By Gary Smith
The Hamilton Spectator
March 10, 2014
Hiroto Saito found himself in ballet school in Kobe Japan. He was seven. “It wasn’t what boys did,” he says. “It was embarrassing. And yes, I was teased a lot. I was the only boy in the class.”
One day Saito saw the great Japanese dancer Tekaka Asakwa on television. His attitude suddenly changed. “I began to appreciate the discipline and beauty of ballet. I knew my parents, both dancers, had seen potential in me and were encouraging that.”
Saito developed a thicker hide. He opened up. “I told my friends I was doing ballet. I was surprised. They thought it was just fine. I learned to appreciate ballet’s athleticism. That’s what a male dancer brings to the stage,” Saito says.
Sitting over coffee in a Hamilton Second Cup, Saito hunches his head into the hood of his navy sweat top. He smiles a shy smile. “I longed to go to London, to study with one of the big ballet companies. And when I was 15 I did. I lived in a hostel near Gloucester Road. And yes it was tough. I knew if I wanted to work in a first class ballet company I’d have to be good.”
There was something else that was tough too. “It was racism. Companies weren’t quick to hire Asian dancers in 1998. Ballet was vanilla. Maybe one or two black, or Asians in the company; not more. Now the world has changed thankfully. It’s become smaller, more multicultural.”
There was something else. “I was too short. Girls were too tall for me, especially on pointe. And yes, for a dancer I have a small frame.”
At 18 Saito had a serious injury. It was a dancer’s nightmare. “It could have meant the end for me. Fortunately my leg got better and In 1998 I danced in Romeo and Juliet with English National Ballet. It was just corps de ballet, but it was a beginning.”
A few years later Saito went to work with Hong Kong Ballet.
In 2007, in Hong Kong, Saito met Canadian artistic director Bengt Jorgen. Jorgen convinced him to come to Canada and join his company.
“Ballet Jorgen is a small company, but it performs a lot,” Saito says. “And I needed to be kept busy. It was a perfect fit.”
And when Ballet Jorgen comes to Hamilton Place March 15th Saito will dance his dream role, Romeo Montague. “He’s something I am not,” Saito laughs. “He has an edgy nature. He takes terrible risks. I don’t think I’d risk my life for love. That’s so extreme. But then too, he’s sensitive and vulnerable and I think I am. In that way we’re alike. And he’s very romantic. Now I don’t know if I am. You’ll have to ask my girlfriend.”
Saito likes the way the character pushes him to a sensitive side of his nature. “He also makes me feel young. At 33 I’m not. But fortunately, being Asian I can look 17,” he laughs.
Saito admits Romeo and Juliet must turn on chemistry, not just dancing. “I have to create that with my partner. We must make the audience believe we’re in love. When the curtain goes up I can believe anything,” Saito says.
“This production is so much more than steps. Every movement has a meaning. There’s such context. Because this production is smaller than the grand scale versions you see, it allows us to know Romeo and Juliet better.”
Saito loves the passion of the story.
“It’s a tragedy, but it’s about fortune and circumstance. In that way it’s timeless. When you are you’re young and madly in love, nothing else matters. “
Saito’s dream was to dance with a big classical ballet company. That didn’t happen. So, is he satisfied taking ballet to smaller Canadian and American cities?
“That’s a hard question,” he shrugs. “But I believe yes. I feel closer to the audiences I dance for. And I’m a minimalist, so I believe less is more. “I still live my dream. It’s just a different one now.”
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