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By Duke Harrington
The Current
November 20, 2012

Maiki Saito performs in MSB's Swan Lake 2012Scarborough, Maine, USA – Nearly teased into quitting dance as a middle-schooler, a Scarborough teen takes center stage in “The Nutcracker.”

There was a time, in middle school, when Maiki Saito nearly succumbed to the prevailing wisdom of his age, which held that dancing is not cool. Not ballet, anyway. And certainly not for a boy.

At Maine State Ballet’s School for the Performing Arts, where Saito had studied ballet, tap and other dance styles since he was 8 years old, they understood. “We were like, no, you don’t have to wear your tights, you can come in your baggy old sweats,” recalled company owner Linda Miele. “And we’ll give you manly roles, we said, like a knight, or pirate.”

Saito accepted those parts, and kept at it, taking classes and practicing hours every day after school. In part, said his instructor, Glenn Davis, it was because of the athleticism of the older male dancers he emulated, who could perform stunts and tricks and moves unlike anything seen on an athletic field.

“He saw what they were doing and he wanted to be able to do that, too,” he said.

But, a gentle nudge from his mother Diane also played a part.“He didn’t say he wanted to stop exactly, he was just in this junior high attitude where it wasn’t the thing to do,” she said this past weekend, explaining how she presented a sports team as an alternate extracurricular activity. ”I said, ‘You have to do something,’” she recalled. “So, he had to pick, spend his time with 15 sweaty guys, or 15 sweaty girls. He picked the girls,” she said, with a laugh.

Now, Saito, at 16, is the one younger dancers at Maine State Ballet look to as a role model, having taken his place as one of just 25 members of the Maine State Ballet Company out of more than 500 students, ranging from 3 years old to adults, and including instructors like Davis. And this weekend, Saito will take his second turn as the Russian Cossack in Maine State Ballet’s annual production of “The Nutcracker” at Portland’s Merrill Auditorium.

“I also play the Mouse King and I like that, I mean who doesn’t want to be a king,” said Saito on Monday. “But the Cossack is my favorite. “It’s a role that’s a lot of fun with a lot of jumping and turning in the air,” he said. “It really gets the crowd going and that gets me going and really pushing my limits. When you dance for practice it’s not the same as going on stage. With the crowd, the really make you want to work to your fullest. They bring out the best of what you can do.”

The Russian Cossack is so physically demanding, it generally does go to a younger member of the ballet company, said Davis. “It’s extremely hard,” he said. “It takes a lot of training and even still, not everyone can do it. It’s a very select group of people who can do a double tours – two turns in the air. Very few people in the world can do it and Maiki can do it great.”

But ballet is about more than just athleticism. There’s also musicality – being able to move on the beat is harder than it looks, said Davis – and artistry.

It’s in the latter where Saito stands out. “His strength is his personality,” said Miele. “He’s just a regular kid that, if you met him, you would just like him and think this is a nice, nice kid from a lovely family. And then, when you watch him dance, he just makes you happy. There’s just so much energy and joy in everything he does.”

“Sometimes it brings tears to be eyes, because I just can’t believe that’s the same child I’ve spent every day with,” said Diane Saito. “He’s just so humble, you’d never know what he can do. But then you see him on stage and he just this burst of energy and pure performance.”

First movement

Saito’s dance career happened “almost accidentally,” says his mother. At the time, it was Saito’s sister, Erika, who was the dance student, while he was the tag-along little brother waiting with his mother to pick her up from class. Daine Saito put her son in a class initially, she said, just to give him something to do to cure his boredom.

“At first, I was like, this is OK, I guess,” recalled Saito. “But after a while, after getting to know what it really takes to be a male dancer in the ballet, I really took to it and just wanted to be better and better – to do what I saw the older dancers doing, and then to do it even better.”

That drive kept Saito at his craft until it became art, even through the hardest days, when his friends questioned his dedication. “They thought it was a girly thing, so they used to tease me,” he said. “It wasn’t so much like bullying as it was just a lot of wondering out loud why I was doing it, because I was a guy.”

If the older dancers at that time had been less welcoming, the teachers less warm, the classes less helpful, Saito might have given up, he says. But Maine State Ballet became, to him, just a training ground.

“You really can’t understand ballet unless you do it, but one big part of what kept me at it is the people there,” said Saito. “They do understand it and they are really nice. I have a lot of fun with them, so I like the work. It helps me in a lot of ways.”

Family first

Saito isn’t sure if he wants to make dance his career. At 16, he’s not really sure yet what he wants to do for the rest of his life, he says. But his mother says she’s certain that wherever his path takes him, he’ll be the better for having danced ballet.

“I couldn’t be happier that he stuck with it,” she said. “I really think dance is one of the few sports that can really spill over into other activities. It’s really telling when you see a dancer who is giving a speech or something. They are just so much more polished in their presence.”

Just having that presence of self as a dancer, to say noting about the confidence, can make the difference in a job interview, said Diane Saito. But, she adds, that confidence comes as much from the people at Maine State Ballet as from the moves they taught her son.

“Maine State Ballet is a family and they are all so incredibly supportive in every way,” she said. “They’ve really helped mold Maiki into both the dancer and the incredible young man he has become.”

Maine State Ballet was the Dorothy Mason School of Dance when Jonathan Miele studied there at Saito’s age. Dating back to 1920, the school was then a jazz academy most famous for producing a handful of Rockettes in the 1970s. After a successful career on Broadway, where he met and married Linda MacArthur, a professional ballet dancer from age 14 when she was the youngest member accepted into the New York Ballet Company, he returned to Maine and bought his alma mater.

The Maine State Ballet was incorporated in 1986 with the goal, Linda Miele says, of providing family-friendly entertainment that’s meaningful to dancers and audience members alike. Although a few students have gone on the higher things – most recently Michael Holdon of Falmouth, accepted last year to the School of American Ballet’s summer program and now a dancer with the Miami City Ballet School – Miele says it’s the art that’s the thing.

“To have commercial and economic activity, you have to have good art. It pulls people into the cities,” she said.

“But when you talk about a career as a dancer, you’re talking about not doing anything else. It’s a really had life,” she said, speaking from experience. “We’re not that way, we want kids to be able to stay in Maine and enjoy life, with all the beauty and wonder of dance, but without that narrow lifestyle.

“There’s something about movement and music,” said Miele. “When those two things come together, they can reach people in a place that words can’t even describe. It just elevates their spirit. For me, dance was a place where everything was just beautiful. It was a chance to step out of the real world for a little bit.”

The chance to step out of the world, and into the wonder of Tchaikovsky’s music, it what makes “The Nutcracker” so special, says Miele. The show has become an enduring holiday tradition, she says, in part because that world has become so familiar over time, and audiences have watched dancers like Saito start out as one of the 90 4-year-olds who play the deer each season until a few, like Saito, earn the chance to progress from student to a member of the professional company.

“It’s almost like following a sports team,” said Miele. “The audience has watched many of these dancers since they were little kids, and when one gets a role like this, they are really very excited for him.

“Maiki has worked his way all the way through up through the school,” said Davis. “He’s one of our top dancers today. He looks like just a regular all-American teenage boy, but he can spin and jump and fly around the stage, and he always has this great smile on his face,” said Davis. “He’s just so energetic and fun to watch.”

“It is pretty cool,” said Saito. “But it’s a lot of work. You just have to keep practicing until you get it.”

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