Despite the success of TV shows such as "Dance Moms" and "Dancing With the Stars," ballet still gets only a small piece of the audience pie in America.
That's not the case in Japan, where ballet is big business and local competitions set the barre. Japanese dancers now populate every major ballet company on the planet, and Japanese students are taking top prizes at highly rated competitions such as the Prix de Lausanne in Switzerland and Youth America Grand Prix in New York.
Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre currently has three Japanese-born members in its ranks. But the big story is in PBT's school, where 20 Japanese students took part in the Intensive Summer Program and are often featured in leading roles in school performances.
That could be attributed to Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre School co-director Dennis Marshall, who became a judge at the Japan Grand Prix Junior Ballet Competition, a premier event that boasts a panel from schools affiliated with companies such as the Royal Ballet, Joffrey Ballet, National Ballet of Canada and Stuttgart Ballet. He also has been studying Japanese for nearly two years to help ease the language barrier with the international students.
"Even if I make mistakes, they know I am trying," he says.
Mr. Marshall has been a longtime friend of JGP executive director Martin Fredmann, also the artistic director of the Kirov Ballet Academy in Washington, D.C., and a recipient of the Dance Magazine Award (1999) and the Order of the Rising Sun, with Golden Rays and Rosette, one of the highest awards that the Japanese emperor gives to non-royalty.
Fascinated by the country, which he considers a second home, Mr. Fredmann has visited Japan nearly 100 times in 27 years. He learned to teach classes completely in Japanese, including "ballet Japanese," in which a plie is "pu de eh" and a releve is "lu lu bay."
"I wanted to be completely understood ... have the kids know what I was saying in a meaningful way," he says.
Mr. Fredmann established the JGP competition 10 years ago. "I wanted prestigious judges who had real clout, people I trusted and knew."
He says some Japanese judges focus only on details, such as the way dancers hold their hands. "But ballet is an international art form, and our judges look for intrinsic talent, musicality and the shape of the body."
Six hundred students took part this past year, showing ballet's rising influence. It is not a part of Japan's culture like Kabuki, performed with kimonos and fans.
"The sad thing about the West is that our great art forms -- symphonic music, opera, drama and classical ballet -- are loved by Asia, not only Japan, but Korea and China, really loved almost to the point of worship," notes Mr. Fredmann. "It may be a status thing for them, but they also have a refined sense of line and form and they see this in great Western art forms."
Ballet has exploded since the 1980s in Japan, where there are 15,000 ballet schools and more than 100 competitions. The Japanese public is crazy about big names. Russian powerhouses Natalia Osipova and Ivan Vasiliev headed a list of eight international ballet superstars who performed there at the World Ballet Festival in August. Most also taught workshops, remaining in Japan for the full two weeks.
Japan has a few stars of its own, like Tetsuya Kumakawa, former principal dancer at The Royal Ballet and now director of his own company, K Ballet. But when he is injured, they literally have to give away tickets.
There are about 10 professional ballet companies in Tokyo, but they pay virtually nothing, especially to female dancers in the corps de ballet.
"They support themselves by selling tickets," says Mr. Fredmann. "The more tickets they sell, the bigger parts they get."
So the women open schools, often with little or no teaching experience. Many are very small, operating in 20-by-20-foot rooms with concrete floors and ceilings so low that an adult can touch, which means the students can't practice lifts. They also don't have pointe work, according to Mr. Fredmann. So students as young as age 7 learn the difficult classical variations from YouTube with little or no pointe training.
Japanese schools put on extended recitals that last for hours and can include full-length ballets, allowing young male dancers to make good money as partners. Top studio costume designer Yoshino Katsue is a millionaire.
Since there are so many schools and the teachers want to keep their best students, they hire international teachers and pay high fees for competitions.
"Anybody who is somebody, nobody, nothing, goes there, especially from the West, to teach, to choreograph, to make money," Mr. Fredmann charges.
Still, the cream does rise to the top. The best dancers use competitions as a springboard for immigration. They are able to get visas and head to other countries to establish a relatively well-paying ballet career. Even a PBT apprentice can receive performance pay and valuable experience in multiple ballets, while a Japanese apprentice might have to pay $1,000 just to perform in a professional company production of the "Nutcracker" in Tokyo.
Mr. Fredmann says that he could easily populate the Kirov Academy with only Japanese students, and it's easy to see that trend in Pittsburgh. Mr. Marshall provides two to three scholarships to PBTS and uses the Japan competition as a direct audition for the school's summer program.
Among the 18 PBTS students this summer were a pair of 11-year-old boys who made the 13-hour flight to Pittsburgh. Others included 18-year-old Kyoji Shimomura and 12-year-old Hajime Nose. Speaking through their translator, PBT member Makoto Ono, the dancers mentioned earthquakes and the recent nuclear disaster. Hajime said the tsunami took his house, but now "everything is fine."
They talked about pizza, bagels and ice cream as their favorite American foods, while turning up their noses at root beer. The school arranged trips to Kennywood, PNC Park and the Benedum Center to see "Fiddler on the Roof."
But they never lose sight of the reason they are here. As Mr. Fredmann put it:
"Japanese ballet students work like demons. They are completely dedicated. It's part of their heritage, their backgrounds, their schooling. They're driven. They don't do anything else. They want to be dancers."
Former Post-Gazette critic Jane Vranish: firstname.lastname@example.org. She also blogs at pittsburghcrosscurrents.com.