Last August, with summer sweltering the city, I met Yuriko Kajiya and Jared Matthews, two soloists from the New York-based American Ballet Theatre, one of the word’s top-four classical companies along with the Royal Ballet in London, Paris Opera Ballet and the Bolshoi in Moscow.
Both in their late 20s, Nagoya-native Kajiya and Houston, Texas-born Matthews were in Tokyo to dance a piece from “Giselle” together in a “Lausanne Gala” at the Aoyama Theatre — and also as PR ambassadors for ABT’s tour of Japan which finally curtains-up tonight with “The Nutcracker” at Bunkamura Orchard Hall in Shibuya.
As he explained then, Matthews took his first steps into the world of dance at age 8, when he he started to do tap like his hero, Gene Kelly. “He made dancing really cool even though it had a largely feminine image in the United States — especially in places like Texas, where I came from,” Matthews said. “Afterward that progressed to ballet, and in 2002 I was invited to join ABT.”
Coincidentally, Kajiya also started at age 8, at a ballet school in Nagoya — though she says it was just one of several hobby lessons at that time. Then, when she was 10, her father’s job took the family to Shanghai, where she attended the Shanghai Ballet School — and shone from the start. So, when her parents returned to Japan a year later, she stayed on with a six-year scholarship at the school, where she graduated top in her year.
After that, as Kajiya recalled, another turning point came when, “Taking advantage of winning a Prix de Lausanne Scholarship in 2000, I straightaway moved to Toronto to study at the National Ballet of Canada School.
“While I was dancing in China, I didn’t know much about other countries’ ballet situation, but after I moved to Canada, I got information from my classmates all the time,” she said. “Then one day I saw the (teen drama) movie ‘Center Stage,’ which showed young dancers’ emotional turmoil and growth process, and there were many ABT dancers in it — so that made me want to go there, and I passed an audition for the ABT Studio Company. A year later, I moved to the main company as an apprentice dancer.”
This year is Kajiya’s 12th at ABT where, as for Matthews, the final step up to principal dancer is still ahead.
As the company typically does an annual eight-week season at the Metropolitan Opera House, and otherwise tours nationally and overseas, she said, “If I didn’t like traveling, it would be hard, but I love to dance at different theaters in different places, and also I am so happy I can dance various repertoires, which is another of ABT’s strong points.”
Yet with entertainment now available at everyone’s fingertips, simply surviving is a challenge for even such acclaimed companies. In Matthews’ view, though, the key is to offer what is at the heart of all performing art.
“If someone goes to see a great piece of art, they want to feel something from it,” he explained. “People go to the theater to feel something, and that is really what ballet is about; it’s expression to movement. So if you present audiences with that, people definitely want to come back.”
But as he stressed, “That’s not just related to advanced technique or athletic skills. If you can give audiences magical moments — if you can make them feel something … that’s very important.”
Kajiya immediately added, “I feel young dancers now are becoming more robotic. That’s because the whole world is tending that way because people can do everything just by pressing a button — and that kind of thing is happening in ballet, too. So they don’t use any emotion, but just copy techniques they can see online — but ballet isn’t that kind of an art; you must have emotion in live performance.”
This time, ABT is collaborating with youngsters from the K-Ballet School in “The Nutcracker,” which is one of this tour’s three programs. Founded in Tokyo in 1999 by Tetsuya Kumakawa, the Royal Ballet’s first-ever Asian principal dancer — and another Lausanne winner in his youth — K-Ballet now runs five schools in Japan.
So when I asked Matthews, who has done lots of teaching both in America and Japan, to comment on this collaboration, he had no hesitation in saying, “In ‘The Nutcracker,’ kids are the big focal point of Act 1, so we need to make sure they do the rehearsals properly, and working with K-Ballet students is a big step for ABT.
“However, students in Japan are very focused and serious and they work very, very hard. For a teacher, that’s a great feeling because they always want to learn as much as possible. For example, when I’ve taught kids in a local studio here in the past, they never want to stop training, they never stop until I tell them, ‘That’s enough — time’s up!’ “
For Kajiya, of course, this is a homecoming, and she was keen to welcome her fans here to “The Nutcracker,” saying that though this is a Christmas standard, “It’s pure enjoyment for anyone at any time — and especially as this version newly created by ABT’s resident choreographer Alexei Ratmansky, which premiered in 2010, is full of jokes and fun.”
Adding that she is “so excited to dance in Japan,” she also offered wise words born of experience, saying, “My whole life has been devoted to ballet, but I always try to do my best in everything — because I don’t want to regret anything about myself later.”
“The Nutcracker” runs Feb. 20-22 and “All Star Gala” runs Feb. 25-26 at Orchard Hall in Shibuya. “Manon” runs Feb. 23 at Biwako Hall in Shiga; March 2 at Hyogo Performing Arts Center in Hyogo; and Feb. 27-March 1 at Tokyo Bunka Kaikan in Ueno. For details, call 03-5774-3040 or visit japanarts.co.jp.