Principal Dancer Romi Beppu is Training the Next Generation of Principal Dancers
Gregg K. Kakesako
Special to The Hawai‘i Herald
At age 34, ballerina Romi Beppu had realized most of her dreams: She had attained the rank of “principal dancer,” and she had toured the U.S. mainland, Europe and Japan with major international ballet companies. At that point, Beppu decided it was time to begin another phase of her career — passing on her passion for dance to another generation of ballerinas.
“I wanted to teach,” she told The Hawai‘i Herald. Beppu is working to instill in her young students her passion for dance, her work ethic and the discipline she committed herself to during her 16-year career as a professional ballerina.
“I felt I had accomplished much of what I wanted to in my professional dancing career, was interested in teaching, coaching and wanted to dedicate more time to starting my next career and purpose,” Beppu said. “I am a big believer in giving back, especially if you have been given much.”
Romi Beppu danced professionally for 16 years with the New York-based American Ballet Theater, which has been recognized as a living national treasure since its founding in 1940; Boston Ballet and Ballet West in Salt Lake City. Having learned “how the system works,” she said she wanted the autonomy to share her talents with Hawai‘i’s youth.
This past June, Beppu, now 39, celebrated her fifth year as the owner and artistic director of Honolulu Classical Ballet by opening a new studio in Kaimukï. It is the home of her dreams: The principal architect was Ma Ry Kim of G70, and Hawaiian artist Kalili Chun contributed an original art piece called “Manu O Ku,” which Beppu said represents the white bird that is an inspiration for the studio’s mission and dancers.
More than 100 people turned out for the opening of her new studio, including several students who were in her first classes in Kaka‘ako five years ago.
Lily Johnson, who graduated from Punahou School this past June, said there were four students who started ballet with her in 2012. He mother, Allison Johnson, described Beppu as “the most perfect teacher and role model. She’s everything you want in a teacher.”
Lily Johnson, who is now attending Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, said she plans to “keep dancing” while pursuing a career in science.
Other alumni include Gabi Legaspi, who is attending the University of Utah, working on a double major in mathematics and dance. Another Beppu alumnus, Lauren Thompson, is a trainee at Ballet West.
Beppu also celebrated her fifth anniversary with a recital — one of two she holds each year — and sponsored a six-week Ballet Summer Intensive Seminar.
The twice-a-year shows, which have been held at the Mamiya Theater on Saint Louis School-Chaminade University campus, are meant “to give students an ongoing goal,” Beppu explained.
“There’s a reason why we need to work so hard,” Beppu said she tells her students. “It gives them a goal, a purpose and satisfaction.”
The summer session is meant to give Hawai‘i dancers ages 10 to 17 the rare opportunity to work with some of today’s preeminent artists from elite professional ballet companies, nationally and internationally.
This past summer, Honolulu Classical Ballet hosted three “exceptional” guest artists and master teachers as part of its faculty. Entry into the program was by audition and invitation only,” she said.
Her instructors this summer were John Lam, principal dancer at the Boston Ballet; Yuhui Choe, first soloist with the Royal Ballet; and Nehemiah Kish, principal dancer with the Royal Ballet.
Beppu began her ballet training while attending Punahou School. She studied with John Landovsky of Hawaii State Ballet. However, her interest in dance began long before her days at Punahou or even Epiphany School where she received her early education. Her parents enrolled her in tap, jazz, hula, ballet, swimming, tennis and piano.
“But I did not like tap or jazz,” Beppu said. “I gravitated towards ballet.”
She spent her summer vacations living with an aunt in New York City and training with teachers and coaches such as David Howard, Wilhelm Burmann, Alaine Haubert, Finis Jhung and Diana Cartier.
After graduating from Punahou School at 18, Beppu applied for a job with the American Ballet Theater in New York City. “It was something I really wanted to do. It was my dream-come-true. This was my passion and opportunity and I had to go for it.”
Many professional dancers, Beppu included, put off going to college right after high school since it would detract from their primary goal.
As an apprentice with the American Ballet Theater, Beppu toured the Mainland, Italy, Greece, Turkey and Japan. In 2005, Beppu was chosen to become a principal dancer with the Boston Ballet — the first dancer from Hawai‘i to achieve that rank. As a principal dancer, Beppu was given lead roles. In 2008, she moved to Salt Lake City’s Ballet West as a principal dancer.
After joining Ballet West nine years ago, Beppu began transitioning into teaching, taking sabbaticals ranging from a month to two months and returning to Hawai‘i to teach classes on O‘ahu and Maui. “It was a fun time, but a lot of work.”
In the dance program celebrating the fifth-year anniversary performance of her ballet company, the mission of Honolulu Classical Ballet is stated: “to provide the highest quality specialized dance instruction in classical ballet, while cultivating a commitment to excellence in its dancers. Our goal is to develop healthy, confident, compassionate young leaders and dancers, who are well prepared for success in their next stage of life.”
Beppu has recruited a highly experienced group of instructors. They are:
- Aya Duong, who joined Miyashita Ballet Company at the age of 3. She was later a soloist and then began teaching in 1999. Duong moved to Hawai‘i in 2006.
- Caitlin Trojacek, a former principal dancer with the Idaho Dance Theatre.
- Denise Chong, who has taught ballet at Queen Emma Dance Studio for the past 12 years. Chong also serves as stage manager and assistant to the choreographer for various Diamond Head Theatre productions, including “The King and I,” (2011), “Peter Pan” (2009) and “Flower Drum Song” (2008).
- Carolyn Feher, who started her ballet training at Londonderry Dance Academy at age 5 years. Feher graduated from the University of Hawai‘i with a bachelor’s of fine arts degree in dance theatre. She also has a bachelor’s degree in business administration, specializing in marketing.
- David Barbour, who started exploring classical dance at the age of 6. At 15, he was accepted to the Interlochen Arts Academy, a prestigious fine arts high school in Michigan. Barbour trained at the Joffrey/New School BFA program. He has danced with two Colorado companies — Aspen Santa Fe Ballet and Ballet Nouveau Colorado. He was also the associate artistic director for Colorado Conservatory of Dance.
- Hawai‘i native Autumn Ogawa started dancing when she was 3 years old and began performing at 6. She attended Idyllwild Arts Academy in California, where she was a theatre major. Ogawa holds a degree in musical theater from The American Musical & Dramatic Academy. She has worked as a director, choreographer and teacher of contemporary dance, ballet, jazz, tap and musical theatre for Punahou School, Punahou Dance School and Mid-Pacific Institute School of the Arts. Ogawa has also appeared in over 50 musicals and stage productions and in dramatic films, such as “Under the Blood Red Sun.”
Beppu currently has about 100 students coming through the door of her studio, with the youngest starting classes at age 3.
Her students have competed in the Youth America Grand Prix, the world’s largest international student dance competition — and, they have consistently performed well. In the 2015 competition in Los Angeles, Lily Johnson, Gabi Legaspi and Lauren Thompson made it into the semifinals. Two years later, in Salt Lake City, Eden Chun, Colleen McKenzie and Claire Pennington were also semifinalists, and McKenzie lso was honored with “Top 24” in the women’s senior division.
Beppu is committed to the personal development and success of each of her students. “We encourage entry into our program from a young age so that our youngest dancers can build a technically sound foundation and strong artistic base from the very start,” she notes in explaining her teaching philosophy on her website. “We invest in every student, regardless of expertise level and believe that there is an immeasurable value of a serious arts education that extends beyond technical and artistic training. Our exemplary, highly trained faculty work together in guiding each dancer not only towards excellence in classical ballet, but also towards strength in character, compassion and ownership of their work.”
Romi Beppu readily acknowledges that the path she chose may not be right for everyone. She says she constantly reminds her students that “academics come first.”
“Homework is always foremost,” Beppu said. “As a teacher, it is my responsibility to teach them accountability . . . There is a balance being strict, but still letting them know that you care and you want them to do their best.”
Romi Beppu’s Honolulu Classical Ballet studio is located at 1122 Kokohead Ave. in Kaimukï. You can visit her website at hcballet.com.
Gregg Kakesako worked for the Honolulu Star-Bulletin, Gannett News Service and the Honolulu Star-Advertiser for more than four decades as a government, political and military affairs reporter and assistant city editor.