yuhui arrived as she didn’t remember her name! When she was teaching her the entrance to the first solo, she slightly changed the choreography for Yuhui’s benefit (here a little demonstration). The role of Nikiya meant so much to Natasha and she gave everything to Yuhui who had three or four weeks of rehearsal with her and Sergei Polunin whose first big full-length ballet it was. They worked with her and Olga Evreinoff intensely and it was an unforgettable experience. Natasha stayed until their first show and just before curtain up of Act III she was correcting Yuhui about something in Act II and making her do it again! It was amazing then but now looking back it was an incredible experience. Yuhui has danced Nikiya quite a lot and also Gamzatti, who is a very different character. During Kevin’s first year Zenaida was coming back to do Nikiya and he suggested Yuhui tried Gamzatti but wondered if Natasha would agree. Natasha said ‘she’s not Gamzatti’ but Yuhui wanted to prove her wrong in that sense and thinks she succeeded. She was really busy at the time preparing for Alice and they overlapped so she didn’t rehearse with Natasha as much but what she did changed everything and she enjoyed being bad, dancing with two casts which was great. In one week, she did three Gamzattis and two Alices! They were crazy times. Kevin saw her as perhaps a stronger character than before. When Natasha said no, he said she should trust him and she’s very grateful to have been seen in that way. She enjoys both roles.
Alice. Yuhui learned the role in two weeks in an emergency. It was tough and challenging to learn and perform the role so quickly. It’s one of her favourites as from the beginning to the end it is a story about her and she loves working with Chris Wheeldon though he wasn’t around all the time and Jackie Barrett was giving her the crash course. The first performance was a bit tricky but gradually she enjoyed it more and she got to know the steps so she could express more. David mentioned that Chris Saunders recently talked about the difficulty of Chris’ steps. Yuhui said he is a perfectionist who sees things his way and you have to do it as he wants or else he gets frustrated. She was cast in his Fire in Homage to the Queen as one of the two couples. He chose her for what was her first soloist role. His work is always musical but the movement is so big and very demanding but very detailed at the same time – he says why do it so small when he always wants big movement. The steps in Alice are hard, but expanding. They have had a long relationship and she has been in several of his works. She was in DGV which was fun, and with Zachary Faruque they created a lift called washing machine (a little demonstration here)! She’s also been in quite a lot of Wayne McGregor’s works. She created a role in Infra and Limen and was also in Chroma, Woolf Works and others. When Alina Cojacaru was injured, Mara Galeazzi went into her role in Chroma and Wayne chose Yuhui to cover that role which was big. Later he cast her in Infra. Working with him is like doing a most difficult puzzle, with lots of brain work. You do something, then do it in reverse, though Yuhui’s brain doesn’t work like that and he likes to see her struggle and says just make it up! Wayne likes complicated movement and is very demanding and extreme. She’s worked with him for 10 years so they know each other quite well and although he laughs at her he still casts her. On her first few days back after maternity leave she was talking to Kevin who said he thought he’d seen her name down in Dante. She’s grateful he is thinking of her but is it realistic?
Jonathan Watkins is another choreographer she’s worked a lot with. Ever since he joined he made loads of things on her. He never said it to her face but apparently she was his muse. She loved working with him, his quirky movement, personality and choice of music, and he always came up with something very Jonathan. She misses the creative process with him. He is a wonderful choreographer, she has seen him grow and he is a big part of her career.
Yuhui has also done a lot of Ashton choreography which she feels suits her. She recalled a conversation with Anthony Russell Roberts, Ashton’s nephew, when he was in the Company. She was very young and on tour they were having breakfast together. When she said she’d love to do more Ashton he replied you will, you will but she didn’t believe him. She loves the musicality, the style which suits her body and character. Asked if Fred were alive, would he cast her, Anthony said of course he would. She would have loved to work with him. She’s done so much – Lise, Cinderella, Rhapsody, Scene de Ballets, Symphonic and Two Pigeons. She did the pas de deux from Two Pigeons in a gala at the age of 19, at the end of her first year in the Company. Lesley was injury coach at the time but worked with Yuhui and she suggested she do the Two Pigeonswhich was when she began doing Ashton’s work. Lesley showed a video of the gala to Monica Mason as she liked her performance and that was how they started casting her. At the 2015 revival she did the full-length work which really suits her and was such fun. Alexander Campbell is a great partner. In the first pas de deux he said you are so annoying - not in real life, as they are good friends! She has done quite a lot of Filleand was the last Lise to be coached by Alexander Grant before he passed away. The experience was quite traumatic as she didn’t know the role well and he started shouting as he didn’t want to have to teach her the steps. She wished she knew more but didn’t know what to do so started crying and he was very tough on her. After her debut he said you did OK though lots more work to do but I think you’ll be great. It was special to work closely with him and also working a lot with Lesley on what was her signature role. Another favourite is Rhapsody.She did one of the six girls in the newly designed production. After that she always wanted to do the principal role so when Kevin cast her, she was over the moon and she worked closely with Lesley on whom it was made. It was another of Lesley’s signature pieces which meant so much to her so working with her was very special. Probably the highlight of Yuhui’s career was dancing that role on tour in the Bolshoi Theatre. She pinches herself and can’t believe she’s done it.
Going back to her roots, Yuhui said she grew up in Japan and always knew ballet wasn’t just a hobby and if she wanted to be professional she’d have to go abroad as Japan doesn’t have professional companies. From the age of eight to ten she wanted to go to France as was fascinated by the Paris Opera Ballet. Her mother wanted her to learn something, perhaps piano or dance. Out of nowhere she said dance so her mother looked for dance studios and the closest gave ballet classes. The day she first visited at the age of five is fixed in her memory and she knew it was what she wanted to do. She started competitions at the age of 10 when she knew she had to be recognised to go further and when she was 12, she won first prize in Kobe which was a big competition and people realised she might be good. Her parents took her seriously and accepted it might happen. She was always watching videos of Paris Opera and kept telling her parents she had to go to Paris and somehow would find a way. When she was 14, she met a Japanese ballet teacher who was going to open a ballet school for kids from Japan to study and train with him. She didn’t know how to approach the Paris Opera but thought this might be good as it was more comfortable to go to a Japanese teacher and her parents agreed she could give it a go. Daini Kudo was married to Noella Pontois, etoile at Paris Opera Ballet, and later she trained with others, including Dominique Kalfouni who was also an etoile. Yuhui entered the Paris International Competition in its last year and got the silver medal. One of the judges was Maina Gielgud who was about to take over Boston Ballet (though this didn’t actually happen) and they were holding auditions in Paris so at the age of 16 Yuhui auditioned, got the job and signed a contract. Finally, it wasn’t possible for her to go as she couldn’t get a visa and being so young would have needed guardians etc. Anyway, in her mind she wasn’t sure about the USA as she really wanted to stay in Europe so her teacher suggested trying the Prix de Lausanne which had been her dream and you get opportunities when you win. With Dominique coaching, she started preparing the Raymonda solo and won the prize. Dominique was an incredible artist who came every Tuesday which was Yuhui’s favourite day. Her classes were mainly the rep so she taught Yuhui the Carmen solo, Roland Petit rep and lots of solos from different rep. She admired her passion and would just watch her feet which were amazing when demonstrating and that was an incredible experience.
Yuhui’s done a lot of competitions as it was the way to be seen. Prix de Lausanne was a competition but it was also a process as everything is judged including the classes where you’re among many other talented students so it’s very inspiring. Doing class, it didn’t feel like a competition and only seemed like it when you performed on stage (which was a scary experience as it’s raked) for the semis and the final. Yuhui got to the final and won the prize. If under 17 you have a scholarship, over 17 you can choose your top three from 20 international companies. Her first choice was the Royal Ballet, then San Francisco but she really wanted Paris Opera which unfortunately wasn’t an option. Monique Loudiéres was one of the coaches at the Prix and wanted her to go but it wasn’t possible and said the Royal might be good so she chose to go to the Royal thinking it would be just for a year and ended up staying here as the moment she joined the Company she knew it was the place for her.
Since his retirement from the Royal Ballet, Nehemiah has been studying at Goldsmith’s for a Masters in Arts and Culture Policy. He finished his Masters in September 2020 and is currently working for ENB School assisting with Annabelle Lopez Ochoa’s piece for the school performances. He also just started as Assistant Director to Karen at New English Ballet Theatre and he’s also senior producer for NEBT as well as being involved in a few other projects so isn’t idle. His parents are staying with them and kindly offered to help with child care so they can see their grand-daughter. It was hard for them to come over, but Yuhui and Nehemiah are very fortunate to have them till Sunday. After that they will have to look after themselves! Myriam will go to nursery in September, meantime Yuhui isn’t fully back and sometimes Nehemiah can work from home so they can juggle and have also found a part time nanny.
In bringing the meeting to a close, and thanking her very much for being with us, David said it was always a pleasure to talk to Yuhui who said the last time she came she couldn’t believe she had done so many roles. Indeed, it’s true - she has danced a vast number of roles across the whole Company rep and members of BA have enjoyed them all and looked forward to her coming back.
Report written by Liz Bouttell and edited by Yuhui Choe and David Bain.
© The Ballet Association 2021