In recognition of Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month (AANHPI), Grand Rapids Ballet celebrates our dancers from within AANHPI communities.

Born and raised in Gunma, Japan, Yuko Horisawa joined Grand Rapids Ballet as a company dancer in September 2019. As she prepares for her third season, she looks back at her journey adjusting to life in the United States, reflecting on her experience moving away from Japan at an early age, taking a brief hiatus from ballet, and ultimately following her passion for performing, leading her back to ballet where she graces our stages here in West Michigan.

Horisawa began her training at age three with the Reiko Yamamoto Ballet School in Japan. Her early training built on musicality and ballet fundamentals until she transitioned to more serious training when she was 10 years old. She later left her home country at age 17 when she moved to Germany to study at the John Cranko School in Stuttgart. While there, she studied ballet while also completing her academic studies. It was a stark contrast to the training she was used to receiving back home. “In Japan, I was more expressive on the stage and really danced,” she shared. The transition was difficult for Horisawa as she balanced her passion for classical ballet and completing her academic pursuits.

After completing her education at the John Cranko School, she moved back to Japan where she decided to put a pause on her dance career. “Ballet life was really strict, and I was working hard,” she explained. After rigorous training, both with ballet and academics, Horisawa was looking for more opportunities to spend time with family and friends. “I wanted to be an ordinary girl and do normal things,” she said with a laugh.

During those two years away from ballet, she was invited to attend performances, and over time she started to dance again, little by little, and by age 24, she was ready for a full return. She began auditioning at companies across the globe, understanding that, for her, the most likely path was accepting a job outside of her country.

“It’s difficult to get a job on the other side of the world, in a different country,” she said. “Many people cannot get in a job in another country, especially in the US, it’s difficult to do.” She was elated to receive a text from James Sofranko, artistic director at Grand Rapids Ballet, offering her a position at the company. “Thank you, James!” she exclaimed.

Adjusting to life in the United States presented a new round of challenges as she became attuned to life in Michigan. “I was used to taking trains everywhere, and there are no trains here,” she said. “I didn’t even have a car!” In addition to the logistic issues she was working through, she shared that it was intimidating adapting to the language. While she studied English in school and spoke it while living in Germany, it was a very different experience acclimating to the nuances of language here.

“When Yuko first came to Michigan from Japan, she did not speak a lot of English, so we had to communicate mainly through dance,” said Artistic Director James Sofranko. “Dance is our common language and it’s amazing how you can actually get to know someone through dance, almost better than by conversing.”

Communicating through movement is key for Horisawa as she takes on roles and personas in various works at the ballet. “I wish people knew that I am a very sensitive person through my dance, more than appearances make you believe,” she shared. “I express myself more naturally in front of an audience and wish they could see my personality.”

During her past two seasons with Grand Rapids Ballet, she has performed in a variety of works, including Romeo and Juliet Pas de Deux, A Dreamer, and The Nutcracker, among others. Reflecting on her time here, she said that joining Nutcracker in 2019 was the most difficult. “I had little experience dancing in a company,” she said. With more time under her belt now, and many after dancing many roles, Horisawa shared her favorite role so far was dancing “dream” Clara in the Nutcracker, journeying through the Land of the Sweets.

“Yuko has a small frame, but a large presence and she may surprise you with the pyrotechnics that can come out of her on stage,” said Sofranko. “I’m glad that she has chosen to make Grand Rapids Ballet her home.”

In preparation for the 2021-22 season in August, she is taking well-deserved time off, traveling back to Japan for the summer where she looks forward to spending time with friends and family, playing with her cats, Eren and Mina, and eating plenty of Japanese food.

Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month takes place annually throughout May and aims to recognize the contributions and influence of Asian Americans and Pacific Islander Americans to the history, culture, and achievements of the United States.

Author: Jessica Meldrum
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