Japanese ballet legend Maki lives on in students, company

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Kyozo Mitani, right, Kika Aoyama, third from right, and other members of the Asami Maki Ballet Tokyo company pose with a portrait of Asami Maki.

Asami Maki, the light of the Japanese ballet world, died on Oct. 20 at the age of 87. Maki apparently passed away the day after she was told she would receive the Order of Cultural Merit.

Members of the Asami Maki Ballet Tokyo company shared their memories of the ballet icon who maintained her passion for the art form until the end. “I still feel like she’s right next to me,” said Kyozo Mitani, Maki’s husband and the company’s artistic director.

Maki and her mother Akiko Tachibana started the company in 1956, and in 1983, Maki married Mitani, who is 17 years her junior. Except for the 11 years starting in 1999 when Maki was the dance and artistic director at the New National Theatre Tokyo, the couple has been the foundation of the ballet troupe.

Doctors discovered Maki had colorectal cancer during an operation to treat abdominal pain in October 2020. Despite the diagnosis, she continued to attend rehearsals. At her last public appearance, at which she watched her students perform in late August, she wore her trademark heels and suit.

“Even if she seemed to be in pain at home, she always made sure to look her best when she went out,” Mitani said. “She was motivated by her desire to make sure something was passed on until the very end.”

On Oct. 11, she gave some advice to members of the New National Theatre Tokyo’s Ballet School, where she served as the director, after watching their video. She collapsed the next day as if she had finally completed everything she set out to do.

On Oct. 19, Maki was informed she would receive the Order of Cultural Merit. She appeared to be not fully aware of what was happening, but when someone whispered to her, “It’s great to be acknowledged,” she reportedly nodded and seemed pleased.

Principal dancer Kika Aoyama had been taught by Maki since she was 8 years old.

“The fact that she scolded me more than anyone else is a point of pride for me,” Aoyama said. “Even though she would say, ‘Don’t make me repeat myself,’ she would still take the time to teach me over and over again.”

The last dance Aoyama learned from Maki was “Le Spectre de la Rose,” which she performed in August. “Of course she didn’t praise me,” Aoyama said after her performance. Maki was never one to compromise.

The company will perform “The Nutcracker,” which will be its first performance since Maki’s death, on Dec. 25 and 26 at Hotel Mielparque Tokyo’s event hall in Minato Ward.

“If the whole company comes together, we can generate a unique energy on stage,” Mitani said. “If we can put on a great performance, then it will be a good memorial.”