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Issue 001 Hana Sakai <vol.1>

The secrets of a unrestrained, free spirit

Hana Sakai ©︎Alexandre Magazine

Hana Sakai is currently the most prominent prima ballerina in Japan. She danced the role of Princess Aurora in the inaugural Sleeping Beauty performance of National Ballet of Japan in 1997, and since then, she has been at the top of the game. At the age of 28, she has moved on from being Principal Dancer at National Ballet of Japan and went freelancing. She has been dancing in full length classic ballets, and also kept expanding her wings to dance in contemporary works and new creations. She has formed a creative unit Altneu with her husband Yasutake Shimaji, famed dancer and choreographer who has been dancing with William Forsythe's The Forsythe Company and now works extensively with a broad range of artists. She has also guested in musicals, and collaborated with Noh (a traditional Japanese performing art) artists. Many ballerinas in Japan retire in their late 30’s, but Sakai, now in her 40’s, still stars in physically demanding full length classics on pointe and also challenges new creations, breaking boundaries of ballet, an one-of-a-kind ballerina.  She was awarded the Medal with Purple Ribbon by the Japanese government in 2017 as well as many prestigious prizes.

Hana Sakai ©︎Alexandre Magazine

To keep her classical and academic line accurate and polish her technique, Sakai trains hard every day with discipline but at the same time she has a down to earth personality, accepting new challenges with open arms and a bold and free independent spirit. She laughs a lot and has a friendly, warm attitude to everyone. Prior to this interview, we had a photo session and she enjoyed the avant-garde makeup and styling of the artists. The shooting has become like an impromptu dance performance, and even when she broke her classical lines, her movement had the poise and elegance of a prima ballerina. 

“I really had fun with this photo session; it was indeed like a creation of a new dance piece. My husband, Yasutake Shimaji had given much influence on me. He is great in improvisation and never repeats the same thing. In ballet, we repeat the same exercises every day to reach perfection. My encounter with Yasutake broke down my perceptions towards dance, his attitude towards seeking for change each day was a revelation for me. He opened the door for me to a whole new world of creation. We create every day and break it, and again we pile things up and break down, and distill the creation towards the performance date”  

In Japan, Hana Sakai is a rare ballerina who has a rich vocabulary within her body and crosses borderlines of dance. Japanese ballet dancers excels in classical technique but they are often regarded not good enough in creation and contemporary works, and also lacking expressiveness when they compete in international ballet competitions and dance in companies overseas.

“It is important for me that I have this basic ballet training; I have a home that I can always return. Classical Ballet is written in by body so I can break my lines and also try new challenges. I didn’t have the intention to move in a certain direction, I was lucky to encounter fabulous artists and given the opportunity to jump into new projects. I also had the curiosity and bold spirit to try something new and things that looks exciting. Classical ballet is my language but historically, there are so many kinds of dance and each of them has their history and method, but dance is dance, and I, as a dancer would love to try everything and feel the history and culture through dance with my own body, as long as I live a dancer’s life.”  

Hana Sakai ©︎Alexandre Magazine
Hana Sakai ©︎Alexandre Magazine

What shaped Hana Sakai, the ballerina with the open-minded, free spirit?

“My mom loved ballet and she brought me to lessons when I was 5 years old. ‘Do you want to try this?’ ‘Yes!’ Soon she took me to Yoko Morishita’s (a legendary Japanese ballerina who danced internationally) performance, and I made up my mind to become a professional ballerina. When I wore pointe shoes for the first time, it hurt so much but my mom told me to try again, and then it didn’t hurt anymore. That memory when I was small was perhaps the only time that I thought I will give up dancing.”

Sakai was brought up in a middle-class ordinary family, but her mother was a unique person, her No.1 supporter and taught her life lessons to become a ballerina and an artist.

“My mom and I were almost like twins. Our characters were different, but she looked at me objectively and was an independent, calm person. She always advised me how to develop myself as a dancer, and supported me. I became what I am because of her guidance. It was after I became prima ballerina of National Ballet of Japan that she said ‘It was my dream to make my daughter a ballerina’ but I did not recognize her dream until then. My challenging spirit is a product of her, and she regarded me as a dancer and an artist. I feel so grateful and happy that I can perform as a dancer, fulfilling her dreams and ambitions into reality.” 

Hana Sakai ©︎Alexandre Magazine
Hana Sakai ©︎Alexandre Magazine
Hana Sakai ©︎Alexandre Magazine

This March, Sakai starred in Japan Ballet Association’s full length Raymonda which is a pure essential work of classical ballet. Sakai’s radiance filled the large, 5-storied Tokyo Bunka Kaikan with brilliance and made the audience realize her star aura. There are numerous solos in the title role of Raymonda and it is a demanding role that requires accurate, flawless technique which Sakai nailed with perfection. On the same month, she and Shimaji created an improvisation based on the news coming from the radio at that moment, and showed her new side, her ability as a impromptu contemporary dancer. What are the secrets of her brilliance and her inner vision? 

“It depends on what kind of work you are dancing. For classical ballet, there are strict rules so I just carefully follow them with perfection, and by doing so, that shapes my characteristics. Creating classical lines requires such accuracy as trying to pull a thread through a needle’s eye, and that becomes expression. Following the academic classical positions with such delicacy is what we ballerinas challenge with full devotion. Full length classics are so demanding for our minds as well as physical challenges, and I could not believe that I could make through full Raymonda at this point of my career. They say I have aura, but there is no method to create it, I just try to exist on stage as the role. I am always aware to make my performance reach everyone in the large venue, with the dancers, orchestra and the audience. Thanks to my long experience I can create such expression and characterization. I always regard that it is important to represent the atmosphere of the work and the role, and not showing off myself.”

Hana Sakai ©︎Alexandre Magazine

“For creating new works, my characteristics are my classical line and vocabulary, ballet technique and they say I try to make use of them. I have to be brave to taint my classical lines, but at the same time I feel it is fun to open new doors to something I had never tried before. Sometimes, new ideas and movements come out of me unexpectedly, and I feel like guided by some invisible power that does not belong to me, when I am on stage. But I have to work very hard every day to bring that power, and I try to show that energy each time I am performing. “

“To act in a certain role in dramatic works, I feel the personality of the role such as Carmen or Juliet coming through my body. I feel like a vessel. For instance, when it is The Lady of the Camellias, I just try to tell how wonderful the life of the original heroine was. I feel I am offering my own body to them so that I can bring a good performance.”

“For abstract works without stories, I just try to do my best to bring what the director/choreographer wants with much sincerity. I feel so blessed that there are so many artists that trust me to bring myself to their work, so I try to provide them many ideas spontaneously. I am willing to be versatile. “



MAKEUP: Itsuki at UM

VIDEOGRAPHER: Hajime Kanda, Aya Kawachi


ART DIRECTER: Yuichi Ishii

Hana Sakai ©︎Alexandre Magazine

Hana Sakai

Ballet Dancer / Dance Unit Altneu Born in Seattle, Washington, USA.Began ballet at age 5, and has studied under Toshiaki Hatasa since then. She entered the limelight when chosen to dance the role of Cupid in Don Quixote (all acts) in a performance by the Asami Maki Ballet Company. Moved to the New National Theater Ballet on its opening, and danced the main role of Princess Aurora in Sleeping Beauty, the theater's inaugural ballet, opposite Japan's best-known prima ballerinas, Yoko Morishita and Miyako Yoshida. Since then, has been one of the central dancers in the Theater. Mainly involved in classical ballet, but has also been active in exploring contemporary dance and musicals, forging new frontiers. Regarded to be one of Japan's premier ballet dancers, with excellent technique and expression, enchants audiences with sophisticated performances. Currently a Honorable Dancer of the New National Theater Ballet Company as well as forming a contemporary dance unit Altneu with her partner Yasutake Shimaji. Her repertoire is diverse, including all the major classical full length ballets, as well as works of contemporary choreographers such as Nacho Duato, Marco Goecke and Christian Spuck.Sakai has received numerous prestigious prizes and awards, such as the Award from the Ministry of Education in the Art Encouragement Prizes in 2009, the 35th Nimura Dance Prize in 2015, Medal with Purple Ribbon in 2017 from the Japanese Government, and the Special Award from the 39th Akiko Tachibana Foundation Award in 2018. 

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