‘New’ Royal Ballet spans the frontiers of dance

by Kris Kosaka

Special To The Japan Times

For the first time in three years, one of the world’s most esteemed ballet companies is bringing its talent to one of the world’s most appreciative audiences, as part of a tour that explores the parameters of dance.

Britain’s Royal Ballet will present its acclaimed new production, Christopher Wheeldon’s “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland,” at Tokyo Bunka Kaikan from July 5-7. The performances will also mark the ballet’s Asian premiere.

Balletomanes hungry for more traditional fare will have the option of seeing Anthony Dowell’s definitive production of “Swan Lake,” which will run July 12-14, as well as “A Gala Evening with The Royal Ballet” sandwiched between those two other works on July 10.

Three renowned veterans will leave the company after the Tokyo performances, but rising stars will also be on hand to reveal the hip new versatility of classical ballet today. The Royal Ballet’s new director, Kevin O’Hare, has said he hopes to “create 21st century classics,” and the overwhelming success of “Alice” — with new works and classical revivals planned for next season — seems to point the way toward him realizing his goal.

“The Royal Ballet has a very wide repertoire and I felt that by showing ‘Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland’ alongside ‘Swan Lake,’ our Japanese audience would be able to see some of the diversity within the company. I’m looking forward to seeing their reaction,” O’Hare tells The Japan Times. “The story of Alice is very popular in Japan and, as the ballet has been so successful at the Royal Opera House, I thought Tokyo would be the ideal place for its Asian premiere.”

An original production from 2011, “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” features music composed by Joby Talbot and designs by Bob Crowley. Wheeldon’s full-length work is also his first for the Royal Ballet in 16 years.

Principal dancer Steven McRae is enthusiastic about bringing the production to Japan so that audiences here can get a sense of where the company is headed.

“The ballet allows the company to show itself in a modern way,” he says. “The sets, the costumes, the music and the choreography all combine magically. I am excited to dance the role of the Mad Hatter in Japan as many in the audience have never seen me perform in this way. I love to tap dance and it has always been part of my life. The Mad Hatter role is very special for me.”

A tap-dancing Mad Hatter is just one of a flurry of fascinating characters doing their part in debunking the usually formal image of classical ballet — there’s the knavish antiprince, Jack (also danced on tour by McRae); the comedic White Rabbit; and a towering and wicked Queen of Hearts. The colorful and clever set design complements Wheeldon’s choreography. From doors that grow to tunnels that spin, dancers interacting with video screens or a giant mechanical Cheshire Cat, the production should engage everyone, even those new to ballet.

With all the energy that surrounds the modern look the Royal Ballet is exploring, there’s still plenty of beauty to be found in ballet’s so-called past, represented, of course, by “Swan Lake.” Principal Sarah Lamb, who will perform in Tokyo as both Alice and Odette/Odile in “Swan Lake,” says she enjoys the contrast and complexity of these characters.

“Alice is a young girl full of excitement and curiosity; Odette is a woman trapped in a Swan’s body yearning to be free,” she says. “The two heroines are so different — Alice is so natural and a very realistic person whereas Odette is almost a vision. Odette is classical purity and embodies the other world that ballet can communicate. Odile is the opposite of Odette but still classical perfection. Both ballets are difficult and require great stamina, but ‘Swan Lake’ will always be the ultimate test of a ballerina.”

Dowell’s interpretation of the 1895 revival by Lev Ivanov and Marius Petipa has become a Royal Ballet classic, with additional choreography by the renowned Frederick Ashton and David Bintley, current artistic director of the Birmingham Royal Ballet and the New National Theatre, Tokyo. Yolanda Sonnabend’s designs, inspired by the work of Carl Fabergé, create an ethereal setting of supernatural splendor to complement the romantic tale. Ballet fans in Japan typically flock to the gorgeously tragic production, and this tour is no different with most seats already sold-out. Anticipation for “Alice” seems to match “Swan Lake,” however, and an additional performance of the former has been added for July 7.

Between the two full-length programs, the July 10 “Gala” also provides an opportunity to see the classical best alongside the newest in ballet. The past masters of choreography are represented with pieces from Ashton, George Balanchine and Kenneth MacMillan juxtaposed against the cutting-edge works of Wheeldon, Wayne McGregor and Liam Scarlett.

Although the tour promises many great moments in dance, two performances are of special interest: Alina Cojocaru and Johan Kobborg are set to reprise their lead roles in “Swan Lake” on July 12. The on-stage/off-stage couple will take their last bows for the Royal Ballet in Tokyo, as they will leave the company this year to pursue other artistic opportunities. Principal Leanne Benjamin, another highly acclaimed veteran, will retire from dance after a 21-year stint at the Royal Ballet when she enjoys a last curtain call on July 10 after the “Gala.” Benjamin will perform opposite Edward Watson in McGregor’s modern piece “Qualia.”

One of the ballerinas who will perform Alice, Yuhui Choe, has a special reason to look forward to the Japan tour. The 28-year-old is a fourth-generation Korean, who was born and raised in Fukuoka. She joined the Royal Ballet in 2002.

“Performing in Japan is special because every time I perform there, I go back to square one and see how far I have come in ballet,” Choe says. “Alice is one of my favorite roles, and I want to enjoy every moment out there. My family and friends will all be in the audience, (including) my grandmother who cannot travel far anymore; she has been looking forward to the tour since I found out about my performance in Japan.”

The Royal Ballet first visited Tokyo in 1975. Principals Lamb and McRae, both veterans of several Royal tours of Tokyo, say they appreciate the feeling of support they get here in particular.

“I’ve danced in Japan a number of times and my favorite part is the audience’s love and appreciation of our art,” Lamb says.

McRae feels the same: “The food, the people and the culture. When you travel abroad to work, it can be hard to perform at your best. However, whenever I travel to Japan, I feel that I am looked after and supported by the Japanese people. This allows myself and all the other artists to perform at the best of our abilities.”

Ballet’s artistry has undergone many changes to match the demands of modern entertainment, and O’Hare, in his first year directing the Royal Ballet, welcomes the challenges.

“Ballet has always been a very collaborative art form and it’s something which I’m very proud of,” he says. “I’d like to fill the Royal Opera House stage with the most talented artists of the 21st century — world-class dancers, choreographers, designers and musicians. I firmly believe in engaging new audiences in as many ways as possible, whether it be through traditional touring or more modern methods such as live cinema relays, large arena-style performances or even live Web-streaming from the Royal Opera House — all things we’ve initiated over the past couple of years.”

The Royal Ballet will perform at Tokyo Bunka Kaikan in Taito-ku. “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” runs July 5-7, “A Gala Evening with The Royal Ballet” takes place July 10, and “Swan Lake” runs July 12-14. Start times vary. Tickets cost between ¥7,000 and ¥22,000. For more information, visit the Japan Performing Arts Foundation website at www.nbs.or.jp or www.roh.org.uk/about/the-royal-ballet.