Welcome to the second blog from The Trocks! This week we’ve caught up with Christopher Ouellette as they wind down their tour of Japan, their last tour before they come to the UK!
We have one more show left in Japan on our month long tour and already my heart aches about leaving this country. Growing up a quarter Japanese, Japanese language and culture have always been a part of my upbringing. I attended a bilingual preschool and studied until eighth grade continuing writing and vocabulary, traditional customs, and history. But just like with ballet, without constant practice things start to get rusty.
I was anxious about how much I had retained as I had been preparing for this moment my entire childhood so I had to exercise what I knew was in my memory bank. Upon landing in Tokyo, I found my brain recalling the familiar letters and words on signs and luckily I felt a bit more comfortable than anticipated. Normally when on tour, Trocks will travel around with a fellow company member (usually from the country) who can help translate for the group but here I felt a bit more at ease knowing I could venture freely without feeling at a loss for words. More than being excited because I was finally in the country I’ve heard about for so long from relatives and at school, what made it more special was my grandmother’s family would be coming to see our company perform and the last time they saw me dance I was still training in ballet school. One thing I will always love about my job is getting to reconnect with my loved ones through my travels.
After arriving at our hotel in Shinjuku, we used the remainder of the day to explore the city. Chase, who has been to Japan before during his tours with Trockadero, showed us newbies where one of his favorite gyoza (dumpling) places was and Josh, whom I trained with at ballet school in San Francisco and is also in the company, helped us navigate the subway and guided us to the shopping district in Harajuku, a street known for youth fashion and referenced by Gwen Stefani. The group dispersed into various stores, graphic tee shops, lolita-style fashions, toy and candy stores and took the time to peruse and buy gifts for family, friends, and goodies for ourselves of course. When enough damage was done, we headed back to the hotel but not before my roommate on tour, László, and I stopped by an arcade to play his first claw machine game. With only two hundred yen (one pound), László had won a huge stuffed hamster he and I affectionately named, Tokyo. Original, eh? Tokyo would soon become our travel buddy during this tour and even be fastened into a seatbelt when we took him to fly from one city to another. An observation I noticed while in Japan was that whenever we would walk by an arcade, most, if not all of those playing inside would be adults and not children as what I normally see in America. When I mentioned this to our tour assistant and translator, she responded with, “Yes, because now as adults we don’t have to ask our parent’s permission to play the games we want.” Valid indeed.
Later that evening, a few Trocks and I went out to dinner with one of my friends who happened to be showing a group of dancers from Boston Ballet around Tokyo. They had just come from Mongolia and were performing in Tokyo with Komaki Ballet for a gala. In addition to seeing a friend I hadn’t seen in about ten years, a fellow company member, Matthew Poppe was able to reunite with his close friends from when he danced with Boston as well. My friend told us to all “Meet Under the Atla” which is a famous gigantic television screen on the side of an eight-story shopping complex in east Shinjuku. He lead us all under a passageway toward the Shinjuknishiguchi subway entrance to an alley completely made up of restaurants. The alley was so narrow our group had to walk single file to the restaurant, hugging the storefronts to let the oncoming pedestrians through and the scents of the delicious dinners being prepared made all our mouths water as we walked up the street. All the restaurants were tiny spaces with an open kitchen, the customers sitting at counters in front of the burners while the chefs would prepare their dishes in front of them. Because we were a large party, we were seated on a second floor where our two companies enjoyed our meal exchanging ballet stories, (Bobby sharing some make-up tricks), and toasting our new friendships (and reunions) with sake. Connecting with other members of the ballet community while on tour is always a delight and the comradery and passion for what we do unceasingly supports one another.
The next day we arrived at the Bunka Kaikan theater for a day of dress rehearsal and to get accustomed to the space for our Opening Weekend. Bunka Kaikan, which is a concert hall here in Tokyo, is also known for presenting ballet companies and we could see the cement walls and pillars were covered with autographs and touring posters from other companies from around the world. The Paris Opera Ballet, The Australian Ballet, American Ballet Theater, La Scala, The Mariinsky, Hamburg Ballet, Bolshoi and previous Trockadero tours were among the companies that adorned the dressing rooms and backstage areas. I spent much free time roaming and reading the ballet legends who had graced the theater and let the energy inspire my performances that weekend.
We learned that Ai Haruna, Asia’s most famous transsexual actress and a Japanese popstar, would be joining us onstage for our Opening to perform a one-night-only version of Trockadero’s ‘The Dying Swan’. She arrived at the theater studio, ready in her rehearsal clothes, met and shook each of our hands with a huge smile on her face and told us (and showed video!) how she had been practicing en pointe. Her enthusiasm was so gladdening and it was so wonderful to see her work and participate in ballet class with us before the show. Later that day, when she took the stage with our two other Dying Swans, every Trock was in the wings to show her our love and encouragement. “Yatta, Ai-chan!”
After the performance we were invited to dinner by our Japanese presenters for a Welcome Party, so after greeting new and longtime fans of Trockadero at our stage door, we were escorted to Ai’s restaurant, Garden Diner. We rode through the city at night, and Tokyo was electric. The vibrant lights and business signs that climb vertically up the sides of the buildings create a visual similar to the spirit and activity of Times Square in New York but citywide and distinctly Japanese. We arrived at the restaurant but not before passing the brightly lit, Tokyo Tower. Dinner consisted of various teppanyaki and barbecue dishes and while our meal was being served, our presenters informed the Trocks of the success of Opening Weekend. We each received a shuugi bukuro, an envelope containing a 500 yen piece, customary following a sold-out performance, and toasted to the company’s 30th tour in Japan and to the start of a fantastic tour.
In the restaurant, books, CDs and DVDs of Ai’s were on display so when the whole party started chanting “uta!”, which is the Japanese word for song, Ai obliged and grabbed the microphone to entertain us. She opened her mouth and instead of singing, what came out was Beyoncé’s voice singing “Listen” from the motion picture, ‘Dreamgirls’! We all died as we were expecting her to perform one of her own singles! Ai even improvised and had an electric fan blowing nearby so she had windswept hair during her performance! We were in stitches. From that moment, the show had begun and soon enough Trocks were lined up giving to their best lip-synced club jams, Britneys, musical and opera arias, of course more Beyoncé, and even a finale by Liza (Trockadero kickline included). Perhaps a repeat cabaret performance by us Trocks will be coming to a city near you or perhaps we’ll save it for a benefit show. The Welcome Party was exactly what the company to celebrate an incredible sold-out Opening Weekend and we also named Ai an honorary Trock.
The next day, a few company members and I enjoyed two of our days off at Tokyo Disneyland and Disney Sea. We most liked seeing Ariel’s castle at Tokyo Sea with all the little characters in the mosaic tiles leading up to it, the curry popcorn in Agrabah, and for thrills, Journey to the Center of the Earth which was a fast-faced car ride. I will say it was fun walking through an old time New York Harbor in Tokyo Sea and also taking advantage of a photo opp in the Performing Arts Square. Tokyo Disneyland was also just as fun as Sea as it was all vaguely familiar with the charm of other Magic Kingdoms but with the added meticulous Japanese attention. For a group of ballet dancers who constantly strive for perfection, the details do not go unnoticed. We also made friends with two girls who saw us posing in Cinderella’s Castle and they asked us how we were so animated. We told her we were here for work dancing and she later bought tickets for her and a group of friends to see our show in Fuchu!
The following afternoon, some of the dancers and I headed for some body work at the Akahigedo clinic which was recommended to us by our artistic director and to myself prior by fellow Trock, Carlos Renedo. As I waited in the lobby for my appointment, I could see the clinic had tour books from Trockadero’s past so it was great to see their relationship with our company. The appointment consisted of deep tissue shiatsu massage (at certain points using their entire body weight), cupping, acupuncture and trigger point stimulation. I had never had an appointment that covered so many forms of therapy for my body and I immediately made another appointment for the next day after rehearsal and continued to go when I was able to. I was also glad to hear the center had a practitioner in London as well and will be looking forward to getting treated there in Kent.
In the upcoming days, we traveled to Osaka by Shinkanshen, nicknamed the bullet train, for our next performance. After class the company surprised dancer’s Jack, Carlos Hopuy and myself with singing and a birthday cake a fan was so kind to bring for us. The double show day went well and before you knew it, it was back to the hotel to prepare for the travel day to Yokohama and a performance at Kanagawa Kenmin Hall.
On our next day off, company members Gianni and Matt Van organized a visit to Sensō-ji, Tokyo’s oldest Buddhist Temple. To get to the temple we took the subway and getting out of the station we walked up Nakamise-sori, a street leading to the temple selling woodblock prints, toys and souvenirs. At the opening of the temple was the “Treasure House Gate” or Hōzōmon, a gigantic red and white paper lantern where we took some photos before entering the temple itself. Written fortunes or omikuji were in the area before you preceded to the pagoda so we took the opportunity to get our fortunes told. Fortunes were received by shaking a metal container until a fortune stick would come out of a tiny opening on the side. You then check the number on the side of the stick and open the drawer with the corresponding number. If your fortune is good, you take it with you. If it is not in your favor, you leave the fortune behind by tying it to the metal post at the temple. Other traditions included wafting yourself with the incense in front of the temple and cleansing your hands and mouth with fountain water. Walking up the stairs to the pagoda, I felt tranquil and at peace as I waited in queue. I tossed my yen as an offering and said a few prayers for loved ones, friends and the upcoming year. As custom, I bowed twice, followed by two claps then bowed one more time before entering the pagoda. Coincidentally, we happened to be at the temple on the day of Tanabata or Star Festival. During Tanabata, on the seventh day of the seventh month, the two lovers in the stars separated by the Milky Way are allowed to meet for one day out of the year. The festival is celebrated by making wishes on strips a paper and tying them to bamboo trees.
When we had finished visiting Sensō-ji, we walked to an okonomiyaki place that Trock, Duane’s friend had recommended to him. Okonomiyaki is a Japanese-style pancake style made with batter, yam, pork cabbage, belly, seafood and noodles, topped with sauce and bonito flakes and is one of my favorite Japanese dishes. The restaurant was traditional in that we had to remove our shoes and sat on the floor on tatami mats to enjoy our lunch. The waitress helped to prepare the pancakes we ordered on the hot plate in the middle of our table and we then followed her direction to make our own. Since the day was humid a few of us cooled off by drinking Japanese plum wine splashed with soda. After lunch, the group explored the neighborhood bit more but I took the train to Saitama, which is northwest of Tokyo, to meet with my grandma’s family where they also surprised me with a cake as my birthday was the following day. I will say, it was the first time I had a birthday cake where my name was written in katakana! I would later celebrate by seeing Disney’s Broadway Musical The Little Mermaid (in Japanese), and renting a karaoke room with some friends from Trockadero. Our stage manager requested we sing some ABBA!
After a performance in Fuchu, our next show was back in Tokyo in an area called Shibuya. Since it was the last performance some longtime fans could see us in they’d brought us photographs they’d taken with us at earlier shows as gifts. It was so sweet and wonderful to get to meet and talk with these fans after shows who continued to come because of the joy you’d bring them in your performance. We really got how appreciative they were about what we do and after seeing them often they had become good friends. I am already looking ahead to when I can dance for them again.
Bus and train can’t always take the company to the destinations on a tour so the company then flew to Kagoshima to continue our run. In Kagoshima, our hotel had a sauna and a traditional Japanese ofuro (hot bath) so after our show a few dancers and I took to the amenities. We’d first wash ourselves on the stool with soap and the handheld faucet before entering the hot bath water where we’d sit for a bit to let our muscles relax. After doing so, we’d plunge ourselves into the cold water as a contrast bath for blood circulation. It took a lot of support from each other the dunk ourselves in the frigid water as the experience was literally chilling but it was just what our bodies needed after a performance.
Kobe, a city I was already familiar with because my Aunt lived there teaching English during the 1995 earthquake, was the venue we just finished our previous performance. At this theater, it was Alberto and my rotation to sign autographs in the lobby so right after curtain came down we had just enough time to touch-up our makeup before we were ushered to the table out front. As we made our way through the crowd still in costume, the exiting audience started to applaud and we were seated to begin signing. I enjoyed meeting the fans, hearing their responses to the show, shaking hands and seeing the various new merchandise we offered. It also was a great opportunity to practice my Japanese conversation and handwriting hirigana in personal notes on the programs and various items.
As the Trocks prepare for our final performance here in Takamatsu, I am bittersweet about completing my first tour here in Japan and leaving a country I hold deep in my heart. I now have so many beautiful memories and have just grown to feel very comfortable and at home here. I believe next time we tour here, I may stay behind a few days to spend with my family.
I remember the day I was offered my contract. Tory had called me over to the piano to tell me the logistics of becoming a Trock and he talked about rehearsals, what to expect about touring life, and showed me the company’s itinerary for the next two years out. Among the incredible locations and amount of dancing I would be getting to do, I saw two dream destinations on the calendar I had been hoping to travel to for as long as I could remember. The first was a tour to Japan, followed by a tour in the UK.