Wim Vanlesson & Aki Saito - Royal Ballet of Flanders
Principle dancers of the Royal Ballet of Flanders - Aki Saito and Wim Vanlessen have had an extraordinary 24 year dance partnership. Wim Vanlessen, was born in Belgium and trained at the Royal Ballet School of Antwerp. At age 17, he won the ‘Prix Professional’ at the Prix De Lausanne. In 1994 he joined The Royal Ballet of Flanders where he quickly rose to the top as Principal Dancer. Aki Saito was born in Japan. She began her ballet training in her home city of Morioka at the age of seven. In 1991 she was awarded a scholarship at Prix de Lausanne, which allowed her to train at the Royal Ballet School Antwerp. In 1994, she joined the Royal Ballet of Flanders as a half soloist and became a first soloist in 1998. She was promoted to principal in 2004. Their repertoire includes Onegin, The Sleeping Beauty, Swan Lake, Giselle, La Bayadère, Romeo and Juliet, Theme and Variations, Divertimento Nr.15, The Four Temperaments, and Apollo. Approximate Sonata, Return To The Strange Land, Forgotten Land, Sonate, Lost By Last, Le Sacre du Printemps, The Grey Area, The Sweet Spell Of Oblivion, The Third Light, Boléro, Spartacus, The Nutcracker, La Bayadère, Don Quixote, The Four Temperaments, Tschaikovsky Pas de Deux, Serenade, Infra, Orpheus , Artifact, Impressing the Czar, Herman Schmerman and In the Middle Somewhat Elevated for which they have received wide critical acclaim.
When did you first meet?
We first met as students when we started training together at The Royal Ballet School in Antwerp, 1991. Immediately we started working together on the Blue Bird Pas de Deux from Sleeping Beauty by Joy Newton. Later that year we performed it in the school show.
You both joined the Royal Ballet of Flanders in 1994. What was the first full length ballet you performed together?
The first leading roles we danced together were Aurora and The Prince in The Sleeping Beauty.
Thinking back to this, did you ever imagine becoming lead principle dancers?
We never busied our thoughts with this as a priority but we were ambitious. We wanted to dance and engage in roles that inspired us. We simply strived for opportunities and we were given great chances, but being principles was not our only motivation.
How is your rehearsal process and do you ever have your differences?
We are demanding of each other, yet equally we demand a lot from ourselves. In one way the rehearsals are very easy because we have the same goals. Our view is always the same on which process will achieve the best results. Our communication isn't always the most polished, we talk to each other in a very direct manner as it is the most efficient way. It can sometimes be a surprise for people who are in the studio with us as the process could look quite raw. However, it is our end goal that is the key and our end goal is achieving what we think is beautiful. We are in sync with each other and have complete trust in each other as partners.
Photo by Marc Haegeman
You have both participated in many international Galas. Which are the most memorable?
We have many fond memories of participating in International Galas. We have performed at; Gala des Étoiles in Paris, The Lincoln Centre Festival in New
York, The Olympic Games in Nagano, The Aoyama Ballet Festival of Tokyo, The Prague Ballet Gala, Dance Salad in Houston and The Gala of the Prix De Lausanne, Switzerland. One particularly fond memory is of the 15th year anniversary of Gala des Étoiles held in Paris, 2012. We had the honour of bringing the show to an end dancing the In The Middle final pas de deux by William Forsythe. The reception of the audience was overwhelming. We have recently danced as guests at the International Genée Competition which was held in Antwerp this year. We will also be attending The International Ballet Festival of Havana, Cuba this month to dance Love, Fear, Loss by Ricardo Amarante, and In The Middle by William Forsythe. It’s always a pleasure to dance amongst talented dancers from around the world.
Which is the most unforgettable performance of your careers so far?
That is really hard to answer. We’d probably have to say Theme and Variations by George Balanchine when The Royal Ballet of Flanders celebrated their 40th anniversary. It's a demanding ballet and to dance this special piece at such a prestigious occasion was really rewarding. Another particularly important ballet to us is Onegin by John Cranko. The Cranko Foundation have been very supportive when we have danced the lead roles of Tatiana and Onegin, and the honour of being entrusted with this masterpiece is also very special to us. We have grown into these roles and this ballet feels like the perfect way to celebrate our twenty-year partnership together.
Wim, earlier this year you went to guest with The Australia Ballet. What did you perform?
I danced Des Grieux in Manon and Suite en Blanc. I wasn't quite sure what to expect as I hadn't been over to the company before and this would be my first time to dance the role of Des Grieux. The guesting followed a very busy period here with the Royal Ballet of Flanders and when I arrived at The Australian Ballet I was scheduled to dance my first show of Manon in two week's time. I questioned if I could achieve this for a moment but then I thought this wasn't something I had to be scared off. We started to work straight away and I quickly realised this was a ballet I could really enjoy! It featured a lot of pas de deuxs which require strength and capability and this is something I feel like I can deliver. We performed in Melbourne and in Sydney at the Opera House which was a very memorable experience. I feel very fortunate to have guested with the Australian Ballet.
Photo by Marc Haegeman
Aki, Hong Kong Ballet recently invited you to guest. What did you dance and how was your experience?
Yes, Last December I went over to guest with Hong Kong Ballet. I danced The Nutcracker by Terence Kohler which he choreographed for Hong Kong Ballet in 2012. It is a newer interpretation on the traditional Christmas tale and fun to dance. I danced the role of Clara who also dances the Snow pas de deux in this version. It’s always interesting to guest as you see how other companies work.
Wim, you always wear white shoes in class and rehearsals. How come?
I wear white shoes in class in order to have a higher awareness of my feet. You really see white shoes in class and rehearsals. You can't escape them and it's something I do to concentrate on keeping foot work clean.
Wim: I don't have a particular role model. It's a certain quality that interests me. There are many beautiful dancers out there and what I find interesting is why certain people stand out. This is something I look at. There are occasions where dancers may not be the best technicians but they stand out, and on the contrary there are amazing technicians who stay unnoticed. It's something that fascinates me.
Aki: From time to time, you meet people that touch you in a very special way. Ballet isn't always a pretty place. There are pretty pink tutus but there are many other less obvious elements. There is pain, mentally challenging obstacles and times when it's hard to keep going. If I am inspired by someone in my life, or by a beautiful piece of art for example, I take something from this. Thinking that I can give the same to others is my motivation. I try to give to audiences from the moment I step on stage and if I can inspire someone it is really rewarding.
Photo by Marc Haegeman
Do either of you get nervous before a performance?
Aki: I'm very scared before I enter the stage. I know this might sound amusing but there was even a time I looked at the emergency exits for a way out. Wim and I work very hard, but this is not just to achieve something good, we work until nothing gets in our way. I find myself dreaming of the repertoire we're about to perform. These thoughts can really take over twenty four hours a day, thoughts of technique, musicality, artistry, etc. Of course something could go wrong, or somebody in the audience might not like my interpretation; there's always the possibility that you are not excepted in one way or another. Maybe this effects my confidence and this is what I'm scared of. Before going on stage, I say to myself I have done everything and now this is not for me, it's for the audience. I really give myself to the performance. This is my focus.
Wim: I get nervous in a sense of hoping the performance will go well, but the moment I'm about to enter the stage I think to myself, "This is it". Mentally you have to prepare yourself as this is live theatre and you never know what could happen. Focus is a key factor but it's also one of the most difficult things to balance with nerves. There should be one choice and that is to deliver. I believe to perform and enjoy the show is the most important.
After 20 years of partnership, do you still buy each other Toi Toi presents before a Premier?
No (laughing). It's funny, we always say we will do something after a run of performances, but we never do. We used to buy Toi Toi presents in the beginning but it's different now. It's more rewarding if a show is really special. After that there is nothing better we can give to each other. That's how we feel.
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