Ako Kondo: “Ballet is a universal language in itself”.

Ako Kondo: “Ballet is a universal language in itself”.

After moving to Melbourne, Australia on a ballet scholarship as a teenager, Ako soon became The Australian Ballet’s first Japanese Principal Artist. Embodying effortless grace with each leading role she performs – from Aurora in The Sleeping Beauty, to Odette in Swan Lake – Ako is highly acclaimed within both the Australian dance sphere and globally, receiving numerous international accolades including a nomination for the prestigious Prix Benois de la Danse award. Ako shared her story with us of creative life in Melbourne and her experience of creativity as a global language.

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ON WHERE YOU GREW UP

I grew up in Nagoya, Japan. I had all my ballet training in Japan until I was 16 years old, and then I moved to Australia after receiving a scholarship with The Australian Ballet School.

ON ARRIVING IN MELBOURNE

I couldn’t speak English at all when I moved, I had no friends, no family. It was just myself, and all I had was ballet.

Ballet is a universal language in itself. So even though I didn’t speak English, ballet helped me to connect with people here in Australia, because you use your body language to communicate in so many ways.

Ako Kondo in practice. Images courtesy of The Australian Ballet and Ako Kondo. Portrait of Ako Kondo at top of page by Dan Boud. 

ON THE INFLUENCE OF JAPANESE CULTURE ON YOUR WORK ETHIC

All my training in Japan was centred around this idea of ‘inner drive’. This was the big thing for me. I think it is quite unique to Japanese people. They are usually very quiet, and they don’t really express their feelings openly, or what they want. But they have this passion inside them to push. I think that aspect of Japanese culture is what I have really taken on in my career. The whole time I had the inner drive to push myself to be a Principal Artist. But I didn’t need to tell everyone about it, I just kept it in my heart. 

“Even though I didn’t speak English, ballet helped me to connect with people here in Australia, because you use your body language to communicate in so many ways”. 

ON WINDOW SEAT OR AISLE

Aisle seat when I’m travelling on my own. If I’m on the window side I freak out, wondering how I’m going to go to the bathroom.

ON HOW THIS NEW CULTURE INFLUENCED YOUR CREATIVITY

I noticed when I came to Melbourne that people are very expressive. You can tell if someone is having a good day or not when you walk past them in the street. I took that on board, because as a ballet dancer you have to show your feelings on stage, and to be able to act this role or that role. I didn’t have that expressive nature to begin with. It took a long time for me to break out of my shell. But being part of a company where everyone is so expressive really inspired me to open up.

Through my career in Australia I have learnt that creativity and communication work together. I had to become comfortable with feeling and expressing myself through the parts I play on stage. You have to communicate to create a relationship with your partner, and with the audience, in order to create the very best performance.

Ako Kondo and fellow Principal Artist of The Australian Ballet, Chengwu Gou. Images courtesy of The Australian Ballet and Ako Kondo.

ON THE MOST INTRIGUING PLACE YOUR WORK HAS TAKEN YOU

The Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow. I was nominated for Prix Benois de la Danse, which is like an Academy Award in the ballet world. There was a ceremony and a gala after, so I got to dance on the Bolshoi Theatre stage. I think that was the highlight of my career.

ON YOUR RECOGNITION AS A PRINCIPAL ARTIST IN AUSTRALIA

It always means a lot to be recognised by the industry here as an international dancer in Australia. I have received a Helpmann Award, and an Australian Dance Award. Receiving these accolades makes me feel like I’ve truly been accepted in this country.

I noticed when I came to Melbourne that people are very expressive..I took that on board, because as a ballet dancer you have to show your feelings on stage, and to be able to act this role or that role.

ON CHALLENGES THAT COVID-19 HAS PRESENTED YOUR WORK

Not seeing my colleagues and friends who inspire me every day is really tough. At the moment I’m trying to do classes from home in such a small space, when I’m used to having an entire theatre to perform in. I’m lucky I have my husband, who is also a Principal Artist and qualified teacher, so we get to work together, and he coaches me sometimes.

But as a company we always create together, and that part is really missing for me at the moment. We can’t create anything by ourselves.

Above: Ako performs on stage in Giselle, 2019. Below: Ako’s announcement as Australia’s first Principal Artist of Japanese heritage in The Australian Ballet. Images courtesy of The Australian Ballet and Ako Kondo.

ON FINDING CREATIVE INSPIRATION IN NATURE 

In Nagoya there are tunnels made of cherry blossoms which I used to walk through all the time when I was young. Whenever I see them they make me feel calm, and I can let everything go and just be myself. I recommend visiting the Meguro River cherry blossoms in Tokyo at the end of March or beginning of April, depending on the year.

I experience the same feeling of peace when I go to Port Melbourne beach with my dogs. I like to look at the ocean and reset myself.

Through my career in Australia I have learnt that creativity and communication work together. I had to become comfortable with feeling and expressing myself through the parts I play on stage.

ON A ‘MUST DO’ IF VISITING JAPAN

Visit Tokyo and Kyoto on the same trip. These two placed represent two completely different vibes in Japan. Tokyo is trendy, the feeling is energetic. Kyoto is calm, and it represents Japanese history. You need to experience the contrast between the two cities.

ON A FAVOURITE WEEKEND RITUAL IN MELBOURNE

I love ST. ALi in South Melbourne. I always take my dogs there. Everyone is open and happy. I think it reflects so much of the Australian culture.  After that I go to the South Melbourne Market.

Melbourne and Australia really feel like my home now.

ON MELBOURNE IN A WORD

Positive.

Above: Cherry blossom season in Meguro Tokyo, Japan and an evening sunset over Melbourne, Victoria. Image above courtesy Ako Kondo. Image below by Jonny Clow.

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Nuggets in this interview

food and drink

St ALi Coffee Roasters, Melbourne

“I love ST. ALi in South Melbourne….everyone is open and happy”.

–Ako Kondo

inspiration

Port Melbourne Beach

“I like to look at the ocean and reset myself”.

–Ako Kondo

events

South Melbourne Market

“Weekend ritual…the South Melbourne Market”.

–Ako Kondo

inspiration

The Australian Ballet School

"I moved to Australia after receiving a scholarship with The Australian Ballet School".

–Ako Kondo

events

Bolshoi Theatre, Moscow

"I got to dance on the Bolshoi Theatre stage. I think that was the highlight of my career”.

–Ako Kondo

inspiration

Meguro, Tokyo

"I recommend visiting the Meguro River cherry blossoms in Tokyo at the end of March or beginning of April".

–Ako Kondo

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