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Interview with Kristoffer Sakurai, Royal Danish Ballet Corps Member

by Kate Snedeker

March 25, 2004

At just 23, Kristoffer Sakurai has already emerged as one of the top young talents in the Royal Danish Ballet, drawing particular praise for his interpretations of Bournonville roles. I caught up with him after a busy day of rehearsals, just two days before his major debut in the lead role of Bournonville’s classic 'Napoli'.

A Copenhagen native, Sakurai is half Japanese and half Danish, the son of a Japanese father and a Danish mother. He explains: “My father was born and raised in Japan, and then he came here when he was around twenty and did his education here at the Danish University. He met my mother fifteen years later, and then they had me.” Sakurai’s parents later divorced and his father moved back to Japan. However, six months ago, after nearly fifteen years half way around the world, his father moved back to Denmark.

Like the majority of the Royal Danish Ballet dancers, Sakurai received most of his training at the Royal Danish Ballet School, but his first introduction to ballet was actually at a local studio. “It actually started with my mom taking ballet for fun. I was five or so, and I came with her one afternoon and I just wanted to do it [ballet]. And then I did [ballet] with her at this local ballet school. After a year or so - I think it was two years - they had the [ad] in the newspaper about the audition for the Royal Danish Ballet School, and my mom asked me if I wanted to try it, and I said, yeah, why not.”

At the yearly audition, Sakurai was one of the lucky dozen or so children selected to attend the Royal Danish Ballet School. “We lived in Copenhagen at that point, but after my third year of school, I moved two hours away down south to this Island called Falster, so I commuted forth and back every day [by train] until I was 14.  I had to get up at like 4:30 in the morning!”

As one of just 60 – 70 students in the Royal Danish Ballet School, Sakurai shared the same small, intensive ballet and academic classes with the other students in his level. Then, as now, each day started with ballet class, and after a short break, the students attended academic classes in their own school across the street.

Sakurai speaks highly of his experiences at the school: “ For me it was a very, very good school, not only ballet-wise, but academic-wise because we’re such a small number of kids in each class that the teachers really get to work with you. When I entered the school here, my academic standards were not as great, but when I finished my school here, I was very high, over the [average]. They taught me a lot academic-wise and ballet-wise. You learn so much from the school because it’s so full of traditions. You learn a lot about respect for the arts and respect for your older dancers.”

From the beginning of his time at the school, Sakurai was immersed in the theater world. Like the other students, he got the chance to perform on the Royal Theater stage in the many ballets in the Royal Danish Ballet repertory that have children’s roles. But, Sakurai’s first experience onstage was not in a ballet, "Actually the very first thing I did was a play, because back then, the kids did everything: they did plays, they did operas, they did ballet. And my very first thing was ‘Lady of the Camellias’; it’s kind of like the Manon story, the Traviata story. And after that it was ‘La Sylphide’, then ‘ Napoli ’.”

Sakurai also benefited from the close connections between the school and the company, seeing the dancers in rehearsals and having some of them as teachers. He speaks with enthusiasm when asked about dancers who inspired him: “Oh yeah! One of my favorite dancers in this company has always been Nikolaj Hübbe, who is now with [the New York ] City Ballet. He’s always been one of my biggest inspirations. And then of course - when I was growing up here, the company was a little bit different than it has been for the last couple of years and there were a lot of dancers like Lloyd Riggins, and Alexander Kølpin, and Rose Gad, that you saw, and of course you idolized - they were so amazing."

Sakurai also found inspiration in his teachers: “I had three different teachers while I was at the school, and it was probably the last teacher I had, Niels Balle, who is still with the company [and now the deputy head of the ballet school], who definitely helped me a lot. I was a very shy kid, and I would say very intimidated by grown ups, and he helped me a lot in overcoming that and believing in myself.”

Now, after seven years in the company – two as an apprentice and five in the corps – Sakurai has danced in much of the repertory. In discussing his favorite ballets, he says that some “of the ones that are most important to me are definitely 'La Sylphide', and then John Neumeier’s 'Romeo and Juliet'."  He has danced in 'Romeo and Juliet', but still is waiting for his chance to do the lead in 'La Sylphide'.

“I’ve been so fortunate - in 1993, we did 'Romeo and Juliet' again, and I got to be the 'actor family’s kid', which is kind of a big role for a child because you do a lot of dancing. And then when [Neumeier] came here, last time we did it in 1999-2000, I was so fortunate that I was cast as both Prince Paris, first cast, and Romeo, third cast. I did Paris, but then because of a lot of things, I didn’t get to go on [as Romeo] that season, and then got injured at the end of the season. I was supposed to do [Romeo] the next season, but I wasn’t ready.

And then James [in ‘La Sylphide’], I am in parentheses as we say, on the casting. That means you have to learn the role and you’re probably [going to] do it sometime. And I was so lucky that when Nikolaj [Hübbe] came and staged it here in the beginning of this season, I had a LOT of rehearsals with him, only him and me. Also, I rehearsed with all three different casts of 'Sylphides'. So it was an amazing experience.”

Two days after being interviewed Sakurai was scheduled to (and did) debut as Gennaro in ‘Napoli ’, his first lead role in a Bournonville ballet. Though he has danced soloist roles in several of the Bournonville ballets, preparing for the role of Gennaro was a new experience:

“It’s very different because [Gennaro] is so natural - he is a human being. Now, working with Frank [Andersen] and Eva [Kloborg] on this particular role, its been kind of hard in that it’s ballet, but at the same time you’re not supposed to look like a ballet dancer. You’re supposed to look and be as natural as you can be - no poses, no tendu battements or anything, just be natural about it. And that’s been kind of hard for me because at that same time it is still ballet, so you have to find that [balance]. And for me getting into the character has been a little bit different because he is very boyish – an Italian guy - whereas I am a little more shy. It’s a little hard, but at the same time been amazing!"

Dancing opposite Sakurai in his debut will be soloist Tina Højlund, who has performed the role of Teresina (Gennaro’s sweetheart) many times in her career. He finds it very helpful to be partnered with someone who has a lot of experience like Højlund: “It’s been a great with her because she’s been so helpful, and her view of her role as Teresina has been so great to me. I’ve always enjoyed her doing [Teresina ] - she does it amazingly - so to me it was fantastic that I could get to do it with her."

Sakurai has also had the opportunity to dance on stages across the U.S. and Japan . “I’ve been dancing during all my breaks and my vacations. I’ve been on small tours, like this winter, when we went on the Principals and Soloists of the Royal Danish Ballet [tour]. That was a great tour - you get to do some things that we don’t have in the rep here at home at the moment. You learn a lot and it’s a fantastic experience. And then I’ve been doing some guesting in Japan, because I’m half Japanese.”

Last summer, he and fellow corps member Susanne Grinder participated in the New York International Ballet Competition. One of the required pieces was a pas de deux from the classic Bournonville ballet ‘Kermesse in Bruges ’, coached by Royal Danish Ballet dancers Thomas Lund and Eva Kloborg. Sakurai’s experience and talent paid off, and he returned to Denmark with a silver medal. Besides this award, he has also been honored with a number of grants, including the Bartholin Grant, the grant form the Foundation of HRH Queen Margrethe II and HRH Prince Henrik and the 2003 Reumert Talent Prize.

He knows that his time as a dancer will be relatively short, as compared to most careers, and is concentrating on doing “the best I can” as a dancer. This intense focus leaves little time for outside activities, but Sakurai feels that it is still important to have other interests. He has a passion for history and also is interested in art.

Though Sakurai’s dancing career is just taking off, he has already begun to consider his future after his days onstage are over. “I have thought of it, because you always go through stages when you’re injured and you get very easily depressed, and it’s hard to keep focused. One of my dreams is to become a teacher, and maybe a coach. I’ve been doing some teaching in Japan and in the States, small places, and to me teaching is so interesting. I love it, I love to how see people can develop and I love to be able to [teach] something to [a student] that maybe I can’t do myself, but see that it works, because it’s always different from person to person.”

With youth and talent in his favor, Sakurai has a promising future on the Royal Theatre stage. In remaining months of the 2003-4 season, he will perform in ‘Anna Karenina’, ‘ Napoli ’ and ‘Abdallah’. After a summer break, he returns for intensive rehearsals as the company gears up for the 3rd Bournonville Festival in the spring of 2005.

Edited by Holly Messitt

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