Event akin to 'Hall of Fame' for dancers

World Ballet Festival shows how Japan has jetéd its way onto the world stage

by Kris Kosaka

Special To The Japan Times

Ballet lovers faced a difficult choice this week when two productions of “Don Quixote” were performed in Tokyo. The shows heralded the opening of the 13th World Ballet Festival, whose main program began Thursday and closes with a Special Gala on Aug. 16.

Fans deliberated between watching acclaimed veterans Tamara Rojo and Steven McRae perform Sunday or waiting for Monday’s show featuring rising stars Natalia Osipova and Ivan Vasiliev. Rojo, appointed this past April as the English National Ballet’s artistic director, has twirled atop the dance world as a principal for the Royal Ballet since 2000. McRae, known for his precision footwork, is also one of the Royal Ballet’s top draws.

On the other hand, real-life partners Osipova and Vasiliev are former stars with the Bolshoi Ballet in Moscow who joined the Mikhaiovsjky Ballet in St. Petersburg, Russia, in December. For ballet fans on a budget, the choice between the two equally sublime selections is an exquisite quandary requiring careful consideration.

All four dancers will stay in Japan for the duration of the festival, and their talent and commitment highlight what the triannual World Ballet Festival has to offer: top-tier performances for two solid weeks of dance. Six artistic directors and 38 principal dancers from 17 countries take the stage at the Tokyo Bunka Kaikan, presenting two full-length ballets and more than 30 different ensemble pieces.

Two programs form the main portion of the festival. The “A” Program features 17 different works and runs until Aug. 5, while the “B” Program features 18 different works and runs Aug. 11-14. Both programs showcase a range of ballet styles from contemporary to classical. Sandwiched in between them will be a full-length production of “La Bayadere” with Diana Vishneva and Marcelo Gomes on Aug. 7, and with Alina Cojocaru and Johan Kobborg on Aug. 8. Both performances are set to feature the 24-year-old, Russian-born rising star Danil Simkin as the Bronze Idol.

For the Special Gala that ends the festival, all the dancers will perform in drag — a show that Rojo tells The Japan Times is something she has loved in the past.

“Seeing the men perform on point and partnering some of them in the ‘funny gala’ is truly the funniest experience I have had on stage in my career,” she says.

Top talent and a plethora of choice haven’t always flowered in Japan’s ballet world. Neither has there been an atmosphere in which home-grown dancers could blossom. In 1974, Yoko Morishita blazed a trail that took her to Europe where she won gold at the International Ballet Competition Varna in Bulgaria. She achieved worldwide success, and was partnered by the legendary Rudolf Nureyev in a performance at Queen Elizabeth’s silver jubilee in 1977.

However, Tadatsugu Sasaki knew one star alone could not light the way for Japan. After a decade working as a stage manager for ballet, opera and drama, Sasaki successfully achieved a dream when he founded the Tokyo Ballet in 1964. It quickly forged a reputation for excellence in dance. Moreover, Sasaki established the precedent of overseas touring for Tokyo Ballet, which was rare in Japan at the time (and is still uncommon now). By frequently inviting guest soloists from around the world, Sasaki’s goal of creating an internationally recognized company seemed assured.

He believed, however, Tokyo Ballet could never truly achieve greatness unless the entire culture of ballet in Japan rose to a level that equaled what it was overseas. Working first with the Min-On Concert Association, he imagined a way to educate audiences while at the same time providing additional opportunities for young dancers. Many variables come into play when you set out to foster a new way of thinking, but Sasaki thought he could manage it by creating the World Ballet Festival, in 1976.

That first festival was not without mishap. Rehearsal times were mixed up and Sasaki himself lost his voice due to the stress, relying on scribbled notes of instruction instead. In addition, the curtain catastrophically closed unexpectedly before three of the world’s most acclaimed ballerinas — Margot Fonteyn, Alicia Alonso and Maya Plisetskaya — could take their bows. Nonetheless, critics deemed it a success.

Sasaki turns 80 next year, and his lingering ill health makes each festival increasingly significant. Norio Takahashi, administrative director to Tokyo Ballet, started with NBS Japan Performing Arts Foundation and Sasaki’s own production company, and was with him for the inaugural festival. He credits Sasaki’s determination and expert eye for ballet’s intricate artistry for the continuing success of the event.

“He approached veteran dancers and persuaded them to pitch in to help for the sake of ballet in Japan,” Takahashi says. “He also went all over the world, and was quick to discover new talent.”

Sasaki penned four books on his experiences as a producer of ballet and opera in Japan. Sasaki often emphasizes, throughout his works, the importance of the audience and of knowing the audience’s side to “fully understand the effort and sacrifice the audience made to come to the performances.”

The dancers themselves are also vocal supporters of the event. Manuel Legris, former principal for the Paris Opera Ballet and current artistic director of the Vienna State Ballet, will make his ninth consecutive appearance at the festival, spanning more than 20 years of commitment. Legris says the festival reveals how “the world of ballet has changed in general, as the new generation of dancers live in a different world now; the evolution of dance, on a technical side, has also changed. The thing that has not changed is the friendly atmosphere between the dancers and the great respect they have for each other.”

Matthew Golding, principal of the Dutch National Ballet and a rising international star says, “There are so many amazingly talented dancers all performing on one stage. I’m really a big fan of so many of the dancers who will be there, and to be partnering and sharing the stage with Mizuka Ueno (Tokyo Ballet principal dancer) is something very special for me.”

Sasaki’s knack for spotting new talent is what landed Simkin a spot at the 12th edition of the festival. No dancer performs at the World Ballet Festival without an invitation from Sasaki himself, and Simkin has received his second one this year.

“I consider the World Ballet Festival a Hall of Fame for the ballet world,” he says. “I felt deeply humbled to receive my invitation, and after the invitation, many things changed for me. I joined (the) American Ballet Theatre in New York and continued to expand my career as a guest artist in many places.

“I am looking forward to seeing all my friends from different parts of the world again. … I feel like nowhere else in the world is ballet appreciated as much as in Japan.”

The World Ballet Festival runs through Aug. 16 at Tokyo Bunka Kaikan in Taito-ku, Tokyo. Tickets for all shows range greatly in price. For more information, visit www.nbs.or.jp. NHK will broadcast the festival on television in November, and the dancers will participate in a special auction titled, “Standing by the people of East Japan.” For more information, visit www.nbs.or.jp/blog/news/contents/renew/13-6.html#001567 (Japanese only).