Miyako Yoshida, who retired from The Royal Ballet last year after a 25-year career at the top of the ballet world, is now bringing the grace that she has become world-famous for home to her native Japan — as guest principal of the Birmingham Royal Ballet (BRB), which tours the country for the first time in three years.
Described as “legendary” in the dance world, Yoshida, whose professional roots lie in Britain, has accrued many honors both in her adopted home and in Japan, including an Order of the British Empire (OBE) in 2007 and Japan’s Purple Ribbon Medal of Honor awarded by the Emperor in the same year.
Though known for her presence with The Royal Ballet, Yoshida’s history with the BRB goes back to her early days as a ballerina. In 1984, after winning the prestigious Prix de Lausanne (a global competition for young dancers seeking to work professionally, held annually in Switzerland), she joined the Sadler’s Wells Royal Ballet in London, which later became the Birmingham Royal Ballet. She was only 18 years old at the time and Sadler’s Wells was Yoshida’s introduction to the professional world of dance.
“I learned everything from the company, from teachers and colleagues,” Yoshida reflects. “I had no idea what a professional dancer’s life was like, since the system is so different in Japan.”
Her early days in England proved tough—not only did she suffer minor injuries as she accustomed herself to life as a ballet professional, but she also had to adjust to unfamiliar weather, food, and language. Now, fully resettled in Japan for a year, she laughs about the reverse culture shock being just as unnerving.
“Everything I learned as an adult was from England, so I had to start over and learn again,” she says describing her move back to Japan. “The way people communicate is different. How companies are run is different. I can see both countries, both their good and bad sides, so it is quite nice, actually, to experience both worlds.”
David Bintley, the director of the BRB, is straddling the two countries these days too—as he is concurrently artistic director at The New National Theatre Tokyo’s Ballet and Dance Division.
Yoshida has danced in several of Bintley’s original productions, including the title role in his acclaimed “The Snow Queen.” And a few years after leaving Birmingham in 1995 to join The Royal Ballet in London, she danced for the BRB once more—at the invitation of Bintley, who was then the company’s newly-appointed artistic director.
Yoshida says she feels particularly lucky to once again be working with both the BRB and Bintley, who has been a longtime influence on her.
“When I first started at Sadler’s Wells, David was still dancing, and he was an amazing performer. To me, until I went to England, ballet was more about dancing and showing technique,” she says. “I realized there, that ballet was not all about pirouettes or turning or jumping. It is also about telling a story, and David’s acting was always amazing.”
“I am really happy to be working with them again,” she says of the upcoming BRB tour, “I’m honored they offered me this chance.”
The tour also brought to light the strength of the bond Yoshida feels between both Japan and Britain. When the Great Eastern Japan Earthquake struck she was in Birmingham rehearsing for the tour.
“It was so nice being back in Birmingham as I had not been there for a long while,” she says of that trip. “The atmosphere had not changed at all since I left. It is such a friendly, relaxed company.” When the earthquake hit, she was instantly offered support from friends and members of the company.
“Edward Watson, a principal at The Royal Ballet, suggested we do something, so I called up the theater (the Royal Opera House). I arranged a benefit concert in just two days, which is actually amazing because nothing moves that fast at the Royal Opera House,” she explains. “Everyone wanted to do something to help.”
Then, less than 10 days after the tragedy, Yoshida’s efforts led to a special performance that included Royal Ballet dancers and featured music from students at the Royal Academy of Music. All proceeds were donated to help Japan’s tsunami victims.
“My main worry, because of the time factor, was how to sell all the tickets because no one would know about it,” she says. “But everyone helped out—with Twitter and FaceBook—and by lunchtime of the day before the benefit, tickets were all sold out.”
As part of her current tour with BRB, Yoshida also danced in a benefit show on May 17 at U-Port Hall in Tokyo.
The rest of the tour features productions of Peter Wright’s “The Sleeping Beauty” and a double-bill of Sir Frederick Ashton’s “The Dream” and “Daphnis and Chloe.” For “The Dream,” Yoshida reprises her role as Titania.
Although Yoshida retired from The Royal Ballet last year, her world still very much centers around dance. She has a DVD on ballet education coming out later this month, and a photobook detailing her final performances with The Royal Ballet in Japan and in London is due to be published later this year. A long-time supporter of ballet education, she also frequently teaches special summer seminars and advises for student courses or auditions. Wherever she makes her home, Yoshida says she will certainly still be dancing: “Whenever I can, I love to dance and it is still my main focus.”
Birmingham Royal Ballet continues its 2011 Japan Tour with “The Sleeping Beauty” at Aichi Prefectural Arts Theatre, May 19 (052) 241-8118, and at Tokyo Bunka Kaikan on May 21 (1:30 p.m. and 6:30 p.m.) and May 22 (1:30 p.m.). Tickets are ¥5,000 to ¥18,000. “Daphnis and Chloe”/ “The Dream” runs May 25 at Hyogo Performing Arts Center (0798) 68-0255 and at Bunka Kaikan Hall in Tokyo on May 27-29. Tickets range from ¥8,000 to ¥18,000. Tickets for the Tokyo shows are available from the NBS ticket center, (03) 3791-8888 (Japanese only) or can be ordered in English by email: firstname.lastname@example.org. For more information, visit the NBS website www.nbs.or.jp.