Pirouettes, Three Minutes at a Time

The video shoot was scheduled to end in 30 minutes, and Sachiko Kanai was still struggling with her pirouettes. She was delivering perfect turns to the right, but her left half, normally her better side, was not cooperating at all. Finis Jhung, legendary ballet teacher and coach, offered a few suggestions: Push down, ribs in, exhale, relax. Then he gently encouraged her to try one more time. Sachiko started the combination…tombé pas de bourée…and nailed the pirouettes–on both sides.

“He’s the one teacher who has given me the passion and courage to dance,” she says. “His message is that everyone can dance with their own body, safely.”

We are at Pearl Studio videotaping Jhung’s latest idea for teaching ballet: a series of twelve three-minute video downloads that break up complex ballet movements into fun, bite-sized, progressive lessons. Today’s shoot is all about capturing the essence of the elusive en dehors pirouette. Sachiko demonstrates as Jhung conversationally directs and coaches. Each lesson discusses one of the fundamental elements for turning success, such as alignment, plié, pushing down to spiral (like a top), balance, relevé, arm/shoulder placement, spotting and a clean finish.

Overcoming an imperfect body to achieve ballet success is something most of us battle with, and it has been a life-long challenge for Sachiko. She started studying ballet in her hometown of Yokohama, Japan, when she was 3 years old. Very early in her training she was told she did not have the height or turn-out to become a professional ballerina. So at 17, she decided to move to London to study jazz, contemporary dance, acting and singing, hoping to eventually pursue a career in musical theater.

Later, back in Japan, Sachiko scored annual contracts with the Shiki Theater Company, one of Japan’s best-known and largest theater companies. On any one evening she could be performing in Cats, The Lion King, Contact or A Chorus Line. “It was the craziest time of my life,” she says, “non-stop.” But after her sixth year with Shiki, she decided she had to return to her life-long dream: ballet.

She moved to New York, and discovered Jhung’s advanced beginner ballet class three years ago. For the first time, according to Sachiko, a ballet teacher was helping her master the art despite physical limitations. “It was a revelation,” she says. “I realized I had to relearn everything, peel back all the layers.”

Her talent and work ethic did not go unnoticed. Jhung asked her to demonstrate for two of his DVDs: The Center Floor Ballet Warm-Up, which was inspired by his work coaching the young stars of Billy Elliot, and Use Your Head and Turn, which focuses on maintaining balance while spotting during turns.

Sachiko’s dreams keep coming true. Last year she was selected to cover in Alexei Ratmansky’s highly anticipated choreography for Aida, performed by the Metropolitan Opera Ballet. During the harrowing audition, she says, she felt a surge of confidence–thanks in no small part to her work with Jhung. “I just felt, ‘I can make it,’” she says. She will be dancing in the Met’s Armida, choreographed by Graciela Daniele, next February and March.

Finis Jhung’s three-minute instructional videos will be available for download in mid-November. Check out finisjhung.com for more information.

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