The moment Birmingham Royal Ballet principal dancer Robert Parker began talking about cartwheels, everything seemed to change.
By then the formal stage of this year’s first-ever Japanese auditions for the world-renowned Elmhurst School for Dance in England’s second city of Birmingham had concluded. Next, it was time for Parker — who takes over as the school’s artistic director in September — to conduct all-important workshops for its 13 aspiring young students — 12 female and one male — who had come to try out.
The music was Carl Orff’s “Carmina Burana,” and Parker, 36, was teaching the sole male attendee the role of the “second seminarian,” who, in a dramatic flourish, casts off his life of piety in favor of one of, well, mad debauchery.
“So next you run back across the stage and fall to your knees and slide for maybe two or three meters,” Parker said — a smile gradually creeping across his face as he looked up at his earnest young protege. “And then go up and turn, do a cartwheel — either a single- or double-handed cartwheel is fine — and go back.”
Cartwheel? Seventeen-year-old Yujin Muraishi didn’t say anything, but as the stern look of concentration that had marked his face all morning was suddenly replaced by a broad smile, it was clear what he was thinking. He was like Alice on the brink of the rabbit hole.
Later, Muraishi explained that it was precisely because of the opportunity to do dances as dynamic and uncharacteristic of classical ballet as “Carmina Burana” — and particularly this version by British choreographer David Bintley (who just happens to be the artistic director of Birmingham Royal Ballet and co-artistic director of the New National Theatre Ballet, Tokyo) — that he wanted to go and study in Britain.
“There is something about the study there that you can’t attain in Japan,” he said.
And it wasn’t just the boys who were impressed with Parker’s audition workshop. As Muraishi gave his all to the athletic demands of the second seminarian, the 12 girls looked on wearing expressions that ran the gamut from envy to wonder.
One of them, Maho Tazawa, a 17-year-old from Chigasaki, Kanagawa Prefecture, echoed Muraishi’s sentiment. Not only did she want to add such dynamic dance to her solid classical repertoire, but after graduating from a school in Europe — possibly Elmhurst — she wanted to return to Japan to join the New National Theatre Ballet. But of course the first step in Tazawa’s career plan was to get into a school like Elmhurst, which has 189 places for students aged 11 to 19 and is the oldest vocational classical ballet school in Britain — and the official associate school of Birmingham Royal Ballet.
Parker explained that the school had never held auditions outside of Britain before, but that if things went well he hoped to do more of them in the future.
“It’s definitely a good way to get the attention of good students,” he said.
Megumi Shike, of ballet studio, J Ballet Arts Ilunga in Shibuya, central Tokyo, which hosted the auditions, said a few other European schools hold auditions in Japan, but usually they are conducted by Japanese staff.
“I think this is the first time actual staff from the school have come to see the auditions themselves,” she said.
Prior to breaking into “Carmina Burana,” Parker and his assistant director, Denise Whiteman, had sat and watched as Shike led the attendees through a standard ballet class.
Beginning with barre work — various moves performed while using a horizontal bar for balance — the dancers had gradually been led into small routines involving plies, leaps and arabesques — the latter a pose with the body and one arm tilted forward to counterbalance a leg pointed backward, either down with just the toe touching the ground or raised horizontally to make a right angle with the standing leg — or, incredibly, raised upright in a kind of vertical splits.
However, Parker and Whiteman also had a range of more basic things to check in the dancers: physique and proportions; turnout (the ability to twist the legs at the hip so that both the knees and feet face outward); flexibility; coordination; stance; and also particular practiced classical ballet moves such as pirouettes.
Seemingly, the standard of the prospective students, who ranged in age from 13 to 17 (Elmhurst offers a 5-year course for 11- to 16-year-olds and a 3-year diploma for older students), was very high.
“It sounds like a stereotype to say this of the Japanese dancers, but the technical skills are generally extremely high,” Parker said. “They must have something in the water over here!”
Still, it was more than just technical proficiency that Parker and Whiteman were after.
“Let’s face it, this is an extremely tough profession, so it’s a strength of will that is really the key to whether or not they carry through with it,” said the star often likened to the title character in the 2000 film “Billy Elliot,” as both overcame the considerable hurdles of being from poor working-class families in the North of England to realize their dreams through winning places at the Royal Ballet School in London.
Thus for all the attendees’ delicate turns and graceful tilts of the neck and arms, it was their eyes that Parker was watching most closely.
“You are looking for that focus, hunger, concentration — a work ethic,” he said. “As they say, the eye is the window into the soul.”
He recalled his own experiences as a student. “My teacher told me I’d never make it,” he said. “It was through sheer willpower and hard work that I could carve a career for myself.”
That focus is doubly necessary for the five or so students who Parker expected would be accepted from Japan — because they will have the added challenge of being alone and a long way from home at a school where the full academic curriculum is conducted entirely in English.
Shike, who herself studied in Britain when she was in her early 20s, explained that ballet teachers in Japan tend to become like surrogate-mother figures for their students.
“The teachers here are so kind and so focused on their students,” she said. “But over there, the kids will be just one in a very dedicated group. It will be tough, and, yes, there will be a lot of homesickness and tears.”
Still, none of the auditionees seemed too concerned.
“This is what I want to do, so, I’m not worried at all,” said Tazawa.
And of course, in addition to a hunger to succeed and an ability to withstand homesickness, Parker was also looking in his students for a willingness to take on new challenges — such as cartwheels.
“These days, contemporary choreographers like Bintley put so many demands on dancers,” he said. “As a school we have to be preparing our students for that.”
And it seems that although there has always been a stereotype of Japan being able to produce technically proficient, if slightly rigid and unemotional, dancers, the younger generation is keen to break that mold.
Still dripping with sweat after throwing himself into his “Carmina Burana” routine — well-executed cartwheel and all — Muraishi said he had been surprised by the content of the dance, but that he’d loved it anyway. “This is it,” he said. “This is what I want to do, and there isn’t much like this happening in Japanese ballet.”
Early on in the sequence, Parker explained to Muraishi that the seminarian must run toward the audience, tear off his clerical dog collar and fling it aside.
“I want to see the anger in your face, as you tear it off and throw it away — aargh !” Parker growled.
“Aargh,” Muraishi growled in return, before launching into the dance. And although he probably wasn’t aware of it himself, it looked a lot like Muraishi was already throwing off many of the restrictions he’d learned to date and was launching body and soul into something entirely new and different.