Principal artist with the The Australian Ballet, Japanese-born Ako Kondo tells what it’s like to dance 200 shows a year and if there’s any Black Swan antics offstage.

I normally get up around 8:30am, because I have two toy poodles…

I eat breakfast with them, walk them and have chill time with them before I go to work.

If it’s not a performance day, work starts with a 10:30–11:45am warm-up class, where we do basic technical stuff, then I have a 15-minute break before rehearsal starts at 12pm.

It goes for two-and-a-half hours and you have to be focused since you have to learn new steps or do the reps for the next season. We have a lunch break from 2:30-3:45pm, during which I normally get a massage.

Rehearsal resumes at 3:45pm and we finish at 6:30pm. If it’s a performance day, we start at 11am and finish at 3pm.

We have a big break before the show, which starts at 7:30pm, but I have to get ready, so I normally go to the theatre at 6pm. There is a warm-up class again before the show.

The Australian Ballet does the most shows in the world…

So we have to make sure our bodies are healthy to keep going for 200 shows. We have a massage therapist and a physiotherapist; there’s always people looking after us. We have the best medical team.

Your mind and body has to be ready to rehearse…

We sometimes put five ballets together for rehearsal in one day. We always mix the reps, it’s not just one ballet. That’s why you have to be ready.

It takes a lot of energy and you need to be focused. At the moment we’re getting ready for a London tour; I’ll be performing Swan Lake and Cinderella, so we are rehearsing both of those ballets right now.

People see the costumes and beautiful dancing and think we’re not sweating…

But we are. I read an article that said ballet dancers work their bodies as much as footy players do.

That’s how we feel afterwards, we take ice baths after the shows. It does take a lot of energy and our bodies can be ruined by ballet; it’s tough.

But when we are onstage, we have to pretend it’s nothing. For example, if I do the black swan solo, when I come off stage I’m breathing like crazy, but the audience doesn’t see that. It’s our job to make it look effortless and beautiful.

Our muscles work hard…

We use our lower legs a lot for en pointe and jumping. I put my legs, below my knees, in an ice bucket after a show; it’s really cold!

My legs ache a lot and feel really hot, but if I put them in an ice bath they cool down and recover well the next day; they don’t feel heavy. If I don’t do that, I’ve found my legs are quite dead the next day and I don’t feel fresh.

Last time I performed Swan Lake, I had four pairs of pointe shoes ready…

Sometimes when you put on brand-new pointe shoes they’re shocking.

They break in a bad way and when you go en pointe it just doesn’t feel right, so I always make sure I have at least four pairs ready, but just pick one. I normally go through one pair of pointe shoes per day and I give my old ones to young girls.

We do make-up and hair ourselves…

I’ve been doing it for a long time so it doesn’t take long anymore. It’s about 20 minutes to do my make-up and 10 minutes for my hair.

I change my make-up to get into character…

For Odette, the white swan in Swan Lake, I go for a pale look and I do the whitewash, which is a kind of pancake on my body. When I perform the black swan, I wear red lipstick and dark eyeshadow so I feel different.

The world of ballet isn’t like the movie Black Swan…

When I was training in Japan, I was doing ballet competitions and I felt everyone was quite competitive because we were trying to get the first prize.

But ballet is not about competition and when I came to Australia, it wasn’t like that. Everyone supports each other to make the best show. In our company, no one tries to compare with you; we are like a family. It’s just put on for the movies – it’s not that bad.

Recently, my best friend debuted as Odette…

Everyone was in the wings cheering – the whole company was supportive to make her performance perfect for her.

I’m a principal artist now, so my job is to provide the best performance but also to support young dancers who are getting big opportunities in the company.

I don’t keep a strict diet…

Some people do care about what they eat but my workload is hard, so I eat what I want to get energy. But I make sure I rehydrate; we sweat so much and don’t even realise.

I get nervous waiting in the wings…

Especially being Odette, the white swan, the first entrance is just myself in the middle of the stage with no music before I start dancing.

It is a scary moment, but when I hear the audience gasp or clap for me, I feel like the theatre is one piece and I feel the energy from the audience, and that helps.

Everyone is just there to watch the performance and they’re so excited. I just try to give my best performance for them.

After the curtain falls, everyone just goes home…

With 200 shows a year, the cast is like: ‘OK, done. Let’s go home, sleep, next’. Everyone has to make sure they feel fresh for the next day.

I decided I wanted to be a professional ballerina when I was 13 years old…

I asked my ballet teacher how to do it.

She said if I really wanted to be a professional ballerina, then I should go overseas to attend a full-time ballet school.

In Japan, there aren’t any full-time schools like The Australian Ballet School or The Royal Ballet School.

I won a big ballet competition in Japan and was lucky enough to get a scholarship from The Australian Ballet School.

Ballet is tough and it’s hard work, but it’s worth it…

It was a big step to be apart from my family.

It was hard but I felt like it was worth it, because what I got from the school was just amazing. I’d never have that experience in Japan.

I was lucky all the hard work paid off and I got a contract from the Australian Ballet. If you keep working hard, at some point it will pay off.

I’ve been doing ballet for 22 years… since I was three years old…

It was always my first option.

But I like doing my make-up and hair for a performance, so if I wasn’t a ballerina I could see myself being a make-up artist or hair stylist.

 

MORE… See Ako in the Australian Ballet’s Nijinsky in Melbourne, and touring to Sydney and Adelaide.

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