Jeté-ing from ballet to kitchen-sink drama

by Nobuko Tanaka

Special To The Japan Times

Though she’s moved from elegant arabesques to doing the washing up, former prima ballerina Tamiyo Kusakari is stealing the show in “Ani Kaeru (The Older Brother Returns),” a kitchen-sink drama playing every night through Sept. 1 at Tokyo Metropolitan Theatre in Ikebukuro.

For renowned writer/director Ai Nagai, this staging, in which Kusakari — a long-time star of the Asami Maki Ballet Company in Tokyo — plays a housewife named Mayumi, is a reprise of the work’s debut 14 years ago, when it won her the prestigious Kishida Kunio Award.

For Kusakari, 48, her role in this complex work is a challenging one. Mayumi is gradually alienated from those around her after her dubious brother in law turns up to stay with them, saying he’s quit his reprehensible ways. In the face of the gossip this fuels around her, she experiences disgust at the behavior of others, while at the same time having to resist the temptation to compromise her own values in order to avoid being bullied or frozen out of group-based Japanese society.

Nagai comments in the program to the play that she thinks Kusakari — who acts with her back as ramrod-straight as in her ballet days — is perhaps similar in character to Mayumi, who hates both compromise and disharmony. She puts this down to the fact that Kusakari, who started ballet at age 8 and for two decades remained at the top in Japan until her 2009 retirement, must have overcome countless difficulties in the regimented ballet world.

Last month, at a downtown rehearsal studio, Kusakari welcomed The Japan Times with the warmest of greetings and talked about her contribution to the vitality of Nagai’s work on stage.

Many ballet dancers turn to teaching when they retire. Did you ever consider doing that, too?

If there were public ballet schools in Japan, I might be interested in teaching there. There is the New National Theater (ballet training program) in Tokyo, but the public-art sectors here don’t work as well as they do in many foreign countries. This means retired dancers generally have to open their own schools, and I’ve always been uncomfortable about Japan’s arts policy being led by the private sector.

I also decided I wanted to make my mark in other fields, as I’ve always been determined to be a professional performer. I believe it’s that which has kept me moving forward so far.

In 1996 when I was in my first film, “Shall We Dance?” — which was the first time I’d ever acted — I didn’t think that it was my cup of tea. But later, when I started to think about retiring as a ballerina, I realized that acting was actually what I wanted to do. So, from then on that aim became the focus of my determination and I managed to switch over smoothly.

In terms of performance, aside from dancing, what are the major differences between ballet and theater?

In particular, I feel that the creative process is quite different. In ballet, a huge part of the entire performance depends on the dancers’ physical and expressive ability. With acting, however, though the actors are very important, the performance also relies heavily on the text — the actual words in a script.

It also takes a long time to develop a play for the stage. For example, the process of working with other actors and the director to arrive at a shared understanding that we can work on creating together. So, theater isn’t as straightforward.

Nonetheless, I think the final goal is the same for ballet and theater — and that is how much the staging can stimulate the imagination of both the audience and the performers. That’s the biggest and final goal of any live performance: to provide unexpected, intangible experiences for audiences. That is a great delight of live performance.

How are the rehearsals for “Ani Kaeru” going?

Though the play is presented as a domestic family drama, it’s a very intellectual, cynical and thought-provoking work. That makes it interesting to me, though it also makes it difficult to act.

Mayumi, the young wife who I play, says quite sarcastic things about her husband’s family, and from just reading the script I thought at first it would sound too nasty coming from an ordinary housewife. But Nagai explained that people’s conversations in real life are actually quite often nasty and harsh — but if I were to say those lines in as normal a tone as possible, it would work effectively as sarcastic drama. So that’s what I do and it feels right.

Nagai also said that this work is a “choice-in-life” drama in which the upright woman Mayumi is faced with an unreasonable reality that she must puzzle over as she decides the future course of her life. I am quite familiar with that kind of thing already, as I have spent a lot of time becoming acquainted with social contradiction in the ballet. So I am tougher than Mayumi. (Laughs)

When you retired in 2009, your final dance was a special program of works by (French artist) Roland Petit, your favorite choreographer. Do you think the ballet world in Japan has changed since then?

I worked in a closed world that was full of fixed invisible rules, one that was Japanese group-mentality thing ruled. So I tried to work with foreign artists as much as possible when I was dancing. I think lots of top Japanese artists nowadays, including dancers and drama people, are looking to actively collaborate with foreign artists and work with overseas companies.

Japanese artists can’t just stay in Japan anymore. It’s getting more difficult to move forward without knowing what’s happening outside the country and being stimulated by other cultures. Through my experience of working with foreign artists, I learned real professionalism from them — and that helped make me mentally stronger to take on the challenge of being an actress.

You certainly have challenged yourself. As an actress, you haven’t just repeatedly slipped into similar roles and plays. You’ve been in Shakespeare’s “Henry VI,” an original modern play and also a Broadway musical. Does nothing phase you?

If I think I may be able to do something, then I’ll try it without any hesitation. And I believe that such challenges definitely expand my opportunities for the future.

The challenge this time is that “Ani Kaeru” is a dialog-focused play, but even so I have set myself a target to reach. I’d like, at some point, to reach the same point I did in dancing.

As a prima ballerina, I sometimes worked out the character I was portraying and presented it through dance as I, myself, imagined it. I would like to get to a similar state on stage with this play. In other words, I want to become free on stage. If performers can be free, then it’s so satisfying for them, and audience response to the kind of expression that creates is so powerful.

“Ani Kaeru (The Older Brother Returns)” runs till Sept. 1 at Tokyo Metropolitan Theatre, opposite the West Exit of JR Ikebukuro Station. It then tours 14 regional theaters till Oct. 4. For more information, call Nitosha at 03-5468-8113 or visit www.nitosha.net or www.geigeki.jp.