Opening-night thrills with the NNTB

by Ayako Takahashi

Special To The Japan Times

Although ballet-goers in Japan tend to prefer narrative works, the trio of edgy and abstract pieces from the 20th century to the present showcased last week by the New National Theatre Ballet (NNTB) may well have some revising their preferences.

Titled “Symphony in Three Movements,” the program — whose opening night I attended — comprised “Escaping the Weight of Darkness” by the young U.S. star Jessica Lang, “Grosse Fuge” by the Dutch octogenarian Hans van Manen and “Symphony in Three Movements” by the iconic Russian-born “father of American ballet,” George Balanchine (1904-83).

“Escaping the Weight of Darkness,” made especially for this NNTB production, began with dancers standing up from a reclining position beneath a great number of luminescent objects. Ayako Ono’s long pas de bourrées silently cut across the space, and together with Yui Yonezawa, Yudai Fukuoka and Tetsuo Kaikawa, the dance was soon brimming with emotion.

Notably, too, the male dancers’ dynamic leaps and smooth but speedy movements with the curtain only slightly raised so just the legs were visible, further heightened the excitement, while in the finale all the dancers slowly moved upstage as the curtain quietly came down.

This work was received with cheers from the audience — acclaim surely due in part to the way the choreographer took the dancers’ dispositions and skills into consideration to weave an impressive piece without taxing them. This was a bespoke effectiveness unique to a world premiere with an original cast.

Next, presented with a Beethoven string quartet, came van Manen’s well-known 1971 work, “Grosse Fuge,” that required the dancers to bring about the great composer’s sense of vibrant dynamics together with humor and sensuality. Perhaps it was because it was the opening night, but the movement on stage felt deliberate and stiff, and nuance was somewhat lacking, but the fact that they even tackled content requiring such mature expressive power will surely be great succor for the future.

Last came “Symphony in Three Movements,” a 1972 work by one of the great choreographers of the 20th century, who is also known as the creator of the “plotless ballet.”

The NNTB has already staged several Balanchine pieces, but this one is notably complicated. To music by Igor Stravinsky, the soloists slice through formations made by the corps de ballet, constituting a multitiered creation. This required the dancers to be well-organized without restraining themselves, and to express a primitive strength. In this respect, the NNTB’s ensemble, while not exactly wild, displayed a high degree of perfection and ambition of movement. At the start, Akimitsu Yahata executed a flamboyant jump, the lively Kayo Nagata was also charming, and the duet by the musically adept Ayako Ono and Yudai Fukuoka gave a fine sense of the drama between a man and a woman. The last scene with the soloists and corps de ballet together was a magnificent spectacle.

As the evening’s performances clearly displayed, even abstract works can evoke emotions equal to those of narrative ballet, and it is to be hoped that the NNTB will continue to stage such storyless dramatic works alongside the classics.

This article was written in Japanese for The Japan Times and translated by Claire Tanaka.