Takarazuka dances to a different tune

by Mika Eglinton

Special To The Japan Times

What happens when Takarazuka, Japan’s longest-running all-female theater troupe, takes on Masayuki Suo’s hit movie “Shall We Dance?,” which won 14 Japanese Academy Awards in 1996 and aired internationally in 16 countries?

There must have been tremendous pressure for director Naoko Koyanagi to adapt and direct “Shall We Dance?,” which marks the end of the company’s 99th season at the Takarazuka Grand Theater in Hyogo Prefecture and the beginning of its centennial year anniversary and new season at the Tokyo Takarazuka Theater. Despite the fact that only two years have passed since Koyanagi debuted at the Grand Theater, the Snow Troupe (Yuki gumi) has, under her control, transformed the film into a hilarious metatheatrical musical drama typical of Takarazuka style.

As is often the case with Takarazuka, “Shall We Dance?” is a unique blend of East and West, combining aspects of the original film, starring Koji Yakusho, and its 2004 American remake directed by Peter Chelsom and starring Richard Gere. While the plot is faithful to Suo’s original, the rest is completely Westernized. The characters inhabit a high-tech world in contemporary America and are given English names. There are also numerous references to nostalgic Americana, including set backdrops that recall scenes from the paintings of Edward Hopper.

Just like in Suo’s film, the Takarazuka show starts with a close-up of the inscription above the stage in Britain’s famous Blackpool Tower ballroom: “Bid me discourse, I will enchant thine ear”, a quotation from Williiam Shakespeare’s “Venus and Adonis.” Projected on the back of the stage is a video of a ballroom dancing competition accompanied by voice-over commentary that explains the history of this dance form. As the cast begins to dance, this kaleidoscopic and enchanting musical show about modern dance gets into full swing.

The protagonist Hailey Hartz, played by Takarazuka top star Kazuho So, is a “salaryman,” who works at a respectable company and lives with devoted housewife Jocelyn (Ayu Manaka) and his teenage daughter in a newly acquired house in suburban America. Despite a relatively successful career, Hailey begins to feel that his passion and excitement for life has fallen prey to the humdrum of daily routine.

One evening, on his commute home, he spots a beautiful woman with a melancholic expression looking out from a window in a dance studio. Attracted by her and in search of a new challenge, Hailey decides to open the door. The beauty turns out to be dance instructor Ella (Seina Sagiri), daughter of the studio’s owner, and a famous yet failed contender at the Blackpool ballroom competition.

Hailey goes on to discover that his colleague Donny Curtis (Seika Yumeno) is a regular among the eccentric members that frequent the dance studio. Mocked at work for his incompetence and peculiar manners, Donny enjoys a secret life as a ballroom dancer who wears an Afro wig and flashy 1960s attire.

Because ballroom dancing is regarded as embarrassing and even perverse in the world of the play, Hailey has to hide his new secret passion not only from his colleagues, but also from his family. Even after Ella rebuffs his advances, Hailey finds himself absorbed in the dance world and sets his sights on a competition. Through his passion for dance persuades Ella to return to Blackpool and re-enter the competition.

This production breaks with the Takarazuka tradition of dazzling and heroic protagonists by depicting the lives of “ordinary” men and women. Furthermore, it pushes some of the company’s lead actors out of their usual fixed male or female roles. As such, it is intriguing to watch lead male role So interpret a typical salaryman, who slowly learns how to dance alongside, Sagiri, also known for her portrayal of male characters, in the female role of Ella, who was played by ex-ballerina Tamiyo Kusakari in Suo’s film. Yumeno’s comical Donny is also outstanding and easily competes with Naoto Takenaka who played the character in the film version.

These role reversals, however, occur once more in the show’s ending Revue titled “Congratulations Takarazuka!!” and directed by Fujii Daisuke.. As its title indicates, this is a celebration of the company’s 100-year history and it brings together a range of dance and festival traditions from the French can-can to the Rio Carnival. Sagiri can be seen back in her speciality male role, while So appears in full dress as a female star or grande etoile. Thus the audience can enjoy the unusual contrast between their male and female depictions in these two main performers.

Takarazuka, which started 100 years ago, is well known for breaking norms in performance, but this production sees a company evolving out of, and challenging, its own tradition. In this sense, “Shall We Dance?” ushers in a new era for the all-female company.

“Shall We Dance?” runs at Takarazuka Grand Theater, a 10-min. walk from Takarazuka Station on the JR and Hankyu lines, till Dec. 12. It will then move to the Tokyo Takarazuka Theater, a 5-min walk from Yurakucho Station on the JR line and Hibiya Station on the Tokyo Metro Chiyoda and Hibiya lines, Jan. 2-Feb. 9. For more information, visit kageki.hankyu.co.jp