Let the theater help you become as free as a bird

by Nobuko Tanaka

Special To The Japan Times

One day, William Tuckett’s big sister decided that she wanted to take ballet classes. Soon after, Tuckett’s mother realized that if both her children went to the class, she could have two hours free to herself. He may have had no choice attending classes at age 6, but the now world-renowned dancer and choreographer still vividly recalls how “it was all great fun jumping around to music with lots of other children.”

Tuckett’s early introduction to ballet in the central English city of Birmingham, helped him become “a good enough dancer” to enter the Lower School of the Royal Ballet School (RBS) in London at age 10. But, he says modestly, he was not good enough to stay there. After two years, he says he was “thrown away” by the school and he returned to a regular school in the western city of Bristol. It was there that he became involved in theater activities and learned to sing and play the viola and piano. Recalling his RBS setback, though, he says with real feeling, “It was good for me.”

It must have been, because just four years later, Tuckett auditioned for the RBS’s Upper School and won a place there at age 16. Soon after, his choreography skilled blossomed and he began winning prizes.

After graduating from the RBS, Tuckett was one of the few students who are asked to join the Royal Ballet. Since then, he has danced at the company’s Royal Opera House home — where he is now a guest principal character artist — but his forte is very much original choreography.

Besides creating dance pieces for both the Royal Ballet and the English National Ballet, Tuckett has added his works to the contemporary repertoire of the Rambert Dance Company and to those of many other prestigious ballet and dance companies worldwide, including Kumakawa’s Tokyo-based K-Ballet Company with “Pieces of Eight”(1999). And in his spare time Tuckett, now 43, has choreographed musicals and films, and even directed several plays.

“You always like what you are good at — and also, to be honest, I like to take control and tell people what to do,” says Tuckett when asked why he chose choreography over dancing. “I really like to see a bigger picture and I get joy from moving the pieces.”

Tuckett recently teamed up with Kanagawa Arts Theatre to create “Tsuru” (“The Crane Maiden”), a new dance-based work based on a famous Japanese folk tale. Drawing on the talents of British colleagues — dancers, stage and puppet designers and a narrator — and of the acclaimed ballet dancers Yasuyuki Shuto and Kazuo Goto, Oscar-winning costume designer Emi Wada and shakuhachi player Dozan Fujiwara, Tuckett’s piece, which opens on March 16, conjures up a unique cross-cultural event for Japan’s audiences.

You must be asked to choreograph theater works all th time. Why did you choose to do “Tsuru” (“The Crane Maiden”)?

I was really interested in this simple story that’s still powerful in Japan, and how to portray an animal changing into a girl without it being just like Odette in “Swan Lake.”

I’ve done lots of puppet works in Britain and thought that would be good for this. I also messed around with the story a bit. That was a bit of minefield, but I brought in Alastair Middleton, a clever writer I’ve worked with before, and we changed the main characters from a grandmother and grandfather to a young childless couple made happy by the kindness of a crane who became their child figure. So really we highlighted the story rather than change it.

Why did you want to change the story?

Well nowadays you are only successful in economic terms if you are growing. But at some point we have to stop growing, because we can’t keep on growing forever. So why can’t we just be happy with what we have?

In this play, the couple keep pushing their daughter to provide more and more for them. But whatever she brings in, they spend more and all their lives end up in torment. So, even though it was the crane’s kindness that had made them happy, they forgot about that and things broke down. Today, we are not good with generosity, but we’re very good at greed.

Why did you choose to have “Tsuru” narrated in English and subtitled in Japanese?

I hate going to see a dance and hearing people whispering to each other, “What is happening?” I think it’s a big problem for a performance when some people don’t understand it.

I also think that people shouldn’t have to buy the program to understand the story. If people have been generous enough to come and see my show, they shouldn’t have to buy a program to know what’s going on. A part of my job is to overcome this. The narration is very literary and poetic, and I believe it will work well with dance.

Is theater work different in Japan than in Britain?

This is my 17th visit to Japan. I’ve brought several productions here before, but this is actually the first time I’ve made a show in Japan with Japanese members.

It’s a lovely experience. The production team, the crew, the producer and theater staff — everybody is always there throughout.

In England, people make a contribution and then leave, remaining much more behind the scenes. It’s not good or bad, just different — but the Japanese way is amazing support for me.

Is does seem very strange to me, though, that there are almost no state subsidies for arts companies in Japan — it appears the state doesn’t think the arts are important. It’s all purely commercial — and that makes things so hard.

The scope of your work is really astounding, everything from Oscar Wilde’s short story “The Canterville Ghost” to “Pinocchio.” This summer you are staging a new “West Side Story” in England. Why do you cast your net so wide?

I really like making works that many people want to see, and I like going to a theater that’s full. Also, I think there needs to be something magical that happens — something transporting.

If you have problems in life or work, sometimes you are so close to it that you need to step back to get a perspective on things. I think theater can help you do that. It provides an opportunity to look at the world from a different standpoint, or imagine the world in different ways. I want my audiences to feel that from my works.

“Tsuru (The Crane Maiden)” runs March 16-18 at Kanagawa Arts Theatre in Yokohama, a 5-min. walk from Nihon Odori Station on the Minatomirai Line. Tickets are ¥6,500 and ¥8,500. For more information, call the theater at (045) 633-6500 or visit www.kaat.jp (Japanese only).