A Conversation with Gen Horiuchi
By Elizabeth Lewis
Artistic Director for the Saint Louis Ballet
With the Saint Louis Ballet’s Master Works Series to be unveiled this month, we sat down with Gen Horiuchi, the artistic director of the company. Horiuchi, an accomplished artist who delighted audiences as principal dancer of the famed New York City Ballet and as Mr. Mistoffelees in the Broadway production of CATS, took us through the past, present and future of his cherished ballet company.
How long have you been with the St. Louis Ballet? I took over Saint Louis Ballet in 2000.
Where were you before? I was in New York. I lived [there] for 20 years, [but] I was born and raised in Tokyo. I won a gold medal at an international ballet competition in Switzerland, and as an award, I got a scholarship to The School of American Ballet. I studied there for two years. Then I got into the New York City Ballet, and I danced there for 15 years.
How did you get started with the Saint Louis Ballet? I first came to St. Louis in 1996. At that time, I was still with the New York City Ballet. One of the dancers of the [Saint Louis Ballet] got injured, and they needed a male dancer. I knew the artistic director (Ludmilia Davidovsky’s) father, Vladimir, who used to teach in New York City. [He] asked [me] to come to St. Louis to dance with the company as a guest. In 1999, I got a phone call from the board of directors. Ludmilia had passed away, and they were looking for someone to take over the company. I’m sure there was a rumor that they were not going to continue the ballet company or the school, so when I came to St. Louis, there were only 50 students and fewer than 10 company dancers. There was a huge amount of debt and so [few] students that I wasn’t sure if they could even pay the rent of the studio. There were a lot of challenges ahead of me—but what are the chances of having your own ballet company and having your own ballet school with it? So I just took a chance.
How did you go about erasing the debt? I paid off all of the debt within two years. When I came here, the Saint Louis Ballet Company and the ballet school were mixed. The first thing I did was to separate the two organizations completely. I relocated the school to Chesterfield to build a new studio and excite everyone. Where I started with 50 students, currently we have over 350. At the time when I took over, all the company did was the Nutcracker. But now, we offer three series—the Nutcracker in December, a contemporary performance series in March, and another classical ballet series in June. We are currently up to 20 contracted dancers. There are only three dancers from St. Louis, [and] the rest of them are from all over the country. It’s a totally different look now.
So in this month, there will be the Master Works Series. It’s true that you’re debuting a piece for that? Yes. The March Master Works Series gives me a chance to create a piece from absolutely scratch, so that’s always an exciting project for me.
Where do you get your general influences when you’re creating pieces? Generally, influences come from my former boss, George Balanchine, who was the founder and artistic director of the New York City Ballet. I danced many of his ballets while I was there, so I think he is the most influential figure as far as when I create something. Of course, he was considered one of the best choreographers in modern history.
Do you have any other inspirations? I did a lot of musical theater, [so] I do like the theater aspect of the performing arts. I love special effects, like using smoke or strobe lights or a snow machine. All of those modern technologies fascinate me, so I’m trying to put that into the ballet performances. I did Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musicals, which always have spectacular lighting and special effects, so I grew up in that kind of production.
What direction do you see ballet moving in? Today’s world is moving so fast, so I think that ballet has to keep up with today’s speed. That’s always in the back of my mind, even in choosing the music or the sequences and moving from one sequence to the next. That’s what I have in mind for Sleeping Beauty, which we are doing in June. If it’s three hours long, I want to make it two-and-a-half. That’s the direction that ballet needs to move into in order to compete with other performing arts.
What would you say are some of your greatest accomplishments in your career? I don’t know—have I accomplished anything [laughs]? Seriously, though, I don’t feel as if I have accomplished anything, [but] I do like where this company is going. I have 300 students, a wonderful group of volunteers to support this organization, and great dancers to work with. I’m grateful to have such a great number of people willing to work in something I believe in.