Shoko Nakamura, the 29-year-old principal dancer of the Staatsballett Berlin, is back in Japan for a well-earned vacation and to make her debut in a classic role.
Known simply as “Shoko” throughout the international ballet world, she will be playing the passionate female lead in a Tokyo performance of “Romeo and Juliet.”
But this isn’t just any old staging of Shakespeare’s tragic tale of love. Set to a stirring score by Sergei Prokofiev, this is an entirely new choreography that follows in the footsteps of postwar versions by John Cranko (1958), Sir Kenneth MacMillan (1965) and John Neumeier (1971).
Written over the past three years by Tetsuya Kumakawa, 37, former principal dancer at the Royal Ballet, this latest rendition was created for the 10th anniversary program of K-Ballet, the Tokyo-based company founded by Kumakawa. The company, which is under Kumakawa’s artistic direction, is now considered among the world’s best. Kumakawa, who during his time with the Royal Ballet became well-known for his acrobatic leaps and lifts, is also known as “Teddy” thanks to the “kuma” in his name translating as “bear,” and will be among those in the role of Romeo.
To help celebrate the anniversary, Kumakawa has called on several colleagues from his second home in Europe, that include, along with Shoko, his long-term artistic partner, set and costume designer Yolanda Sonnabend and the current principal dancer at the Royal Ballet, Roberta Marquez.
Last August, with the Oct. 15 opening of this landmark production fast approaching, Shoko talked to The Japan Times at the K-Ballet’s studio in Tokyo’s Bunkyo-ku. Despite that afternoon’s stifling heat, she remained as cool and graceful in person as she is on stage.
When did you first become interested in ballet? When I was 6, my father wanted me and my younger sister to take ballet lessons, and he found a local ballet school in Saga. Back then, I was just happy to be a princess who got to wear lovely frilly costumes. I didn’t have a strong hunger to study abroad or be an international ballet dancer, but when I was 16 I won a scholarship as a prize at the Prix de Lausanne [an international ballet competition for 15-18-year-old dancers known to help launch careers]. So, quite unexpectedly, I joined the John Cranko Ballet School in Stuttgart (Germany).
Why did you stay in Europe after that? Well, via the school I joined the Stuttgart Ballet as a junior member, and I had the opportunity to meet, and dance with, the Ukrainian star, Vladimir Malakhov, who was then choreographing “La Bayadare” for the Vienna State Opera and Ballet. It was only a passing encounter, but soon after, the Vienna Ballet held auditions, so I tried my luck and succeeded in joining.
That was a turning point for me. The artistic director there, Renato Zanella, gave me lots of opportunities and there was a brilliant, familylike atmosphere. The audiences also welcomed me very kindly. Nevertheless, after five or six years I started to think I should knock on different doors to help my career progress. So in 2006, I joined Staatsballett Berlin — where Malakhov had been artistic director since 2002.
Malakhov showed me what it takes to be a principal dancer. He is a superstar, but he always works harder than anyone else in a company. I believe as a dancer it’s harder to keep the highest position than to reach it.
I read somewhere that you are well known for being particularly caring toward younger dancers. I want to share my knowledge with such dancers. We are already gathered as a group of professional dancers, so there’s no rivalry like there is when competing in your teens, or like in sports. Our aim at rehearsal is to create the best performance we can for the audiences, so if I see somebody trying hard and I can give them a tip, I am happy to do that anytime.
What does it take to be a top dancer? Persistence is definitely necessary. In the ballet world, everybody is struggling against themselves every single day. For example, if someone is feeling lazy and skips a lesson, of course he or she can do that. But to be able to dance a little bit better than the day before, you have to keep up the daily practices. You can also, at any moment, quit altogether, if that’s what you want, so it’s entirely up to you — whether you continue with such endless, tough days or just give it up: Ballet dancers have to have a strong determination to be a dancer.
Is there a difference between European ballet companies and Japanese ones?
In Europe, individual companies stage much wider repertoires — from classical to contemporary and modern — so dancers can find something new, something they might never have encountered before.
Nowadays, Japanese dancers have become as highly skilled as European dancers. They have also acquired the ability to better express themselves on stage. So, many Japanese dancers could extend their scope if they were given the chance to dance more varied and newly choreographed programs [like those in European company repertoires] besides the standard classical ones.
How about European and Japanese dancers, is there much difference in their style?
Japanese people are shy in general, and that shyness can influence their artistic expression, so that often it seems not very natural. I had that problem.
From early on in my career, I felt that one of the strengths of European dancers is that they really get into character when dancing and so they express themselves naturally. They do this so well, audiences can accept a fairy story with an open mind.
Japanese dancers, though they practice very hard and earnestly, often find it hard to be natural on the stage. Sometimes it’s as if they are just acting or pretending on stage. Foreign dancers seem to be able to slip into their roles naturally, as if they actually are the character. For instance, a dancer will exist as Juliet and live Juliet’s life.
This is something I am concentrating on and trying to do well.
For example, in this “Romeo & Juliet,” my aim is to challenge how much I can live and express Juliet’s life as reality on the stage. I want the audience to share the girl’s love, her emotions and feelings.
There have been many interpretations of this role; what type of Juliet are you going to portray? Juliet matures as she falls in love with Romeo. So, I would like to find my Juliet through dancing with Romeo (Yusuke Osozawa). We just started rehearsals yesterday, so I don’t want to have a fixed image of Juliet at the moment. I’d rather just be fresh about the role now.
“Romeo and Juliet” runs Oct. 15-18 at Bunkamura Orchard Hall, a 6-minute walk from JR Shibuya Station, and Nov. 3-8 at Tokyo Bunka Kaikan, a 3-minute walk from JR Ueno Station. It then travels to Yokohama, Nagoya, Kobe, Fukuoka, Kagawa and Sapporo between Oct. 20 and Nov. 11. For more information, call Ticket Space at (03) 3234-9999 or visit www.ints.co.jp or www.k-ballet.co.jp