In its short history, the New National Theatre Ballet (NNT Ballet) has performed a total of 42 productions under the auspices of eight choreographers. It’s a prolific output for a relatively young company and the company is understandably proud of this achievement.
Established in 1997, the NNT Ballet has gone from strength to strength mainly under the tutelage of Asami Maki — ballet legend and the company’s award-winning artistic director. Maki has been wowing the ballet world for decades, first as a dancer and later as a renowned choreographer.
A visit to the rehearsal studios in the caverns of the New National Theatre, Tokyo (NNTT) this month revealed a group of dancers, including principals Hana Sakai and Ryuji Yamamoto, being put through their paces by ballet mistress Noriko Ohara and under the watchful eyes of Maki herself. A few weeks before the opening night of Maki’s own version of “La Dame aux Camelias,” the dancers and ballet team are eager to put the finishing touches to the production’s denouement. It’s a particularly important production for Maki because it marks her farewell from a company she has nurtured for more than a decade.
In September, Maki will hand over the reigns of the NNT Ballet to David Bintley — acclaimed choreographer and artistic director of the United Kingdom’s Birmingham Royal Ballet. Bintley, who will retain his position at the British company, will divide his time between Britain’s second city and the Japanese capital, and in turn, he will seek to bring his wealth of experience to the young Japanese troupe.
The Englishman will be well known to Tokyo audiences because he has been invited to the NNTT on a number of occasions to choreograph shows such as “Carmina Burana” and “Aladdin.”
In an interview with The Japan Times, Maki said she has great hopes for Bintley.
“I want him to bring a breath of fresh air into the company,” she said. “He’ll bring a new repertoire and a good repertoire because the dancers need one to grow. Mr. Bintley has a different repertoire from that which the dancers are used to, and I also hope he can add typical British humor to the company. It’s a great opportunity to have a British artistic director. To have a wider and more diverse repertoire for the dancers will also serve the audience.”
“La Dame aux Camelias,” originally a novel by Alexandre Dumas and first published in 1848, has been revised and reworked in a multitude of productions over the years, from Verdi’s opera “La Traviata” to Baz Luhrmann’s cinematic treat “Moulin Rouge.”
It tells the story of Marguerite, a great beauty of Parisian society who falls in love with idealistic poet Armand only for Armand’s father to persuade her to abandon the young man. While most productions opt for the music from Verdi’s “La Traviata,” Maki bravely chose French composer Hector Berlioz who was a contemporary of Dumas. Berlioz, often cited as complex and demanding, isn’t a natural choice for this piece, but Maki follows in the tradition of great choreographers John Neumeier and Sir Frederick Ashton, who bucked the trend and chose Chopin and Liszt respectively.
When asked why she decided on Berlioz, she replied: “I’ve put on two other productions of ‘La Dame aux Camelias’ and both times we used the music from Verdi’s ‘La Traviata.’ It was difficult because the audience associate the scenery and the productions with the opera. So this time, I wanted to choose music from a French composer and Berlioz seemed to be the right choice. By choosing Berlioz, I knew it wasn’t going to be easy, but I love working with (conductor) Ermanno Florio and the musicians, to collaborate and build the piece. He managed to select various pieces from Berlioz that aren’t so famous.”
Maki’s production premiered in 2007 to commemorate the NNT Ballet’s 10th anniversary. An immediate hit when it opened, the production traveled, in 2009, to Moscow’s legendary Bolshoi Theatre. The connection with the Bolshoi is no accident. The Russian company’s prima ballerina, Svetlana Zakharova, starred as Marguerite in the original NTTB production and reprises the role this time around (on June 29, July 1 and July 3), while Japan’s Hana Sakai (June 30), Miwa Motojima (July 2) and Jun Horiguchi (July 4) will also play the part.
Zakharova, who is seen by many insiders as Maki’s muse, has worked with the Japanese company on numerous occasions and has been an unofficial ambassador for the NNT Ballet in her home country — persuading the Russian Ministry of Culture to bring Maki’s production to Moscow. Of the performances in Europe, Maki said: “To take a traditional Japanese production abroad would have been easier than bringing a Western piece by a Japanese company to the West. However, Zakharova loves this piece so much she insisted we take it to the Bolshoi. Although we both loved it, I was concerned about whether the Russian audiences would love it. The Russian audiences have such a great knowledge and love of ballet, so I was nervous, because we traveled there under the title of being a national company.”
Zakharova, more known for her effortless classical dancing ability and beauty, according to Maki, progressed as a serious actress in the role of Marguerite.
“She brought loneliness and a duality to the character of Marguerite. Because she is so physically beautiful, many cannot see past her beauty, and as a result it has been difficult for her to show the real characters she plays because of her looks. But she developed another side to herself through this character,” said Maki.
The production also eschews the traditional pas de deux ending in favor of Maki’s feminist reading, which places sole responsibility for Marguerite demise on Armand’s father. The revision incorporating a pas de trois with Marguerite, Armand and his father adds another dimension to the piece and will, Maki hopes, imbue complexity and layering to a scene that can often appear hackneyed to audiences.
“La Dame aux Camelias,” then, becomes the artistic bridge between Maki and Bintley. The Huddersfield-born choreographer has already announced his first season (for 2010-2011) and it includes some favorites from his own repertoire and a few pieces that will be well known to Japanese ballet lovers. His own acclaimed “Still Life at the Penguin Cafe” and “Aladdin” line up with Ashton’s “Cinderella” and Kenneth MacMillan’s “Romeo & Juliet” in an eclectic program.
Speaking of the highlights of her time as artistic director of the NNT Ballet Maki’s face brightened into a smile as she recollected more than a decade’s worth of shows.
“We started from zero, because we had to build it from the start,” she says. “We wanted dancers who had little or no experience being principals. We had to teach the dancers the manner of ballet and pretty much everything else. And it was lovely to see the dancers growing and growing — not just technically but also as people. It was a deep pleasure for me. They made such efforts too. Now we can invite choreographers from all over the world because now the company is ready for them. I’m delighted to have been a part of this process.”
“La Dame aux Camelias”; New National Theatre, Tokyo; 1-1-1 Hon-machi, Shibuya-ku, Tokyo, 151-0071. June 29-July 4. For tickets, call (03) 5352-9999. Tickets are ¥1,500-¥12,600. For more information check www.nntt.jac.go.jp/