As a principal dancer with the Royal Ballet from 1993 to 1998, Tetsuya Kumakawa was a sensation on stage at Covent Garden. London’s discerning audiences thrilled to the incomparable ability of this boyish young man, just 21 when he became the first Japanese male dancer to take center stage with the company. A natural showman in the spotlight, the sheer height of Kumakawa’s jumps, his astonishingly elegant athleticism and lightness of foot brought the house down night after night, no matter which other world-class dancers were also performing.
Once, in 1992, when I went to get a ticket for “La Bayadere (Indian Dancing-girl)” a ballet by Marius Petipa, I asked at the ticket office for a performance in which Kumakawa would be dancing the vignette role of the Bronze Idol. “My God,” said the man behind the counter, “his dance is only for five-six minutes, but it’s worth the whole ticket price just for those moments — he’s sensational.”
Sensational — and then some. I watched Kumakawa, in gleaming gold body paint, leap higher than seemed humanly possible (while doing the splits) and seeming, for a split second, to defy gravity altogether, then spinning and turning so fast and with such acrobatic grace. The experience was one of intense emotional awe — and I felt pride as a Japanese among his legions of London fans.
Then in 1998, Hokkaido-born “Teddy” left the Royal Ballet — whose school he had graduated from — to set up his Tokyo dance company, K-Ballet Company, the following year. London’s loss was Tokyo’s great gain. Kumakawa, who turned 30 last month, has since introduced Japanese dance fans to a wide variety of programs, from classical to cutting-edge contemporary. In addition, his wide network of contacts — in the British ballet world, especially — has enabled him to stage a number of collaborations with such top dancers as his former London colleagues Viviana Durante and Adam Cooper.
K-Company’s latest program, the three-act “The Confession,” put together to commemorate Kumakawa’s 15 years as a professional dancer, sees him dancing two passages customized especially for him in 1999 by the great French choreographer Roland Petit. In the first act, he performs to the music of Maurice Ravel’s “Bolero”; in the third, he dances to Petit’s 1946 “Le Jeune Homme et la Mort (A Young Man and His Death),” with music by J.S. Bach and scenario by Jean Cocteau. Between these two, offering a total stylistic contrast, are the three short programs of the second act. These are Sir Kenneth MacMillan’s ballet-burlesque “Side Show”; “Kingdom of the Shades” from “La Bayadere”; and “Wolfgang,” a new work choreographed by Kumakawa and based on a story about the rivalry between the composers Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Antonio Salieri, with music from Mozart’s “Symphony No. 29 in A Major.”
While “Kingdom of the Shades” tests its dancers’ athleticism and technical execution of jumps and turns, “Side Show” demands comical acting ability as well. Equally, “Wolfgang” requires strong performance skills as well as dynamic dancing to bring the musicians’ feud to life.
Kumakawa gave the demanding principal roles of “Wolfgang” to two friends from the Royal Ballet, Stuart Cassidy, a founding member of K-Company who dances Salieri, and Simon Rice (Mozart), whom Kumakawa describes in the program as the company’s “secret weapon.” The two dancers have surely fulfilled his expectations, for they rise to the challenge with great accomplishment. As well as their fabulous technique, their expressive performances highlight the fact that, beside being a showcase for athleticism, ballet is also a kind of wordless theater.
Kumakawa himself, currentl sporting a beard that adds a wild edge to his persona, displayed his characteristic sharp, high-energy style. Though in “Bolero” he seemed to be not quite at his best, in “Le Jeune Homme et la Mort” he pushed the envelope, unleashing hitherto restrained emotion and leaving the audience astonished at his high jumps and pirouettes.
Slightly built, Kumakawa possesses a cool dandyism that is surely unique on the world ballet stage. His beauty in the air is unforgettable, his jumps so high and consummately graceful that it really does seem as if he has wings on his back. Garlanded with accolades, it’s quite understandable why Kumakawa is idolized. But more than that, he’s cultivating world-class ballet where it’s never been done before.