The art of ballet requires unimaginable strength. The grand-pliés, pirouettes, jetés and arabesques of dance choreography all demand an incredible level of mental focus and physical capability.
Reiko Hombo began dancing at age five after walking past a ballet studio in the local shopping centre with her mother. “I saw all the little girls around my age in the pink leotards and I said, ‘I want to do that!’” she recalls.
After years of dancing in Japan, at age 13 Reiko began to think more seriously about ballet as a future career. Deciding she needed to attend a national ballet school to progress, but without such a facility existing in Japan, Reiko auditioned via video-link for the Australian National Ballet School in Melbourne.
At just 15, Reiko moved by herself to Australia. “For the first six months I was homesick everyday,” she says. “I couldn’t speak any English.” She picked up the language quite quickly, but it took almost a year before she felt comfortable. “It was hard to be away from my home but I’m glad I did it. And I’m glad my parents let me do it,” she says. Life at ballet school formed a rigid routine. “They want to make you a professional so they are very strict with technique.”
There are five ranks within the Australian Ballet Company – Corps de Ballet at the beginning then Coryphées, Soloists, Senior Artists and Principal Artists at the top. In 2006 when she made her debut with the ballet Giselle, Reiko was chosen by the director to get a solo in the pas de deux (a performance duet with a male and female dancer).
“It was very special,” she says.
In 2008, Reiko was nominated by the artistic directors and principal dancers of the company for the Telstra Ballet Dancer Awards. Reiko said it was “an honour” to be nominated by her work colleagues as it was “not just about how good you are as a dancer, but also your work ethic.” As part of the experience Reiko took part in media activities and promotion of the company.
After four years, Reiko was promoted to soloist. This was a “big, huge step”, she says. “Lots of people end their careers within the Coryphée, so I was already very happy as a soloist. It’s a very busy rank because you’ve got your solos and also your group work.” Now a Senior Artist, Reiko is pleased she gets to focus on her principal solo section role. “I’m so happy; I couldn’t thank my directors enough!”
The regime for maintaining a ballet dancer’s physique sounds gruelling. There is a 75-minute core ballet class at 9am every day, six days a week, focusing on basic classical technique training. Then there are rehearsals for anywhere between three to six hours, depending on the difficulty of the ballet. The dancers also partake in swimming, Pilates or yoga depending on their body types.
Performances of each show run six nights a week, usually finishing at 10pm.
Reiko admits she used to go out clubbing when she was younger, but now at 24-years-old, “I just want to go home and rest,” she says.
Despite the tough routine, Reiko loves ballet. Her favourite role was in the titular part of Madame Butterfly the tragic, emotional story of a Japanese geisha. Initially Reiko was the ‘cover’ dancer, an understudy in the ballet world. “I was honoured to even have that role,” she says. When one of the other dancers couldn’t go on, Reiko was thrust into the spotlight. “I knew what I had to do,” she says. Her parents came from Japan to watch her show in Sydney. “To perform in front of my parents,
I couldn’t be any happier,” Reiko says. “They put in all this time, money and effort and I’m happy to show them what I do now.”
A talented dancer, Reiko finds traditional technique “relatively easy.” But she finds ‘adage’, which is a slow dancing quality, more difficult. “I wouldn’t say it’s a struggle, but I want to improve it.”
In the upcoming production of the ballet Onegin (pronounced on-yay-gen), Reiko will have the opportunity to perform a pas de deux adage, which is “out of my comfort zone.”
Onegin is considered the crowning achievement of choreographer John Cranko, widely regarded as a master of the story ballet. His adaptation of Alexander Pushkin’s verse novel, set to the music of Tchaikovsky, is set to be a triumph of dance. Reiko will perform the role of Olga alongside Daniel Gaudiello in the role of Lensky, Olga’s fiancé. “He’s one of my favourite dancers, and he’s my friend as well. He’s someone I look up to,” Reiko says. “I danced Madame Butterfly with him so we have a good process. He’s such a good partner.”
Outside of ballet, Reiko loves spending time with her friends. “I’d say I’m a social butterfly,” she says. “I have a ‘Melbourne family’. They’re very close to me, I think partly because the mother is also Japanese.” This is Reiko’s ninth year in Australia and she says, “I’m finally building friendships outside of ballet.”
Reiko also really enjoys cooking Japanese food from her mother’s recipes – “a lot of Asian cooking”, she says. “With dancing we use all our energy so it’s important to eat properly.”
Being part of the Australian Ballet Company means Reiko is often away from home in Melbourne, for around five months a year.
As part of the company’s 50th anniversary celebrations this year they will be going on tour to New York. “I don’t mind the travelling,” Reiko says. “It’s exciting because I’ve never been to America.”
Now that she is a Senior Artist, Reiko wants to take on challenging, new performances. “I hope to be cast in more mature roles so I can grow my artistry,” she says. “I just need to take care of my body and keep going for as long as I can.”