Long before baseball’s Ichiro Suzuki or soccer’s Hidetoshi Nakata became stars overseas, in 1987 a 15-year-old boy from Asahikawa in Hokkaido flew to London on his way to taking the ballet world by storm just a few years later.
After graduating from the Royal Ballet School there, Tetsuya Kumakawa was taken on by the Royal Ballet Company and soon rose through the ranks from the corps de ballet to become the first-ever Asian principal dancer with the Covent Garden-based company. There, on the splendid Opera House stage, Kumakawa gained a huge and devoted following, for whom his magnificent and beautiful high jumps, and his athletic but graceful male dancing style created an indelible impression.
To the disappointment of so many, though, Ferrari-driving “Teddy” — as he came to be known with affection in London (from the “kuma” in his name, which means “bear”) — then unexpectedly left the Royal Ballet in 1998 and returned to Japan.
Back home, he has undertaken to do no less than reform the Japanese ballet world — and in this, too, especially through the K Ballet Company and a school he founded — he is already well on the way to succeeding.
Indeed, by harnessing his own charismatic appeal to a fresh and enterprising approach to business — and by bringing over top dancers who are old friends from England, as well as specialists such as stage and costume designer Yolanda Sonnabend — Kumakawa has in just a few years managed to project ballet to the center stage of Japan’s entertainment world. In the process, he has also taken it out of the rarefied shadows in which it was previously the domain of a clique of devoted ballet afficionadoes.
But just how did Kumakawa manage to break through the barrier between East and West in the ballet world? Why did he decide to withdraw from the spotlight when he did at the Royal Ballet? How did he find Japan upon his return? And how does he see his future in an art where the threat of career-ending injury is ever-present, and few manage to perform at their best long after their mid-30s?
Despite the pressures of preparing for K-Ballet’s long winter tour of Japan with “Don Quixote,” these were just a few of the questions Kumakawa answered in this rare, exclusive interview for The Japan Times.
Why did you start learning ballet?
I was lucky, because my cousin was learning ballet at a private school in Sapporo and from the age of 7 or 8 I sometimes visited there and went to see the pupils’ stage performances. Then, when I was 10, the ballet teacher told me that they wouldn’t let me in the school anymore unless I started to do ballet in earnest. Of course that was a joke, but I took it seriously — and so I decided to do ballet.
In those days, though, I didn’t just do ballet. I went to the ballet school twice a week, but I was also absorbed in baseball, kendo, drawing and learning English. However, ultimately it was ballet I stayed with. In Hokkaido, ballet was such a minority thing that not so many children actually knew about it, and so I wasn’t bullied by the other boys because of it. Also, I was quite an ordinary boy at school, except for being good at sports and doing ballet.
Then, when you were 15, you joined the Royal Ballet School (RBS) in London. Who’s decision was it for you to go there?
Of course, I talked about my intention to go abroad, but finally, my parents and family pushed me forward. Then, when I realized that the origin of ballet was not in Japan, I wanted to go to where it started. Also, when I had lessons from foreign guest tutors in Hokkaido, that reinforced my desire to go abroad. When Hans Meister came from Switzerland and gave a lesson in Hokkaido, he advised me to see the world, and he recommended that I go to the RBS in London or to the Canadian National Ballet School.
Were you surprised at his suggestion?
Yes, but honestly I was waiting for the chance, and actually I had attended foreign teachers’ lessons as often as possible in order to get the chance to advance abroad. If it was the Edo Period, I may have been Yoshida Shoin [1830-59], who always longed to go abroad and tried to stow away on one of the Black Ships in 1854, but was found and flung into prison. Or I probably would have died as a young samurai in the last days of the Tokugawa Shogunate. Though I loved Japan, of course, I aspired more to go to the birthplace of ballet.
When you moved to England at the age of 15, was that your first experience living abroad?
Yes it was, and it was also my first time living apart from my family. At the beginning, I stayed with the head of the junior association of the RBS for 16 months, and I was put in a class with 17- to 18-year-old dancers. After that, I joined the Royal Ballet Company and shared a flat with friends.
When I joined the class for the first time at 15, I decided to take advantage of my young age as much as possible rather than being shy. On the other hand, I lost my nerve a bit when I saw Westerners’ body condition, as they were tall and had long arms and legs, and I was small in the mirror. But I was never homesick and nor did I ever think about returning to Japan in those days.
You are on record saying that one of the most important encounters in your life was with the then Artistic Director of the Royal Ballet, Sir Anthony Dowell. Why was that?
In the ballet world, there is no points system. It is not like the world of sports, where you have record times or jumps, so each artistic director appreciates and chooses dancers according to their own artistic taste and sense. Of course, while highly skilled dancers stand out from the others, it is also a reality that the artistic director has a certain authority. Even if one dancer has the same technique as another, he could be taken off a role for several different reasons depending on the company’s circumstances. Fortunately, even though I was an Asian dancer, which was not a familiar thing for the Royal Ballet, Sir Anthony gave me a fair chance and he opened the door to a Japanese/Asian dancer for the first time in the Royal Ballet’s long history.
What other things have influenced you from your life in England?
I will always be proud that I was concerned with a small part of the history of Great Britain. As my second home, I was so pleased to participate in British culture, and I felt that even more strongly after I left England. I realized I was so influenced by the British manner, their pioneer spirit and willingness to be open to new possibilities. I also like European aristocratic culture, which is strongly connected to the ballet.
How did you feel when your dancing sparked a kind of Kumakawa boom among the London public?
I didn’t have any particularly special feeling, even though there were front-page articles about me in the London Evening Standard. In fact I was more moved when there were articles about me in local papers in Hokkaido, for example. That was because to dance at the Royal Ballet was not a special thing for me in those days. It was my daily work, so I accepted the media coverage as just a result of my work.
Japanese like to say “doryoku suru” (work harder than the others to succeed). Is that how you feel?
Ballet is not a world in which you can be a success just by working hard. Ballet is not as simple as that. It needs so many different elements, such as body structure and physique, upbringing and living environment, sense and taste and comprehension — and also aesthetic sense, of course. So a person cannot succeed just with the athletic aspect.
When did you decide to leave the Royal Ballet?
In 1998, just before I actually left that October. My work balance between Japan and London was changing [he produced "Made in London" in Tokyo in 1996 with Adam Cooper and Jonathan Cope, friends from his time at the Royal Ballet], and I felt I was more interested in staging productions myself rather than being a dancer in a big company and dancing the roles I was given. That way I could put all my experience and feelings into creating a staging, and that was much more fascinating. So I have no regrets at all about my decision to leave the Royal Ballet at that time.
Had you wanted to stage your own productions since you first entered the RBS?
No, when I was in the RBS I thought the first and only thing I should do was to reach the top of the company as a dancer. After I became a principal and did the major repertoire, I was 26 years old, and then I thought I could still do something else. I thought I should do it “now” or it might be too late in five years. So, I founded K-Ballet at what I thought was the best time.
After a 10-year absence, what did you think about Japan?
At first I was a bit confused because it was almost 100 percent Japanese people everywhere. As Japan is a non-mixed-race country, it is quite a closed society, and I felt that afresh when I came back from England, which is so racially and culturally mixed. That is quite a superficial difference, but I also thought Japan was a spoilt country. People consumed everything so quickly and so much information bubbled everywhere. That speed seemed so attractive when I was seeing it from England, where time passed so slowly. Then when I came back to Tokyo, I was nearly sucked in by that huge amount of information and that speed of consumption. But I think Tokyo is a virtual, false world.
Now you are artistic director, company manager, a leading dancer and also a teacher. How do you manage all that?
I would blow up if I took those roles one-by-one and separately, so I regard my role or duty as one whole picture. From that point of view, I only do one thing. I think it is the same as an office work- er who has to make phone calls, as well as working on a computer and doing other things. My job is the same as that. Since I produced my first stage show, “Made in London,” in 1996, I have done something every year in Tokyo. Of course, I had difficulties at first, but I think that is the same as any other kind of company director running a business.
Soon after you came back to Japan, despite being idolized in a Kumakawa boom you seemed to just carry on steadily working. Did you expect that sort of boom and the success of K-Ballet that has followed?
No, I did not foresee the changes K-Ballet would go through. But as I have been working with different companies’ dancers and collaborating with people of different nationalities, gradually the company’s potential has broadened. I believed I could dance many different genres, so in those days I challenged myself in many different dance areas. Also, if I had stayed at the Royal Ballet, I probably would never have had chance to do such contemporary dance programs. Then, as K-Ballet developed, I explored a new dimension, different contemporary dances. However, I also felt there was a gap between what I wanted to do and what some fans wanted. On the other hand, doing contemporary dance helped me better understand the importance of the classical ballet program. Finally, I reached the conclusion that the classical ballet program was on a higher level than the other dances. I also started to think I had a certain responsibility because Japanese people would judge classical ballet itself from my work: If I did a mediocre staging, they would be disillusioned about classical ballet. Then, I looked at Japanese ballet, and thought nobody was tackling classical ballet head on. So, I decided I must do that.
Before K-Ballet, though, there were already many ballet companies in Japan, weren’t there?
Yes, but they were not noticed by the general public in any big way. Fortunately, I was recognized well enough by the public, so I could take it upon myself to introduce classical ballet properly — otherwise ballet culture would not move forward, I thought. I decided I didn’t want to take ballet fans who met ballet through me in another direction, such as contemporary dance. Just as I was moved the first time when I saw ballet as a child, I would like to be able to give the same impression to audiences now through my stagings. And just as a local boy like me from Hokkaido was greatly touched by the beauty of the ballet stage — including the costumes, music and sets etc. — so I believe that there must be a lot of people who could be hugely moved by ballet. This was my quite objective opinion, so I set out on a clear course. With this resolution, my fans followed and developed with K-Ballet, I believe.
When was that turning point?
Hmm, it was about 2001, when we started to do complete stagings from the classical repertoire and set up the K-Ballet studio here in Koishikawa in Tokyo’s Bunkyo Ward.
You recently started doing not only choreography, but also direction, art direction and costume design for your upcoming staging of “Don Quixote.” Did you study those at the RBS?
No, I go on instinct. Naturally, I do the choreography and the direction from experience, but I can do art design from my own sensibility, can’t I? I am just materializing visual images that were in my head on the stage.
In the sports world, technical progress has been quite dramatic. For example, in figure skating, most top-class competitors can do triple-rotation jumps, even though they were very rare 10 years ago. Is it the same in ballet?
If I define “progress,” it means the majority of people have to be able to do the technique. It does not mean that only one or a few people can do it. So in that sense, ballet has not progressed so much in the last 10 or 20 years. There were some exceptional people, such as Mischa [Mikhail Baryshnikov], Rudolf Nureyev or Vladimir Vasiliev, who refined ballet technique, but they are a handful of exceptions and most Japanese dancers, for instance, have not reached the same level of technique yet. I feel it’s quite difficult to make progress in ballet — this is my realization from my experience as an instructor and teacher.
Have you any plans to try a different artistic genre, such as acting or musicals, like your friend Adam Cooper has?
Actually, I believe that in my ballet career, I have been delving into different areas here and there from time to time. So, at one time I was absorbed in collaboration work with dancers from different genres, then I was absorbed by classical ballet, and then I did contemporary dance. Now I am coming back to classical ballet again. But now, having been back in classical ballet for a while, I have a vague plan to do some new collaboration work in the near future, although I don’t have any particular schedule yet. Also, if I came across an interesting script, I would like to act in a movie. I played Yumeiji Takehisa [1884-1934] — a popular painter and poet in the Taisho Romanesque period — in a movie called “Oyou” in 2002, as I wanted to relive Yumeji’s life.
In recent years particularly, it seems you have become so relaxed and full of confidence onstage, but have you ever wanted to run away from the theater before the curtain rose ?
Yes, I have. Of course, when I was in the Royal Ballet, for example, when I made my debut in “Don Quixote” at a time when I had little stage experience, or when I had to dance as an emergency stand-in in “La Bayadere” after only four days’ rehearsal. At that time I wished the curtain-up could be delayed for a week — but soon after I changed my mind, and I thought that since I had to be onstage, I wanted to dance immediately. Lately, as time has rolled on, I have realized that I have a completely different way of thinking from in my younger days. Then, I imagined doing this and that, and so many possibilities as a dancer. Now, though, I often think what else I “should” do in my remaining time as a dancer, and what it is my duty to do. So, I do not have any pressure now, as I know I have a duty to do so many things. On the other hand, I used to only care about my dancing, but now as a company director I care about the whole stage, so I feel more responsibility for the production than when I was dancing as a member of a dance company.
How about your recent New York stage, when K-Ballet Company debuted as the first Japanese ballet company at the Metropolitan Opera House on July 6 and 7 with you as the lead dancer?
We had been invited to perform in an “Ashton Celebration Gala” at the Lincoln Center Festival, together with the other eminent ballet companies such as the Royal Ballet, the Joffrey Ballet of Chicago and the Birmingham Royal Ballet. We drew especially loud applause for Frederick Ashton’s “Rhapsody” program, and I was so pleased. K-Ballet then got an invitation from the Met. It wasn’t a business deal; it was an honor to be invited to join a gala program commemorating 100 years since Sir Frederick Ashton’s birth. Normally, I switch my mind soon after any one staging is done, but that time a great joy and emotion filled my heart for a week. I had been on the Met stage several times before as a dancer, but this time I had a completely different sense of satisfaction when I saw my dancers there in New York, at the mecca of entertainment.
Does the K-Ballet School receive any subsidy from the government?
No. It’s a completely private school. It is difficult to get any subsidy from the government for this kind of pure ballet school. In Japan, there are too many private ballet classes and they are satisfied to be at the hobby level, and it is also too difficult to earn a living dancing ballet. I wish there were more professional ballet companies that ran their business properly so they could pay the dancers properly. Many ballet companies here just do one performance a year with the money made from their ballet school business.
At my main school in Koishikawa, all the students do an entrance audition and a physical body check, and we also interview their parents. Then, after one year, we test whether the student had progressed or not, and if the child had not improved enough, we would fail them. It’s quite hard, but I am not doing this school for the monthly tuition fees. More than half of K-Ballet’s dancers make their living from ballet alone, but we still supply ballet (pointe) shoes to them for free.
In the Japanese ballet world before, dancers usually had to buy a certain assigned number of performance tickets themselves, and some companies even made dancers pay to be with them. There were such bad traditions for a long time, but my company intends to change that, and actually I think the whole of the Japanese dance world is slowly moving toward a more international standard. To proclaim these things loudly and to lead the trend is one of my duties as well, and I think many people of about the same age agree with me that the old ways were unreasonable. Of course, I cannot pass on what I believe to be unreasonable to the next generation, so I teach and preach what I believe is right so that the ballet world will be different in the future.
How do you imagine yourself in 10 years?
I do not think about myself in 10 years, I think about these children who are now studying at my ballet school. That is the most important part of the progress of the K-Ballet Company. In terms of my personal targets, I would like to do all the full-length classical ballet repertoires. For example, I have not produced “The Nutcracker” yet. Anyhow, I am now so surprised and happy about the children’s potential. I sometimes learn from the children. At my school, there are many different curricula, and I participate in different events, like the special pre-exam course, ordinary ballet lessons, or our open day for parents. So I am often with the children, and I try to give them suitable influences — for example, how to gain confidence or how to react to being watched — but I also received a new power from these young people. On the other hand, if I decide a child is not suitable for ballet, then I would advise them to seek out something else.
Nevertheless, I also know the importance of doing ballet as a hobby, so I am now planning to start another studio for people who are not aiming to be professional dancers. That school will open its doors to everyone.
What are your plans for your private life? Do you have a plan to get married?
I don’t think I will get married while I am an active dancer at the top level. I have so many things to do and I have to dance as my first priority, so I am not thinking about marriage at all now.
What is it like to have been a celebrity since you were a teenager?
I go to the sento (Japanese public bathhouse) without any hesitation, so basically I do not care about the privilege, but on the other hand I always think about who am I, and I try to see myself from the outside. I think I just do my favorite thing, which is ballet, and I don’t care so much what others might think. Being evaluated inevitably goes with my work, it’s just a natural thing.
Finally, how do you feel about your old nickname “Teddy” that English people gave you?
It’s not bad — actually, I love it.
Interview by NOBUKO TANAKA, Special to The Japan Times