Kimiho Hulbert danced before she could talk. Crawling backstage between dressing rooms of her Japanese mother and British father, both professional dancers in Belgium where she was born, Hulbert even disdained her first official ballet class at 2 years old as “too babyish.”
“I only knew the real world of dance, so to me the children’s class was not real ballet, and I refused to join,” she recalls. Hulbert’s entry into the competitive world of professional ballet was never child’s play, and after 20 years in the system, the young choreographer is finally taking her destined place in dance.
Hulbert came to live in Japan at the age of 5. Her mother, Mitsuyo Kishibe, continued to dance professionally before opening a ballet school in the Tokyo area. Since Hulbert had already started international school in Belgium, she enrolled in Seisen International School in Yoga, Setagaya Ward.
Her life soon became separated into two spheres, areas that did not necessarily support each other, as Hulbert was more dedicated to dance than the academic rigor of an international school. “School could not always support my focus on ballet, and my ballet world was a mostly Japanese world. I found it difficult in the beginning to adapt to the differences,” she said.
Hulbert eventually learned to balance. In junior high and high school, she participated in school musicals or joined her friends after school before rushing to the studio for rehearsals each night. “For me, it was important to have a school life and do ballet at the same time. I really enjoyed my time at Seisen. It was the place where I grew up. My personality was made there.”
After high school graduation in 1991, Hulbert was accepted at the prestigious Stedelijk Instituut Voor Ballet in Antwerp, now the Koninklijke Ballet School or Royal Ballet of Antwerp. Entering the institution known around Europe as a doorway into professional ballet, Hulbert realized the hardship of the competitive artistic realm.
“When I entered Stedelijk, I thought, of course I am going to be a dancer. It was normal for me, since my parents were dancers, but I had quite a hard time at school, where the reality is quite different.” Hulbert struggled with the rigorous training, the intense competition, and maintaining a healthy dancer’s weight.
After the two-year training program, Hulbert was ready to join a company, and submitted more than 50 applications all over Europe and North America. “It was 1993, so we didn’t have email or anything. I had to send in my video and application. Wait. Fax more information. Wait.” The waiting and perseverance finally earned Hulbert a spot at the Colorado Ballet, a classical ballet company based in Denver.
Initially, Hulbert was not interested in finding work in Japan, because most Japanese ballet companies did not pay their entry-level dancers. “You have to sell tickets yourself to all the shows, and it costs so much to support yourself as a struggling dancer in Japan without getting paid,” she explained.
Three years into her time in Denver, however, Hulbert heard about a new company opening in Japan, the New National Theatre, Tokyo. “When I heard that NNTT would be an official company, I was very interested, and I flew back for the audition.”
Hulbert was accepted, and returned to Japan when NNTT opened in 1997. Although officially in the company for only two years, she continued working extensively for NNTT as a guest performer for over 10 years.
In the meantime, she searched for a way to create her own identity in dance. At an early age, she had shown potential as a choreographer, so her mother suggested she train young dancers for competitions. Still in her early 20s, Hulbert successfully guided dancers to such prestigious competitions as the Prix de Lausanne and the Youth American Grand Prix of Dance in New York.
Through her choreography, she started a relationship with the Japan Ballet Association, and one of the producers active in that group encouraged Hulbert to create her own company to perform for his upcoming gala at Aoyama Theatre.
Unit Kimiho was formed in 2001, a group of Hulbert’s “favorite dancers.” The gala proved successful, and through her widening connections in Japan’s dance world, Hulbert was assigned more work as a choreographer, becoming known throughout the nation as the “choreographer for competitions.”
Her private training of young dancers continues today, with a recent student from Fukushima hard at work for a fall competition after missing her chance in the spring due to the March 11 earthquake and tsunami disaster.
Hulbert feels lucky to work with these aspiring artists, and although many of her former students achieve places at the Royal Ballet School of Dance in England or win at the various competitions around the world, she takes little credit. “My students already had the talent and the determination; I just added something else on top.”
Although she still considers herself a classical dancer, Hulbert has expanded her creative capabilities to include opera and modern dance, a move that continues her work internationally. Last fall, she spent three months in Amsterdam at the Het National Opera House, choreographing the dance for the opera “Die Soldaten.”
“The music was very difficult, by (German composer Bernd Alois) Zimmerman, hard to count and hard to understand,” Hulbert says. The production was originally staged at NNTT in 2008, and the producer was so pleased with Hulbert’s work that she was asked to update the piece in Amsterdam.
This year also saw wider recognition as Hulbert was named a finalist in a Toyota Motor Corp.-organized competition for young choreographers. Only two awards were presented among the several finalists — the winner, and the audience select. Hulbert won over the audience, and to her, received a better accolade than the cash prize. “That’s the only reason I am creating dance; it’s not for a judge, it’s for the audience, so I was really pleased with the award.”
Hulbert’s relationship with NNTT has also evolved from being a performer to running the show: “Asami Maki, head of the NNTT apprenticeship of dance, asked me to work closely with the drama teacher to collaboratively teach drama and dance. We’ve worked together on two student productions, “Fairies in Midsummer Night’s Dream” in 2005 and this year’s “Little Mermaid.”
Another opportunity to work with NNTT emerged this past spring. “Mr. (David) Bintley, the artistic director of dance at NNTT, was looking for new choreographers more than a year ago, so I sent him all my videos. They were planning a new choreographer’s night in November, but unfortunately, I already had the commitment in Amsterdam. He looked at every piece I sent him, and he said he really liked my work, so he invited me to participate in their spring production, “2011 Dance the Future.”
Hulbert’s piece, titled “Almond Blossoms,” holds special meaning for the young choreographer, not only because it was her first original work to be produced at her former company. “The earthquake came right in the middle of rehearsals, so for me as the choreographer, it was difficult. You can’t just create anything. Everything I was planning to do was completely changed. Like everyone, I was of course influenced by the tragedy, and I had to think about the audience and their changing attitude. But the dancers supported me and it ended up being very special.”
With her work sending dancers overseas and her own international upbringing permeating her choreography and her own dancing, Hulbert’s worlds have completely merged. She will participate in a benefit concert for survivors of the March 11 disasters, organized by her friend and fellow dancer Kazuhiro Nishijima, on Monday. The “All Japan Gala” will bring together many Japanese dancers, working in Japan or overseas, to raise money for the earthquake-affected and tsunami-hit people in Tohoku.
Hulbert is also excited about a new production from Unit Kimiho in the works, with an original score by Akira Koshimura and based on the novel “Manon Lescaut” planned for March 2012.
Just back from China, where she became a finalist with her performance of her own choreography at the first annual International Competition of Dance in Beijing, Hulbert feels more than an ever the thrill of balancing different worlds. This time, however, the worlds all unite in dance.