An Interview with Diablo Ballet’s Derek Sakakura On The Jumps That Make Us Go Wow
By Liesl Ferreira
There is a big debate about whether dancers are athletes or not. I say that watching them do a series of jumps across a stage will immediately put that argument to rest.
When I showed my husband, an retired pro athlete, a video clip of Barishnikov jumping in the final act of Don Quixote, he aptly summed it up as “phenomenal”. Athletes recognize athleticism, and he didn’t need to understand dance to understand the strength and grace needed to perform these jumps.
Grand Allegro is a broad term that includes the big jumps: Grand Jeté, Tour Jeté, Cabriole, Saut de Basque, and Barrel Turns. With fascination and awe, I interviewed Diablo Ballet’s Derek Sakakura about jumps in general. Rumor around the Bay Area has it that his jumps are some of the best around. (I’m not a connoisseur yet, but aspire to the position for sure.)
LF: Is it true that the “big jumps” are primarily performed by male dancers?
DS: Male dancers are probably better known for their “big jumps” (or grand allegro) than female dancers because many classical, male, variations consist primarily of big jumps. However all dancers must be proficient in every jump.
LF: It seems like it would be easy to fall while doing some of these jumps, especially the ones in which the dancer turns while in mid air. Have you ever fallen during a performance?
DS: If we never fell, we would never learn to do the most difficult jumps! However, we make sure we are extremely confident and well-rehearsed before we attempt any jump under the bright lights of the the stage! Even so, having been a performer for thirty years, I have had a handful of “crashes” on stage.
The most memorable one for me was when I was doing a double assemble, which is a double spin from a one-legged take-off to a fifth position landing in the middle of the variation. Instead of landing in a nice, clean fifth position on my feet, I found myself on one knee instead somehow. The trick was not to drop my upper body or show any dismay in my expression, and then to spring back to my feet as if I had done some sort of fancy jump!
My sister, who is also a professional dancer, happened to be in the audience that night and asked me whether it was an actual jump, or a fall. So I guess it worked..
LF: Before we get to the science behind the jumps, can you discuss their art?
DS: The “art” of a great ballet jump is in appearance of the temporary defiance of gravity. It is not enough to simply jump high. One must also have great talent to appear weightless for a moment, to portray a feeling of flight, and perhaps of freedom as well.
LF: Is there a specific dancer (either contemporary or from history) whose jumps you especially admire?
DS: Everything that the great Baryshnikov did was amazing. His jumps captured every dancer’s imagination in the way he made the ridiculously difficult seem effortless, and even more importantly, relevant to the dance.
LF: What kinds of things would make a dancer good at jumping?
DS: Physically, a deep plié and strong legs help a dancer’s jump tremendously. However, the timing and the coordination needed to ensure the firing of the muscles at the correct time, is probably just as important. My personal feeling is that the more a dancer loves to jump, the better he will be at jumping because a good jumper has a joy about him when he takes off for a spectacular leap.
LF: What are some elements of a strong jump?
DS: Besides the immensely quick and strong take off, a dancer must be able to hold a very specific position in mid air without losing balance. Every part of his body must be in an exact position while he flies through the air. Our work is not finished there. The landing must be soft and as graceful as a cat’s. And again, we must land in a predetermined position. If you can execute all of those elements with a smile on your face, you have pulled off a strong jump.:)
Thank you, Derek! I am always impressed with the eloquence with which the dancers answer my unschooled questions. Their refinement obviously transcends the stage, and seemingly touches all they do.
Watching someone who has taken the time to share a little bit of the secret of their art with me takes on entirely new meaning, so I’m really looking forward to seeing Derek perform in the 2014 season. I promise to trust that all of the landings of the jumps are carried out as they were originally intended! 🙂
An example of Ivan Vasiliev’s incredible grand jumps: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MbzZtMpSddk
The amazing Carlos Acosta: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VypGB0o7CpU&list=PLB92A8273A22D79FF
Liesl Ferreira is a native of the Bay Area who developed a passionate interest in the arts while living in Paris for more than a decade. She believes that the arts belong everywhere, in every life, and that the ability to express our humanity, or be touched by an expression of this humanity, is inherent in us all. She devotes her life to her family, photography, and Iyengar Yoga. Liesl is a wonderful volunteer with Diablo Ballet.
Photos of Derek Sakakura: Left: By Thomas Morel, Right: By Tiffany Fong