Picture this fresh-faced Mai (rhymes with eye) on her knees and weeping…
That was how Mai Claypool was spending a lot of time when we caught up with her a few weeks ago…
Yes, she doesn’t find long distance commuting marriage logistics to her taste and misses her husband in Florida.
She also misses teaching, and sometimes is homesick for family and the food of Japan…
But Mai’s tears weren’t for these reasons…
Her tears both come on cue during her rehearsal for her part as a female dancer and understudy for the female dance lead in Lyric’s The King and I(opening April 29) and also from the wellsprings of her heart.
“Peggy (Peggy Hickey, Choreographer) had warned us. She said that at the end you will be kneeling forever. We had to be in kneeling position for 10 or 15 minutes and it was painful. It was our first rehearsal of the final scene and I was thinking ‘OMG, I have to stay like this until he speaks or dies? This is killing me’…But then, well…it was such a beautiful scene and we were ALL crying… The King (Paolo Montalban) and Anna (Kate Baldwin) are just SO amazing…it was so, so beautiful…”
There it is.
Talk to Mai for just a few minutes about Lyric’s The King and I and you get the sense that she is working very hard to do her part and is especially thrilled to be the understudy for the larger lead female dancer role, Eliza. The rehearsal schedule is demanding --11 AM to 2 PM with the adults and 3 PM – 7 PM with both adults and children.
For a professionally trained ballerina such as herself, dancing barefoot Thai style hurt a bit at first. Mastering the handwork of traditional Thai dance was also a challenge, albeit a fun one to take on.
Then again, even in those few first minutes of talking to Mai, what also comes across is that she seems to be not just working hard but also enjoying the best seat in town for the kind of production that snagged her heart when she was only 10 years old when Broadway’s “CATS” came to Tokyo.
Not wanting to be a spoiler, but also using the word “amazing” again and again, Mai shares that she thinks the audience will be especially wowed by the set, the ballet in Act 2, the school scene, the choreography, and especially the two leads who play Anna and the King, and whom she describes with a double emphasis as “so, so amazing—just amazing.”
Truth to tell, Mai doesn’t clearly recall the first steps she took to get this gig on the Lyric stage. She was only 3 years old when her mother took her to see her older sister in a ballet class and announced she wanted in. She has no memory of it, but was later told that in her first performance with that ballet class she walked stage left to stage right—a good beginning for any 3 year-old prima ballerina in the making!
Mai was only 11 years old when she knew that a career in dance was her calling.
She recounts, “That was when I performed The Nutcracker with a professional company, Matsuyama Ballet. I continued to train with them until I was 20… I realized I had to go to America to be with a really good professional company—Europe and Russia don’t accept many foreigners…My Mom though, didn’t want me to go… Sadly, she passed away in 2001, when she was only 47 years old. She has been too scared for me to leave Japan, but that all changed when she was gone…”
When she was 21 Mai came to NYC, dancing with the Joffrey School for a few years. Small world that it is, her dance teacher in New York was and is a close friend of “The King” (Paolo Montalban), seeding a friendship that has grown in these weeks they have been working together in The King and I.
Actually, it seems that the entire cast of The King and I have been growing into a close family, spending time here and there hanging out together.
Mai explains, “Everyone is just so nice!”
That makes it a tad easier perhaps for Mai to navigate these days of forced separation from her husband and former fellow dancer Colin. They had met in Bloomington when Mai joined a dance troupe in 2005.
Romance blossomed and life took them to Florida where Colin later opened a dancewear store. Their plans had been to move to Chicago in 2017 or 2018, thinking that they wanted to be in a place like Chicago that has a big arts scene. When Mai put feelers out to Hubbard Dance re: a position in that timeframe, she was surprised to be offered a teaching job that started just a few weeks after she contacted them.
And from Hubbard, it was just a short hop down the road to the Lyric audition, landing the part and getting this most front row of front row seats for a production she clearly adores.
Much like that famous Anna line in the play when she is considering leaving Siam but then considers her loss, to paraphrase, “The Children, oh the children…” Mai too seems to have grown especially attached to the 14 adorable children that are part of the cast. She says, “They were so unexpected. These kids are so amazing. The youngest one is just five years old, and one with lines and perhaps the most professional of all, is only six! I thought they would be running around, but they are so well-behaved and so professional and they amaze because they really are just children…”
In fact, talking to Mai one infers that all of her fellow dancers are similarly taken by these adorable kids, and in fact some fellow dancers have been assuring Mai that someday she too will have adorable children with her American husband. That too is something that Mai looks forward to when her performing days end, which is no time soon. Girl or boy, what Mai knows is that HER children will definitely get gigs on Broadway.
Lyric Opera’s The King and I runs April 29 through May 22 at the Civic Opera House, 20 N. Wacker Drive, Chicago.
Tickets start at $29 and are available now at the Lyric Opera website or by calling 312-827-5600.