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Tokyo Ballet’s top principal readies a final dance

Veteran Naoki Takagishi to take the lead in 'The Kabuki' for the last time in Japan

by Kris Kosaka

Special To The Japan Times

On his second-ever professional tour in Europe, dancer Naoki Takagishi fought through injuries as he worked with modern-dance choreographer Maurice Bejart for the first time.

“I was only 22 years old,” Takagishi tells The Japan Times. “Mr. Bejart first saw me dance before the performance in a rehearsal. I was not yet accustomed to his style, and it is quite different in many ways to classical ballet. I dislocated my bones in three places.”

Remembering the experience now, Takagishi chuckles — even while describing his “battle against pain.” He successfully made it through all the performances, however, and by the time the tour ended in Italy, young ballet fans were chanting his name.

This weekend, the 45-year-old assistant artistic director and principal dancer at Tokyo Ballet reprises the lead role of Yuranosuke in Bejart’s “The Kabuki” at the Tokyo Bunka Kaikan. It’s a character Takagishi is familiar with because, since his debut as Yuranosuke at 21, he has performed the role more than 60 times throughout his 25-year career.

“When I first danced Yuranosuke, I was young and had no experience or knowledge,” Takagishi says. “I only did the choreography as I was instructed. As time passed, I watched movies about the 47 rōnin (masterless samurai) and “Chushingura,” which was the basis for “The Kabuki.” I read books about acting methods and was able to broaden my knowledge of the piece with each performance.”

This weekend’s performance of “The Kabuki” is special for other reasons as well. It will be the first time in Japan that Takagishi performs opposite his new bride, fellow Tokyo Ballet principal dancer, Mizuka Ueno. It will also be the last time he dances the role of Yuranosuke for a Japanese audience. In a career filled with accomplishments, taking lead roles and partnering with the world’s best ballerinas, Takagishi says he feels no added pressure.

“Instead of thinking about past successful performances, I try to begin with a blank page each time,” he says. “So, for the upcoming show, I will probably be performing (the role) a little differently as well. I always strive to make the next performance the best performance for the audience.”

Takagishi’s career with Tokyo Ballet has moved beyond “The Kabuki,” of course; he has danced every male principal role in the company’s repertoire. He also partnered some of the world’s best ballerinas, including the American Ballet Theatre’s Alessandra Ferri and the Royal Ballet’s Sylvie Guillem.

Hard to imagine, for a boy who grew up exploring forests and researching classical Japanese architecture. Takagishi’s hometown, Uji, nestles in the outskirts of Kyoto. It is famous for both its green tea — and as the setting for the final chapters of the literary classic “The Tale of Genji.”

“Growing up, I really enjoyed watching nature,” he says. “It was the countryside, so there were almost no tall buildings. Living in that kind of setting, I had a calm life. And I was able to gain a real appreciation of nature. I think this appreciation has been beneficial to my ballet career. Traveling through so many countries and different cultures, I had a strong foundation.”

Among Takagishi’s travels were frequent tours of “The Kabuki.” Choreographed by Bejart in the 1980s during a collaboration with Tokyo Ballet, the work is a tribute to kabuki itself. Bejart incorporated many elements of the traditional Japanese art: the tenugui (a thin, cotton hand towel used as a prop); the sliding foot motion of suriashi; and the gorgeously glittering kimono, which were restyled over leotards. Toshiro Mayuzumi composed the music, and employed traditional kabuki arrangements specially adapted to suit the movement of dance.

The ballet opens on a modern Tokyo street complete with television screens and a gang dancing to rock music. Yuranosuke, the leader of the gang, finds an ancient Japanese sword that transports him 300 years back in time. Initially an observer, his character becomes entangled in the unfolding historical drama of the 47 rōnin and their quest to avenge the death of their master.

Based on the 10-hour kabuki play “Chushingura,” the condensed two-hour ballet is a popular favorite when Tokyo Ballet tours overseas. They have performed it more than 100 times in Europe and South America.

Touring overseas has been a priority since Tokyo Ballet’s 1964 inception. In spring this year, they celebrated their 700th overseas performance while in Milan. Takagishi is also looking forward to May 2012, when the company will perform at the Paris Opera’s Palais Garnier for the first time since 1986.

The Paris Opera House holds a special place for most dancers, being the home of the first official ballet company in the world. For Takagishi, it is also associated with his childhood ballet hero, Rudolf Nureyev. The famed Russian dancer served as artistic director and chief choreographer there in the 1980s.

“Generally, the dancers who inspired me when I was younger were always foreign,” Takagishi says, citing Nureyev. “But in my small ballet school, there was a Japanese dancer who came to teach once a week. He was very amusing, although not so accomplished in the dance world. I looked up to him as well.”

Takagishi also looked Down Under to improve his art. Traveling to Australia at 29 years old, he spent three months with the Australian Ballet determined to improve his acting style as a dancer.

“The dancers I had met in Australia were able to incorporate their daily lifestyles into their acting,” he says. “It was something very familiar to audiences, so I was really interested in where that technique came from.”

Takagishi explains how Western dancers typically use more natural acting techniques in their performances, incorporating everyday emotion as opposed to portraying emotion in a more stylized form on stage. “I had always thought of acting as a way to merely tell the audience something,” Takagishi continues, “but my time with the Australian Ballet became a turning point.”

Increasingly in his career, Takagishi has become the dancer others look up to, as when he accepted his appointment as Tokyo Ballet’s assistant artistic director in 2004 in addition to being a principal dancer there. Takagishi welcomed the additional challenge.

“I would like to pass down the things I know to the next generation of ballet dancers,” he says. “I want to teach them to surpass me, and to give them the ability to draw out their own chances.”

He pauses, “I must grow more as a human and learn more as a teacher.”

Especially now, in Japan, Takagishi sees a need to answer the call for strength, determination and a striving to help others.

“Now, I believe more than ever, we should act more for other people than for just ourselves,” he says. “Although I am only performing for a small number of people, I hope to give courage and pride in Japan through my performance.”

“The Kabuki” runs at Tokyo Bunka Kaikan in Taito-ku, Tokyo, on Dec. 17 and 18 (3 p.m.). Tickets cost between ¥3,000-¥10,000, with specially priced seats celebrating the 25th anniversary available for ¥1,500 (only at the following ticket sellers: NBS Web ticket, e-plus, ticket Pia. Anniversary seats will be located on the fourth or fifth floor). For more information, visit www.nbs.or.jp.