As the final Round I matinee of the USA International Ballet Competition in Jackson, Miss., progressed a couple months ago, the dark, cool comfort of Thalia Mara Hall threatened to lull its audience into complacent appreciation of the dancers on stage. They shone, but by this point in the elimination round for 99 competitors, performance after performance of the same set of classical works became so repetitious, watchers had to refrain from humming along.
Then, Ryo Sasaki and Sayako Toku of Japan took the stage. Crackling with energy, they blazed through the fiery “Don Quixote” pas de deux, and a bolt of electricity shot straight through the house. Their flashy rapport, charged with saucy looks and smiles alongside stunning leaps, spins and balance made them instant crowd favorites. The two kept up the momentum through Rounds 2 and 3 of the USA IBC, and they capped the competition in Jackson on June 23 with the senior men’s and the senior women’s gold medals, plus the Best Senior Couple award.
“I couldn’t believe it,” Sasaki told the Mississippi Free Press via email from his home in Osaka, Japan. “It’s still the same feeling now.”
The win represented a full-circle family achievement for Sasaki. His parents, father Dai Sasaki and mother Saori Sugihara, competed in the 1994 USA IBC in Jackson, and his father took home the senior men’s gold.
USA IBC Jury Chairman John Meehan ranked 2023’s competitive field in Jackson at “a pretty high level,” he said. “Right from the first round, we were aware there were many good dancers in the competition, and that was borne out by a really wonderful third round.”
Sasaki was among the standouts. “He was a very fine dancer. He had a beautiful presence onstage, and he was an excellent partner,” Meehan said. “You could look at him as part of a duet, and it was very satisfying. And you could look at him as a soloist, and it was very satisfying. He had beautiful technique, and something extra—a very elegant way of presenting himself … and I think that really stood out.”
“They had the extra something that just left you saying, ‘Omigosh, they were perfect,’” USA IBC Executive Director Mona Nicholas recalled of the Japanese pair. “Just the extra spice, the extra personality.”
Sasaki and Toku began dancing together this past January. The classical pas de deux they danced in competition—”Don Quixote” and “Le Corsaire”—were the same ones his parents performed in Jackson 29 years ago. “After we looked at the list of repertoires and chose what suited me and my partner Sayako, I ended up with those two pas de deux,” Sasaki said. “It happened by chance.”
“I had my father teach us a lot about pas de deux and how we should manage international competitions,” Sasaki said. “He taught me that whoever has fun, the results will come with it.”
Such legacy success is not unheard of in this sport. “The first one that comes to mind is Daniil Simkin,” Meehan said. “His father was a multiple medal winner, as was Daniil.” In the 2006 USA IBC, Daniil Simkin, representing Germany, won gold in the senior men’s division. That win joined a collection that also included the 2005 Grand Prix at Helsinki’s IBC and first prize and gold at Varna’s IBC in 2004. His dad Dmitrij Simkin had accomplished the same in Varna in 1988, as well as top prizes at competitions in Moscow and Paris.
Alexei Orohovsky of Hattiesburg, Miss., who won the junior men’s gold at this year’s USA IBC, also enjoys a medalist heritage. His father, Arkadiy Orohovsky, won the bronze medal in the Serge Lifar International Ballet Competition in Kyiv in 1994.
Generational participation in the USA IBC has cropped up several times, too, most notably in 2010 when 1986 gold medalist Vadim Pisarev’s son, Andrey Pisarev—a multiple-time winner at the international level)—competed and in 2014 when John Wey Ling, a 1982 competitor who defected from China during the event, returned as a coach for his daughter, Alexandra, a junior competitor that year.
In Sasaki’s case, the win represented a rare symmetry, and a Jackson connection that reaches halfway around the world. Sasaki said, “I was honored to be able to dance all the repertoires” at the USA IBC in June, the 12th iteration of the competition held in Jackson since the event’s start in 1979. “I feel like these three weeks have been years worth of experience.
“It was such a competition that I could understand the meaning of my life and the meaning of dancing,” he said.
Sasaki singled out the hospitality that is a hallmark of the USA IBC. “All the staff in the dorm and theater, and the audience, were all warm and really kind and friendly,” he said. “That is my favorite part.”
The performer is now working with his grandmother’s company, Sasaki Michiko Ballet Company in Osaka, and is dancing on many stages in Japan as a guest artist. His win in Jackson sparked an offer from a ballet company that he is considering, he said, adding that he would like to dance again in the United States.
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