At rehearsal a week before the debut of the Joffrey Ballet’s latest production in Chicago, dancer Yoshihisa Arai sat on the ground in the back of the rehearsal space with his legs in a split, stretching and checking his smartphone.
He had been away from the stage for nearly six months after breaking the fifth metatarsal in his right foot while landing during rehearsal last August, but he seemed calm amid the chaos around him.
At the front of the room, members of the company moved energetically through one of the four pieces that make up the “Modern Masters” production, a sampling of modern and contemporary works. Understudies mirrored the movements of the leads.
Arai and others on the edge of the action watched and waited for their moment.
Arai, who goes by Yoshi to most at the Joffrey Ballet, trained at a young age in Japan, went abroad to study and work in the U.K. and now has come into his own in Chicago.
Since arriving at Joffrey in 2012, he has spent just over five years evolving alongside the dance company and developing into a widely acclaimed dancer. He is soft spoken and deeply considerate of art, which belies a bigger stage presence.
Longtime Chicago dance writer Laura Molzahn first saw Arai during a rehearsal. “I noticed Yoshi right away because of his leaping,” she remembers. “He had incredible ballon, which is a term for seeming to kind of hang in the air.”
She later encountered him in the Joffrey offices. “He seemed so much smaller in an everyday situation than he seemed on stage. He’s just kind of a big presence. Those people naturally stand out. That I think is his gift.”
When he was 10 and living in Yamaguchi Prefecture, Arai started ballet lessons, though his father wanted him to take karate. “We just told him, ‘We’re going to go to that (ballet) class to stretch because we karate kids need to stretch as well,'” Arai says with a grin.
Arai pushed himself, attending class six days a week after school, sometimes getting home from Hiroshima at one in the morning. He had some success, winning prizes in Japan, and resolved to dance professionally. “It wasn’t like ‘I want to go,'” he says. “It was ‘I’m going.’ I decided, I am going there.”
“There” was The Royal Ballet School in London, which he had researched after meeting Gailene Stock, the school’s director at the time, at the 2004 Prix de Lausanne competition. Stock told him she could see his talent.
When he moved to London in 2005, Arai remembers that his English was so bad that one instructor refused to give him corrections. “It’s a waste of my time and a waste of other students’ time,” he said. “Come talk to me when you understand English.” This put him on edge in the beginning. But because he was totally immersed with his classmates and language classes, he picked up English in around six months. The only Japanese he used was on the phone talking with his mom.
His training in Japan helped him master the technical aspects of the art, but in England Arai says he also came out of his shell. “I think ballet needs to have something beyond technique,” he notes. “You have to have your personality — your true personality — coming out from inside of you. That’s what I learned in England.”
At The Royal Ballet School, he had amazing opportunities. He performed at Buckingham Palace in front of Prince Charles and for Queen Elizabeth II’s 80th birthday. But at the same time, he knew he wouldn’t feel quite at home in the large, mostly British company, so he looked for something different after graduating.
Arai then spent three years in Leeds at Northern Ballet, which he says was a trying period as he improved under the direction of David Nixon in productions such as “Madame Butterfly,” his favorite work he’s been involved with. “It’s good that there’s traditional ballet,” he says. “But (David) understood there is something beyond. We worked on this beyond area.”
He then followed his American Dream, first to Oklahoma with the Tulsa Ballet and then to Chicago after impressing Joffrey Ballet artistic director Ashley Wheater as Mercutio in Edwaard Liang’s “Romeo and Juliet.”
“He’s an amazingly charismatic dancer. He has a sense of musicality, which has a sense of fluidity in it,” says Wheater. “All those things kind of hit me at one time when I saw him in Tulsa. … He gives himself 100 percent to whatever he’s dancing. It’s not just showing you the steps, but it’s showing you every layer that goes into that work, and I think that’s a rare gift.”
Joffrey Ballet is about half the size of The Royal Ballet and it’s notable as an unranked company, meaning its around 40 dancers are of equal status. While it still has a competitive energy, there isn’t as much of a push to become a principal dancer, which seems to suit Arai. “One person can’t be doing the main role all the time,” he says. “I had opportunities when I was in England. You need to evenly give opportunities.”
Wheater also continues to push the Joffrey Ballet and challenge the company. The Chicago Tribune dance critic Lauren Warnecke notes that “the company is growing and evolving. It’s a very comfortable place for a dancer because they don’t get complacent.”
This is true for Arai who, after two weeks of rest last fall, choreographed and taught “The Firebird” suite for the Joffrey Academy of Dance school with his foot still in a cast. It was an experience, he says, that kept him from feeling down about the injury.
Such opportunities to teach and collaborate have also allowed Arai to exercise his creative side. Before his injury last year, he worked with San Francisco Ballet choreographer Yuri Possokhov on the role of the Mandarin in “The Miraculous Mandarin.”
“It was at times humorous that both of us often had difficulties expressing ourselves in English,” says Possokhov, who was impressed with Arai’s intensity and immersion into the role. “But we perfectly communicated with our eyes.”
“We created the role together,” Arai says. “So it was very special for me. That was such a privilege.”
Arai is now developing his own program to offer younger dancers their own opportunities to create. He plans to make it more than just a class and to actually create a work from scratch. “I think it’s priceless to have that experience,” he says.
But first, the “Modern Masters” production. Arai may have been a little nervous at rehearsal, but he gained confidence after the first show on Feb. 7, when he proved, yet again, that he stands out. Of the dancers mentioned by name by Chicago Reader reviewer Irene Hsiao, Arai was praised for his signature leaping ability: “Yoshihisa Arai danced the first variation with a billowing loft, wonderfully suspended by unseen forces.”
Name: Yoshihisa Arai
Profession: Ballet dancer
Hometown: Yamaguchi Prefecture
Key moments in career:
2005 — Enters The Royal Ballet School in London
2008 — Joins Northern Ballet in Leeds, U.K.
2011 — Joins Tulsa Ballet in Tulsa, Oklahoma
2012 — Joins the Joffrey Ballet in Chicago, Illinois
Things or moments you miss about Japan: “Family for sure. I wouldn’t be here without my family. And food, of course.”