The splendid news about two Japanese high school students’ outstanding achievement swept around the world this month.
Not only did 17-year-old Haruo Niyama from Nagano Prefecture win first prize at the super-prestigious annual Prix de Lausanne competition for young amateur classical ballet dancers, but 15-year-old Sae Maeda from Yokohama came second among the 20 finalists.
In so doing, Niyama posted a joyous landmark in Japan as the first home-grown male dancer to win at Lausanne since Tetsuya Kumakawa’s historic pioneering triumph there in 1989, 25 years ago. And, well aware of the significance, Kumakawa immediately commented: “I was thrilled to hear the news as it shows the potential of Japanese dancers has finally blossomed.”
However, the superstar founder of K-Ballet and its schools might also have thought: “Soon, I hope one of my pupils will be in the same spotlight in Switzerland.”
Now, in fact, Kumakawa runs five ballet schools for children aged from 4 to mid-teens, though some have classes for adults — three in Tokyo and ones in Yokohama and Fukuoka.
Last late summer, I visited the main K-Ballet school in the leafy residential Koishikawa district of Bunkyo Ward. In a studio there, 30-odd dancers in their early teens were assembled for an intensive five days of rehearsal for the Tokyo run of “The Nutcracker” being staged from Feb. 20 by the world-famous American Ballet Theatre, with whom they had been invited to dance.
As I entered, guest ABT instructor Harriet Clark was enthusiastically providing detailed choreography and teaching her young charges how to express the excitement of a special Christmas night that’s a key part of the ballet.
During a short break, two ballerinas named Risa and Coco echoed each other as they shyly explained, “Today, under Clark-sensei, we enjoyed being able to express our feelings more openly than in routine lessons. In fact, I almost forgot it was a ballet performance when I was acting in a Christmas party scene with my mates.”
Turning to their “sensei,” I asked Clark what she thought about her Japanese pupils.
“They are so dedicated, so disciplined and so quick. They learned almost everything in three days and they are very professional. They do what I say right away,” she said.
“Japanese kids are a bit more focused than Americans. But I do wish they could be a bit more naughty like American kids (laugh) — especially in this fantasy and fun production.”
Moving on, I met Rito, one of 10 boy dancers in the group. He said he really enjoyed rehearsing a swordfighting scene, and he wants to be like Kumakawa, “who is so elegant as well as having incredible skills.”
Remarkably, he then said he realized he needed to develop his ability to express himself further, explaining, “While K-ballet puts emphasis on the technical part of dancing, this special rehearsal is focused more on listening to the music carefully and dancing in alignment with it. So that was difficult for me, but it’s very interesting.”
Another boy dancer, named Shuto, said, “Through dancing in a full-scale ballet, I learned today how to interpret the music precisely in the flow of a story. My ballet idol is ABT’s Daniil Simkin and I want to be a professional dancer like him one day.”
Seeking out Clark again and putting some of these students’ comments to her, she repeated that there are some differences between Japan and America — but stressed that the basics are the same
“All kids love ballet, and it’s very important we all keep high expectations and standards for the most beautiful ballet possible — and I am so impressed by this beautiful school in Japan, which is doing all that.”
Here’s hoping it won’t be very long before young K-Ballet School students start putting in prize-winning performances at the Prix de Lausanne — and beyond.