Kumakawa blends ballet and business — with panache

by Kris Kosaka

Special To The Japan Times

Being good at business may be “the most fascinating art,” as Andy Warhol said — and few likely know that better than Tetsuya Kumakawa, dancer extraordinaire turned extraordinary businessman.

Once the darling prodigy of The Royal Ballet as the first Asian dancer and youngest soloist to ever grace its Covent Garden stage in London, Kumakawa continues to amaze audiences with his sublime form and signature leaps. Yet now, nearly 25 years after winning a gold medal at ballet’s prestigious Prix de Lausanne, it is his savvy business sense that garners growing applause off-stage.

Since returning to Japan from the Royal Ballet in 1999 to start his K-Ballet company in Tokyo, Hokkaido-born Kumakawa has industriously expanded his artistic domain. With five ballet schools across the nation, from Yokohama to Fukuoka, his realm extends into adult classes in dance and a company named Body Alignment U-Be that features massage and wellness services.

Named in January 2012 as artistic director of the prestigeous Bunkamura Orchard Hall in Tokyo, Kumakawa, 41, was this year awarded the Medal of Honor (Purple Ribbon) by the Japanese government for his contributions in art and business.

Yet in speaking with The Japan Times recently, just off a nine-show run by K-Ballet of that ultimate Christmas classic, “The Nutcracker,” Kumakawa was in no doubt that his primary aim is “to elevate classical ballet culture in Japan.”

“It is my duty to spread a wonderful culture, and not just for professional dancers. Everyone who comes to watch my performances, they each have their own drama just to live and survive life. To be away from the stress of that reality for a few hours; it is a treasure. So why not make it a daily routine for people pursuing it as a pleasure? I even have a student who is 80 years old, dancing each week to wondrous classical music.”

The business-savvy maestro continued: “Ballet is not considered a great art here in Japan compared to musicians or painters or novelists. Dancing or ballet is a sort of pretty hobby. I must always be dignified and strong in my drive to convince people that ballet is the greatest art form of all.

“It combines all the arts; it includes painting, fashion design, architecture, classical music, human body art, history and literature. Each art form is represented within one single ballet. Everything I do is trying to increase the position of the dance world within the larger world of the arts.”

For Kumakawa, it seems, business awareness came instinctually.

“I never aimed to be the director of a company,” he said rather disarmingly. “My intention was to make successful performances as a dancer, and I happened to be in the position to be a director, since the market in Japan recognized my name. I was always just a dancer, dancing because I love it.”

But he also realized the importance of starting a school to support the future of his fledgling company: “Wherever you are, fundamentally ballet’s base is the same, but the stylistic approach is different and the exact positioning is different. I felt strongly that I needed to establish a school in order to establish a distinct K-Ballet style.”

Fans of Warhol would call it a brand, but whatever the name, it’s worked. “More than half our dancers now come from one of my schools, and they already have a K-Ballet style,” he says. “It is important to train dancers early, not only technically but in character dance and mime, to provide a different approach for Japanese students that will be more aesthetically suitable in a Western art.”

Kumakawa smiles. “We call it a beauty of Japanese aesthetics to keep emotion inside, but that’s the wrong approach in my business.”

As for the future, he’s in no doubt it holds enormous potential in Japan. “Ballet is a big business and there’s a lot of undiscovered areas for the dance market in Japan,” he observes — while making it clear he will remain focused on his realm of expertise.

“Because I grew up in the classical ballet world, I am a classical ballet dancer. My intention is to carry on as a classical dancer,” he insists, while also recognizing the beauty and popularity of contemporary dance. Nonetheless, he says that “every now and then, K-Ballet will put on contemporary pieces to help improve our dancers’ overall skill. But I would say classical ballet is the most difficult body art of all, and K-Ballet is heading toward becoming expert in that.”

As the head of a private company with no funding from the Japanese government, Kumakawa admits to feeling business pressures — but he says the pressure from past greats of ballet weighs heavier.

“Whatever I am working on, I always feel someone watching me from heaven, an icon of ballet asking me, ‘Are you doing the right thing for ballet?’ It could be (Rudolf) Nureyev or (Marius) Petipa. As I matured as a dancer, I realized I have been given this place in the arts by the former great artists.”

Clearly, living up to those lofty icons challenges Kumakawa far beyond the stage or board meetings. As he points out, “dance is unique, in that once your mind becomes mature, your physicality lessens, so it is a mismatch compared to painters or sculptors.” Rising above this “mismatch” to best lead his company will be his next challenge.

Even with his success in the business of dance, Kumakawa cautions against thinking too much: “My philosophy is not to become a philosopher. I want to teach children, adults, fans, my dancers and my staff — ‘Express art and express emotion.’ They should each become a poet instead of a philosopher.

Sometimes I do have to step back and see myself from the outside, to cleverly evaluate where I stand exactly as an artist and as a market object. I employ many people, so I have to see myself from a distance as I never used to. I used to do whatever my heart said, but now I have to think before I feel.

“The theater and stage are absolutely magical places. It is a privilege to offer fans a place to experience the pleasure of this art.”

Kumakawa looks forward to K-Ballet’s March production of “La Bayadère” — his debut ballet as a first soloist with the Royal Ballet in 1991, when he literally sprang to fame dancing the role of the Bronze Idol.

Tickets for “La Bayadère,” which is being performed as a celebration of K-Ballet’s 15th anniversary, went on sale Dec. 15. For more information, visit www.k-ballet.co.jp/performances/2014-labayadere.