Ballet dancer

Ballet dancer Niyama aims high after setback in Paris

Ballet dancer Haruo Niyama performs. (Video by Koichiro Yoshida and Miho Iwamoto)

Two years after failing to become a permanent member of the Paris Opera Ballet and returning to Japan, Haruo Niyama is ready to attempt a second act in Europe.

The 26-year-old former Prix de Lausanne winner rediscovered himself while working in a grocery store and elderly care facility amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

He is in demand and again takes center stage as a freelance ballet dancer in various performances.

With his natural body flexibility and hard work since childhood, the 167 centimeter Niyama can jump higher than anyone else as a ballet dancer on stage.

His refined core skills allow Niyama to hover in the air for an extended period of time and land silently, while many dancers take advantage of their larger size to leap powerfully.

The atmosphere he creates and his ability to express himself are particularly impressive.

Niyama is referred to as a “real-life fairy” among her fans, as her performance does not appear to be performed by either men or women.

Sometimes he looks like a supernatural being. Niyama, who describes himself as being better at playing a non-human role, is particularly famous for his role in “The Spirit of the Rose” among ballet lovers.

The talented dancer was born in 1996 as the youngest child of a family in Matsumoto, Nagano Prefecture. Niyama lived with his parents and three older sisters.

Niyama asked his mother to allow him to take ballet lessons, knowing that a girl he liked in his daycare at the time practiced the art form of dance. He started taking ballet lessons when he was 7 years old.

He started learning to dance with Tamae Tsukada and Mihori Tsukada at Nagano City’s Hakucho Ballet Academy in his fifth year of elementary school.

At the age of 17 in 2014, Niyama became the first Japanese in 25 years to win the Prix de Lausanne, a prestigious international ballet competition in Switzerland, since Tetsuya Kumakawa. The victory drew worldwide attention.

Niyama took first place in the men’s category of the Grand Prix Youth America the same year.

“I can’t forget how amazed the audience was with her dancing,” ballet reporter Naomi Mori said of how she felt at the competition site. “All the people there were wondering what they were looking at right now.”

“He is a dancer who introduces the audience to the pleasure of seeing ballet and the true beauty of ballet.”

With the money from the scholarship he won at the Prix de Lausanne, Niyama perfected his techniques at the San Francisco Ballet School.

Niyama temporarily returned to Japan to complete his classes at Matsumoto Daiichi High School. There he studied food and kitchens in order to obtain a chef’s license.

In 2016, Niyama joined the Washington Ballet Studio Company. Building on his brilliant achievements in competition, Niyama became a temporary member of the Paris Opera Ballet in 2017.

He had long dreamed of playing for the ballet troupe. But Niyama soon found the days in Paris difficult, as he wasn’t given any roles, no matter how hard he trained.

Although Niyama showed a quality performance, he was not allowed to become a permanent member. He was just told that “his dance is perfect but your height is not enough. That’s it.”

Mihori, who has been covering Niyama since his elementary school days, called the outcome regrettable.

“I insisted that an era of diversity was coming and that he would represent that age, but my argument was dismissed,” Mihori said.

The discouraged Niyama returned to Japan in 2020 amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

He “didn’t feel like looking at himself in the mirror”, so Niyama signed on for more than a year to stock supermarket shelves and look after elderly residents of a care facility.

Through these experiences, Niyama felt for the first time that he was “something important to others”. He started to reflect on himself as a dancer.

“I only played for myself,” he recalls. “The truth is that I contribute to others by entertaining the public. I have finally realized this simple fact.

Niyama currently attracts many ballet fans as a freelance dancer.

In an interview with The Asahi Shimbun, Niyama didn’t often voice his opinions due to his modest personality, but instead called himself down several times.

But audiences are captivated by his overwhelming stage presence unlike anyone else.

Excerpts from the interview follow:

Question: Can you comment on the series of shows that take place almost every week due to your great popularity as a freelance ballet dancer, when few other artists can find work in this way?

Niyama: I’m very grateful to him for that, although I doubt people really want to look at me. I returned to Japan in 2020, but I post so rarely on social media that not many people knew I was in Japan at the time. After word of my stay in Japan spread, many offers started coming in late last year.

REGRETS FOR THE PARIS OPERA BALLET

Q: Will you recount the difficult days of the Ballet de l’Opéra de Paris, to which you belonged before?

A: Working in Paris made me who I am today, but I cried when I was alone because of the harsh conditions there. I faced racism inside and outside the opera. Those who do ballet in Europe and the United States are all chosen and their physical characteristics are on a totally different level. Their limbs are longer, so they look impressive even when they are only standing. I’m not tall, so I sometimes got depressed looking in the mirror after seeing these people. I had a hard time fitting in with my peers, but the attempts weren’t necessary when I think about it now. I should have emphasized my Asian personality. I failed to take full advantage of my unique characteristics.

Q: Could you tell what efforts you made to pass the hard-to-pass audition for foreigners at the Opera Ballet where top-notch dancers try their hand from all over the world?

A: I feel a sense of guilt if I don’t keep practicing. In a voluntary course program, I discovered that me and another person were the only participants.

My teacher, Mihori Tsukada, has told me since childhood to keep striving even though it may turn out to be useless. Even though I take lessons from others, Ms. Tsukada is the only person I can call my teacher. When my dad got sick and couldn’t work when I was in elementary school, my teacher and others offered to help me keep taking ballet lessons.

The feat in the Prix de Lausanne competition could only be achieved through daily training with my teacher. I used to go to Nagano Ballet School from my high school in Matsumoto for evening classes at 1am. I slept in a reception hall and returned to Matsumoto early in the morning.

Haruo Niyama applies tape before a rehearsal. (Koichiro Yoshida)

THORNY DETOUR, DANCE FOR OTHERS

Q: How do you view the fact that you were unable to become a permanent member of the Paris Opera Ballet despite your long training and your excellent performances?

A: Odds and timing are important. We need to hone our skills to react at the right time.

I felt disappointed when I returned to Japan, and thought I was at a dead end. Meanwhile, the developments gave me time to reflect on myself. I only knew ballet and had never thought of ballet as a job. For this reason, I worked part-time for the first time in my life. For a year and a half, I ordered products from late at night to 3 a.m. in a supermarket near my home and did office work in a nursing home for the elderly. At the care facility, I guided the elderly by holding their hands and did clerical work. Everything felt fresh and fun, and I learned things like the relationship between an employee and a supervisor.

It caused a change in my attitude towards ballet. Previously, I danced for pleasure, but I found that my performance should above all address the public. Doing ballet is a kind of work and a job comes with responsibilities. I started thinking that I should dance for others.

Although the experience I had while staying at my family home may seem like a detour, it has given me personal lessons. I believe that taking thorny detours, like making efforts that may turn out to be useless, will lead to its growth.

Q: Why did you keep practicing while other dancers rested during rehearsal?

A: I can only control my limbs if all parts of the body are centered. For this reason, I train my core continuously. I gain weight easily so I take care not to overeat. I usually only choose nuts and chicken salad. My weight is around 50 kilograms and my body fat percentage is probably around 5%, although I don’t measure it.

Q: What do you think is your strength in gaining particularly great popularity in “The Spirit of the Rose” and “The Little Prince”?

A: I don’t try to be seen that way, but people often call me neutral. In fact, I prefer to act like a non-human being. I am often asked about my strength but I have nothing to say. There are a lot of people who are flexible or can jump high these days. I pay attention to how I create my unique atmosphere.

Q: Will you talk about your future projects?

A: I want to take up a challenge again abroad, especially in Europe if possible. The ballet was developed by Louis XIV (1638-1715). The historical and cultural background (of ballet in Europe), as well as its degree of acceptance by citizens, is very different (from other parts of the world).

Ballet is a complete art form consisting not only of dance but also of stage gimmicks, music, costumes and spectators. In this sense, ballet performances must be seen on site above all else. More and more people are watching ballet via the internet due to the coronavirus crisis, but I would like them to visit theaters to see the performances first hand.