Radenko Pavlovich likes to challenge his dancers. With his largest company ever and a season of challenging classical pieces, the creative director of the Columbia Classical Ballet has his hands full. And he loves it.
“Size-wise, we are probably the largest company in the Southeast. To do the big classics, you have to have a large company. I believe now we’ve achieved that,” Pavlovich said. “That was always my goal, and it continues to be my goal, every year to go bigger and bigger, but bigger with quality. It’s not just about quality, but quantity also.”
Pavlovich brought in 15 new dancers from around the globe this season, bringing the company to a total of 53 dancers hailing from countries across Europe and Asia. These new dancers are helping the company move in a different direction, Pavlovich said.
“I’m very excited about the company, especially when you have dancers who are so hungry to work,” Pavlovich said. “They come and they work from 9:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. and then work with me individually at night. I want to give everything that I have to them because it’s such a pleasant situation to come into an environment where people want to do this.”
The Columbia Classical Ballet has recently had an influx of Asian dancers, mostly from Japan, Taiwan and Korea, who have brought a certain discipline and “harmony” to the company, Pavlovich said.
“I really enjoy working with them. They are very disciplined,” he said. “When I say ‘jump,’ they really do say ‘How high?’ Ballet is not a democracy.”
Two of those new company members, both from Japan, will be headlining the company’s Oct. 11 performance of “Don Quixote.”
Award-winning dancers Sakura Oka, 17, and Kota Fujishima, 18, studied together at the Kirov Academy of Ballet in Washington, D.C., before joining the Columbia Classical Ballet. They are both multiple gold and silver medalists in ballet competitions in the U.S. and Japan; when asked how many medals he has won in his career, Fujishima laughed and said, “I don’t even know.”
Fujishima was drawn to Columbia after training with Pavlovich for a competition. Oka followed, accepting an invitation to join after learning of the “high-level dancers” in the company.
Now, the two will dance the roles of Basilio and Kitri, which demand not only sharp technique, but an infusion of character atypical for many classical ballets.
“The technical stuff is very difficult for me, and in ‘Don Quixote,’ it’s merging acting with dancing, but I’m very much enjoying doing it,” Oka said through a translator and fellow company member.
Oka and Fujishima had both performed parts of the ballet before, but it is their first time performing “Don Quixote” in its entirety. The piece, which is “all dancers’ dream to perform,” is both extremely difficult and enjoyable for the entire company, Pavlovich said.
“When you do the whole ballet, it’s not like doing one variation or two variations. It’s a strain on the dancers,” he said. “You really have to carry the performance. You have to perform the technique and have the stamina. By the end of the day, they’re half dead but the beauty is that they love what they do.”
This season will be packed with challenging, intricate ballets, all of which the company is currently rehearsing. Oka will go from dancing Kitri on Oct. 11 to Clara in “The Nutcracker” on Dec. 6 – a sharp contrast in roles. While Kitri is a “fiery” young Spanish woman, Clara is an innocent child lost in her own Christmas dreams.
“They’re totally different characters. I want to be able to dance each role as a separate role, not just be the same person on stage,” Oka said.
In the spring, the company’s performances include “Sleeping Beauty” and “La Bayadere,” two strict and structured classical works. The skill brought by his dancers has made Pavlovich’s work easy, he said.
“There’s a huge responsibility these dancers have. It’s tremendous work, strenuous work,” Pavlovich said.
“The beautiful thing about it is that a lot of dancers I have this year have the right schooling and the right skills. They’re not dancers you randomly pick up ... they have had very good teachers, they understand the port a bras, they understand the style.”
And with a company packed full of the right dancers, Pavlovich said he is looking forward to the future.
“The wonderful thing this year with the dancers is that the quality is getting better and better. I try to fine-tune them, but their talent is really amazing,” Pavlovich said. “My job is to tweak them and clean them and make them better. As the company is growing every year in size and quality, obviously it’s giving me more satisfaction.”