When Tetsuya Kumakawa left The Royal Ballet five years ago at the age of 26, most people said it was too early for the Ferrari-driving superstar to leave his position as a principal dancer with the legendary company he joined in 1989. That was probably because most people didn’t know what Kumakawa himself obviously knew, or certainly hoped: that for all his fame and fortune in London, he had not yet peaked, but was instead making a career leap every bit as bold and breathtaking as those he performs on stage.
With his new “Swan Lake,” playing at the Bunkamura in Tokyo before traveling to locations around Japan, it is clear beyond all doubt that this 31-year-old from Hokkaido is progressing ever onward and upward through the ballet world.
A year after leaving London, Kumakawa founded K-Ballet Company in Tokyo. There, as artistic director, he set to closing the gap between Japan and the best of the ballet world by giving young Japanese dancers the chance to work with the international dancers and production staffers he brought to the company.
Whether directly, or indirectly by example, many young Japanese dancers are being inspired to advance their careers abroad, following in the footsteps of Kumakawa and his former fellow Royal Ballet principal dancer, Miyako Yoshida. Among their number are Kosuke Yamamoto, a 20-year-old soloist with the Birmingham Royal Ballet, Miho Fujii at the Paris Opera, Yuichiro Yokozeki at the Leipzig Ballet and Hansuke Yamamoto at the San Francisco Ballet — just a few of Japan’s talented dancers who are flourishing on foreign soil.
Despite this, however, the world of Japanese ballet can still be a very closed society, so it is marvelous to see how swiftly Kumakawa and K-Ballet have moved into position to challenge this parochialism.
With this latest production — following his acclaimed direction and choreographing of “Giselle” in 2001 and “Sleeping Beauty” in 2002 — Kumakawa again stays within the classical ballet repertoire he loves. This time he offers one of his favorite works, and perhaps ballet’s best-known: Tchaikovsky’s “Swan Lake.”
In a recent Internet Q&A, the dancer-director stated his belief that ” ‘Swan Lake’ boasts the most exciting of all ballet music. My basic policy is that classical ballets should be staged in a way that is faithful to the original, so I do not change the original story. . . . I just try to stimulate the audiences’ imagination so that they become involved in the performance.”
And here his audience couldn’t fail to be involved, thanks to the fruits of Kumakawa’s pulling power. On board for this “Swan Lake” are designer Yolanda Sonnabend from the Royal Ballet, and dancers including the Royal Ballet’s Viviana Durante and Stuart Cassidy, and Monica Perego from The English National Ballet. As well, Kumakawa’s own distinctive high jumps, superfast spins and much-improved, powerful lifts, are all performed with a polished technique.
This is foremost a theatrical event. Generally, productions of “Swan Lake” emphasize the main female characters — Odette, the White Swan, and Odile, the Black Swan — with both roles normally taken by a single dancer. Here, though, not only Kumakawa’s Prince Siegfried, but also the other characters, among them Von Rothbart the Devil (Stuart Cassidy) and the prince’s friend, Benno (Justin Meissner, formerly with the Royal Ballet) are brought into the spotlight. The result is a balance that’s most unusual in this ballet, which is typically judged on the strength of its swan stars alone.
What’s more, Odette and Odile are danced as separate roles, rotated between four dancers: Viviana Durante, Monica Perego, Greta Hodgkinson (from the Canadian National Ballet) and K-Company’s own Kayo Nagata.
The result of this directorial shift of emphasis is especially marked in Act Three. We have just seen Kumakawa’s noble Prince Siegfried fall hopelessly in love with the beautiful Odette as the pair dance a passionate and romantic adagio. However, the innocence of this infatuated young man, bewitched by two different types of women — pure and graceful Odette, and glamorous, self-serving Odile — is perfectly expressed in the following act. In the ballet’s most famous scene, Odile performs 32 pirouettes expressing exultation at her seduction of the prince. Here, though, in an inspired variation on the classic choreography by Marius Petipa, Kumakawa’s prince takes over the pirouettes halfway through, at astonishing speed, to show his own rapture at seemingly finding his life’s partner in Odile.
Also giving a lift to this spectacular production is Sonnabend’s elegant, effective design. Here is no lavish palace or ballroom, but the spare, Art Nouveau-inspired lines of tall golden posts and mysterious, metallic trees by the lakeside. The designer’s piece de resistance in the final act is simply astonishing. An ominous, glowering mountain peak breaks apart to reveal a stairway to heaven, which Siegfried and Odette ascend to a peaceful eternity together after their suicide in the lake. Using only simple sets and evocative blue and red lighting, Sonnabend casts a powerful, romantic spell over the conclusion of this fairy tale.
In this visually pared-down “Swan Lake,” with its remarkably balanced presentation of its characters, Kumakawa succeeds in tracing each of their desires with outstanding clarity and depth.
There is a price to pay — some dances have been omitted, such as the mazurka, czardas and pas de deux performed by the ball’s guests — yet this complaint aside, there is little doubt that Kumakawa’s “Swan Lake” has an appeal that goes far beyond the narrow circle of ballet aficionados.
As such, he is following a long tradition of variations on this wonderful work since it was first performed at the Bolshoi Theater in Moscow in 1877. Most recently, of course, in February, Tokyo was at last treated to Matthew Bourne’s astonishing 1995 reinterpretation with all-male leads and corps de ballet. So, in being able to see two such significant and different versions of “Swan Lake” in such quick succession, audiences here have had a marvelous opportunity to realize just why classical ballet has flourished worldwide for so long.
Most importantly, though, as Kumakawa rises to even greater heights as a dancer and choreographer, and tirelessly continues to attract the world’s best to work with him, his creative ingenuity (as amply demonstrated here) has made him a powerful force for fostering a love and appreciation of ballet throughout Japan. No wonder he and his dancers were whooped at like pop stars as the curtain calls went on and on.