Japanese dancer Remi Okamoto has spent her career performing around the globe, dancing on stages from Bulgaria to France.
Last August, she added the U.S. to that list when she joined Charlotte Ballet’s first company. It’s her first time living in the U.S., but her biggest surprise so far is how familiar it feels.
The 27-year old ballerina from Kyoto, Japan, recently spoke to The Charlotte Observer between rehearsals for “Nutcracker” at the Patricia McBride and Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux Center for Dance on North Tryon Street. Okamoto looked every bit the American, dressed casually in black yoga pants and a T-shirt emblazoned with the Nutcracker logo.
She talked about what brought her to Charlotte, her passion for exploring local grocery stores and what she looks forward to most this holiday season.
A dancer’s life
Okamoto began studying ballet as a child in Japan. At age 17, she left Kyoto to train in Munich, Germany, where she focused on ballet, contemporary and character dance (a form of stylized folk dance).
Since then, she steadily worked in Europe with professional companies in Poland, Bulgaria, France and Denmark.
One thing that makes country-hopping easier is the universal language of ballet.
French words are used worldwide to denote various dance positions. But growing up in Japan, Okamoto didn’t realize they had other meanings, too.
During her three years with the ballet of L’opéra Grand Avignon in the south of France, she’d laugh when overhearing a dance word out of context, like “plié ” (which also means “folded” in French). She’d wonder momentarily why people were “speaking ballet” in a bank or grocery store.
In each country where she has lived, Okamoto learned at least some of the local language. She needed it for daily life as well as to understand instructions and refinements during rehearsals: how to move, where to go and what emotions to project through dance.
She continually practiced her English, too, to communicate better with other international dancers. That’s coming in handy now.
Okamoto quit her post in Avignon in 2022, partly because she felt like she was getting too comfortable there. “I had great friends, great colleagues, teachers. I really liked them,” she said. “But as a dancer, there was something missing.”
She noticed it especially during the pandemic, when the studios closed down because of COVID.
Okamoto worried about staying in shape and being able to continue to train. Meanwhile, most of her colleagues were embracing the time off. They were gardening, drinking wine, spending time with their kids.
“I was like, ‘oh good for you, guys.’ But I said, ‘Not me,’ … I think, as a dancer, daily life, daily routines make a stable life.”
A dancer’s career is brief, Okamoto said. She was ready to find a place where people were as passionate about improving as she was, and where she could stay to grow within a company.
She found that in Charlotte.
‘I want to be a part of this’
In February, Okamoto came to visit the ballet. She spent a week taking classes alongside company members, working with artistic director Alejandro Cerrudo and catching performances of Charlotte Ballet’s “Innovative Works.”
“I watched a couple of the shows, and I said, ‘I want to be a part of this.’ ”
Cerrudo, who is in his second season helming Charlotte Ballet, also liked what he saw. “What stood out the most to me is how versatile she is as a dancer,” he said. “She’s a beautiful human being… and it’s a pleasure to work with her.”
Cerrudo said it’s hard to find someone like Okamoto, who is adept at both classical dance and contemporary dance — a stylistic category that is incredibly broad.
But hiring an international artist adds complexity to the employment process. It involves considerable paperwork, weeks of waiting and government approval.
For Okamoto, it meant waiting nearly six months between learning she had a job in Charlotte to the date she was finally able to get an appointment for a visa interview at the American Embassy in Osaka, Japan.
Despite the extra work involved, Cerrudo, who is originally from Spain, never doubted his hiring decision. “What she brings to the company, it’s completely worth it,” he said.
Okamoto said she appreciates her colleagues’ strong work ethic and passion for improvement.
That mentality for hard work, which she believes also exists among Americans pursuing non-dance careers, reminds her of Japan. Americans and Japanese attitudes toward becoming financially stable, buying a house, aiming for marriage, and settling down with kids are quite similar, she said.
The ballet world feels similar to her in both countries too. “So, mainly the biggest surprise is ‘ah, (we’re) not that different.”
Biking through Charlotte
Okamoto was used to European cities where little shops, bars and restaurants are clearly visible from the street, rather than uptown’s landscape of skyscrapers.
And things are more spread out than they look on a map, Okamato discovered, since she travels to most places via bicycle. Luckily, her Fourth Ward apartment is only about a seven-minute ride from Charlotte Ballet’s rehearsal studios.
In her spare time, Okamoto indulges her love of exploring grocery stores.
She usually goes by bike, typically a 15- to 20-minute ride each way, up and down Charlotte’s hilly roads. Her favorite spot is Aldi. It’s familiar to her, she said, because it’s a European grocery chain. She mentioned a half dozen other grocery stores she’s also checked out, sometimes catching a ride with her roommate or other friends with cars.
Recently, she visited a couple of international grocery stores with Kazuko Adachi, the ballet’s longtime piano accompanist, who grew up in Tokyo. She drove Okamoto to Super G Mart and Hatoya Mart Japanese Food Grocery in Pineville, which Okamoto described as a “little Japan.”
Between those stores, she found some of her favorite Asian cuisine ingredients and seasonings, like King Oyster mushrooms, Japanese sweet potatoes — which are purple on the outside and yellow inside — tofu and spices ranging from cumin to garam masala.
Grocery shopping is not just for fun, Okamoto said. Food is important for dancers and she’s always trying to improve her diet. She also adapts it in each country based on availability and what’s affordable.
Most of what she eats is plant-based. A typical menu now includes overnight oats for breakfast, a rye sandwich with avocado for lunch, and lentils, beans, tofu and seasonal veggies, like pumpkin or sweet potato, for dinner.
A new spin for ‘Nutcracker’
Okamoto is currently immersed in rehearsing for Charlotte Ballet’s annual production of “Nutcracker.”
She’s busy learning several roles, in which she will rotate, for the 19-performance run. They include an adult party guest in Act 1 as well as Marzipan and Chocolate in Act 2.
She has performed in multiple productions of “Nutcracker” throughout her career, including in Japan, Poland and last year for 35 shows in Copenhagen. Although the beloved Tchaikovsky score remains the same, each production is different, she said.
Charlotte’s version uses choreography by former Charlotte Ballet artistic director Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux, which originally debuted in 1996, by the ballet’s predecessor, North Carolina Dance Theatre.
Another difference, Okamoto said, is that here professional dancers work alongside students from Charlotte Ballet Academy, the educational wing of the company.
Okamoto is also looking forward to spending her first Christmas in America.
Dancers only have a few days off, but she’s excited to spend a “warm and cozy” Christmas trying traditional foods and sweets. Japan has adopted many American holiday traditions, but she wants to see how they compare to the “original holiday vibe” found here.
Her dreams for the future
Like other dancers, Okamoto dreams of performing as a soloist or main character. “But, personally… I’m not dancing for that,” she said. She’s simply grateful that doing what she loves can be her job.
Travel and great teachers around the world have changed her life.
Okamoto’s gained an appreciation for people from diverse cultures. Someday, she hopes to share what she’s learned with others. For her, that means not only dance technique but also life skills, like how to press on when things get difficult.
But for now, nothing makes her happier than being on stage, taking a bow and seeing the audience happy.
“I want this to continue,” she said, “until I really cannot dance, I cannot move my body.”
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