A Conversation With Gen Horiuchi Of Saint Louis Ballet

Saint Louis Ballet artistic director Gen Horiuchi has spent the last seventeen years nurturing what was once a miniature ensemble of only seven dancers into a full-fledged, twenty-four person company. Coming off a year of record ticket sales, Horiuchi began the season with “Giselle,” a classical ballet that features a story of romance and tragedy with a generous helping of plot twists.

A former principle dancer for the New York City Ballet, Horiuchi grew up in Japan and, as the son of two ballet dancers, was seemingly fated for a career in dance. Horiuchi was driven from a young age, and still possesses the type of ambition that never rests. Read on for our interview with this master dancer, choreographer and artistic director.

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What is the story of  “Giselle?” 
It was first performed in the 1800’s, and it’s kind of a spooky story. Basically, there’s a girl named Giselle who lives in a small town in France. She’s a friend to everyone in town and is a little fragile—she has a weak heart. She’s in love with a man who is new to town, but he turns out to be a prince disguising himself as a peasant. The Prince is already engaged to someone through an arranged marriage, but he chooses to come to this village to see Giselle.

To make a long story short, everyone finds out the Prince is not a peasant. Giselle, because of her weak heart, has a heart attack and dies when she discovers he’s engaged to another woman. From there, Giselle becomes a ghost figure and the story goes on with many twists.

Why did you choose “Giselle” for the Saint Louis Ballet?
We offer a variety of programs and perform five times a year at the Touhill Performing Arts Center. We want to make sure we offer all kinds of full-length classic ballets as well as contemporary, fast-paced ones by today’s composers. It’s been ten years since we presented “Giselle,” so that’s why we chose to present this ballet. Last year, we presented “Sleeping Beauty.” The year before, we did “Swan Lake,” and this Spring 2018, we’ll be presenting “Cinderella.”

What type of changes did you make to this 19th-century ballet to update it for a modern audience?
Since it is one of the oldest full-length ballets, it is a challenge to update it for the pace and speed that today’s audience prefers. I always remind myself that today’s audiences get bored fast [laughs], so I have to keep the pace of each scene moving quickly from one story to the next. That way, there’s no pause or slow moments in the ballet. I wanted to keep it moving and make what’s going on on stage clear.

A lot of ballet staging productions assume that you know the story, so they don’t explain and instead focus on the dancing itself. But I feel like we also need to tell the story clearly, so that people who have never seen “Giselle” before, or even people who have never seen ballet before, can follow what’s on stage. I wanted to make it accessible to all kinds of audiences and all ages.

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What brought you from Japan to the U.S.?
When I was fifteen years old I entered the Prix de Lausanne competition in Switzerland and won the gold medal. For the award, I was able to choose a scholarship from any ballet school in the world. So, I chose the New York City Ballet. I went there for two years, and at the end of that period, I was offered a contract to join the New York City Ballet. That’s how I ended up staying in America.

That’s so young to make such a huge life decision.
Yes, but when it’s New York City, who can refuse? It’s the best place to dance in the whole world.

Does your connection to Japanese culture influence the way you dance or choreograph?
I grew up in Japan, but I was only there until I was fifteen years old. So, most of my professional career was in New York City. I was there for twenty years. My vision, my training—everything really—comes from New York City. That’s where I get inspiration. I’m always inviting my former colleagues to St. Louis to teach or to choreograph something new, so I still keep my New York connections.

But, being Japanese, I have very strong commitment, and I focus on teamwork—that’s how Japanese are. We really work well as a team, and I think that’s what I value the most. I look at this company and no single person is a star—everybody is a star. I rotate the principle lead so no one ballerina stands out in a season. I always value the team, and I think that’s very Japanese.

How has the Saint Louis Ballet grown and evolved over time?
The growth has been slower than I expected. It’s been seventeen years now. I started with seven professionals and some students dancing in the background, and we only performed “The Nutcracker” and a spring showcase. Really, we just had two seasons to present, with audiences of maybe 2,000 total for the year at the most. So, I started building the company, and after seventeen years we now have five seasons at the Touhill Performing Arts Center and we draw an audience of 15,000 all together. We also have twenty-four professional dancers who come from all over the U.S. Right now, only one dancer is from St. Louis. Everybody else has come here by audition. So, I think we’re in a pretty good position.

In the last three or four years in St. Louis, audiences have really warmed. Whenever they see something new, they’re really supportive. New York audiences are horrible. Even in baseball, if you strike out, the audience boos. But here, even with the Cardinals, if a player strikes out, everyone says, “It’s okay, good try.” It’s so supportive! And it’s the same way with ballet here, too. St. Louis is a very warmhearted, supportive community, and I think that’s why we’ve grown to this size rather quickly—even though I don’t think it’s very quick [laughs].

I have a very, very ambitious goal, but to get there, you just have to take it one step at a time. Every day, small steps. Doing the same thing over and over.

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What challenges have you faced as artistic director?
The biggest challenge was that there really was no established ballet company in St. Louis. When I took over, no one knew who I was, even though I had a pretty good career in New York. Nobody believed in me. I didn’t have financial or community support then—or even support from the dancers [laughs]—so I really had to start from ground zero. It was something I’ve always wanted to do beyond dancing professionally. I always wanted to have my own company and create my own ballets. That was something in my career plan, so to speak. But it was not as easy as I thought it was going to be.

What are your goals for the Ballet?
Continuing to grow. Of course, I’d like to increase the number of total attendees to 20,000 or 25,000 and make the company a top, national-level company. In order to do that, our next goal is to have a live orchestra. We use a live piano or violin for shorter pieces, but we still use a recording for full-length ballets. Orchestras cost money, so that is something we’d like to make happen in a few years.

What’s your favorite aspect of dance?
Performing live. Anything could happen on stage, good or bad, and that’s what makes it so exciting.

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