Helping Japan with a dance

Ballerina Sylvie Guillem to stage Hope Japan tour to aid the victims of the March disasters


Special To The Japan Times

Take any teenager nearly 10,000 km (6,000 miles) from home on their first-ever overseas trip and you are bound to reap wonder. For 16-year-old French ballerina Sylvie Guillem, who came to Tokyo with the Paris Opera Ballet School in 1981, that wonder grew into 30 years of mutual admiration.

“It was really exciting but very strange,” Guillem tells The Japan Times. “Everything was to be discovered, to be looked at and studied. That first trip to Japan was the seed, but it kept growing; I wanted to know more, to see different things in Japan, to discover more about the culture and the people and the way they lived and thought.”

Hope Japan marks Guillem’s 40th tour of this country and reveals the growth of her 35 years in dance, which includes being named youngest etoile (star) at the Paris Opera Ballet before joining the Royal Ballet in London as a longtime guest principal. Her latest tour also features the world’s best in choreography: from ballet’s past to the contemporary now. Classical favorites from legends Kenneth MacMillan and Frederick Ashton are topped off with Guillem’s most current ventures from the best in modern dance, William Forsythe’s “Rearray” and “Ajo (Bye)” from Mats Ek.

Guillem was with Forsythe in London rehearsing for “Rearray” when the Great East Japan Earthquake of March 11 occurred. She can still remember their feelings of hopelessness as news of the tragedy spread throughout the studio, and says: “That’s why I decided to call the new program “6,000 miles away” — the distance from London to Tokyo, I thought, ‘We are suffering with you. Not the same degree of suffering, but we too feel completely weak and hopeless. We will be with you, we think of you, and we hope it will soon be better.”

Guillem turned empathy into action. She promptly organized a Hope Japan benefit in France last April, where she premiered “6,000 miles away” to raise money for the Japanese Red Cross. She also added a charity performance to her sold-out programme at Sadler’s Wells in London in July.

Much of the upcoming Hope Japan tour was also reshaped to acknowledge the tragedy. Guillem quickly resolved to take a more creative approach to charity, and as French officials in Tokyo mobilized Air France to transport its citizens out of the nuclear-shadowed chaos in the weeks after the quake, Guillem initiated her plans to visit the people closest to the disaster.

“A gala is good, because it will bring money and help the people who are in need, but those people are still there,” says Guillem, who opposes nuclear power. “(I thought) if we can go directly to them — if we can offer the tickets free or at a really minimum price — we can allow these people to escape a little and enjoy a gift that will be for them and only for them.”

Thus the Hope Japan tour will travel to Morioka, Iwate Prefecture, on Oct. 31, and then to Iwaki, Fukushima Prefecture, on Nov. 1. A show in Sendai was considered, but many of the suitable venues were either damaged by the earthquake or are being used as shelters. In fact, the Iwaki Performing Arts Center will use the occasion of Guillem’s performance to mark the reopening of all their facilities. Both the Morioka and Iwaki performances will feature prices reduced by two-thirds for local residents.

The tour will begin Oct. 19 with a gala in Tokyo. Alongside Guillem, Japanese mezzo-sopranos, musicians and traditional artists are set to take the stage. She welcomes the chance to raise money with local performers.

“It is important to let the Japanese artists express their pain and sorrow,” Guillem says. “In Tokyo, there are so many artists in different fields who perhaps have not yet had the opportunity or chance to help.”

Anthony Dowell, former artistic director of Britain’s Royal Ballet and an honorary president at Tokyo’s K-Ballet, will also make an appearance. A limited number of bags and T-shirts featuring the Hope Japan logo, designed by acclaimed Japanese designer Kenzo Takada, will be on sale to add to the contributions.

A significant presence from Guillem’s past in Japan also contributes to this tour. Maurice Bejart (1927-2007) was a French choreographer and frequent collaborator with the Tokyo Ballet. Bejart created several pieces especially for Guillem, and the two worked together frequently in Japan in the 1990s. The dates in Fukushima and Iwate, two areas still recovering from the disaster, both feature all-Bejart programs.

“Bejart is really loved in Japan. If he had been here, he would have done a lot for the country,” Guillem says. “It is a good homage to him. He is with us, in some way.”

Part of the program also includes a rare opportunity to once again experience the pair’s signature piece, the popular “Bolero.”

“In a difficult time, you need to have those things that you like, things that give you energy and strength and hope,” Guillem says. ” ‘Bolero’ is one of those. It brings people together and gives (them) support, mentally, to feel strong.”

Creativity powers the tour full circle in its final days. If the first part of Hope Japan dips through time and across the zenith of Guillem’s 35 years of achievment, the final selection, “Eonnagata,” unites the sultry contradictions of humanity with a philosopher’s cold calibrations. An artistic trinity with theatrical wizard Robert Lepage and acclaimed choreographer Russell Maliphant, “Eonnagata” punctuates Guillem’s consolidated flair and offers a glimpse into the future of performing arts.

“For Japanese people, ‘Eonnagata’ may be easier to understand than for (people in) other countries,” Guillem says. “The title is a play on words — the Chevalier d’Eon and kabuki’s onnagata (male actors who impersonate women).”

Canadian avant-garde director and storyteller Lepage delves into a historical enigma with “Eonnagata.” D’Eon was a controversial 18th-century French military dragoon who spurned convention. Cross-dressing in his role as a spy abroad, d’Eon blurred identity and gender as he maintained his feminine disguise even after returning to France. More than a clever play on words, “Eonnagata” acts as an artistic double entendre by exploring not only equivocal gender but also the hazy integration of vocation with the mundane. According to kabuki tradition, true onnagata, like d’Eon, merge their art with reality, remaining in role as a woman beyond the curtain and into the everyday, eating and speaking in the strict Japanese dictates of the feminine. D’Eon’s work and life became similarly tangled as later political strands tightened and he was forced to remain perpetually in the guise of a woman.

Guillem, Lepage and Maliphant each portray d’Eon on stage. The director Lepage performs, the choreographer Maliphant acts, the dancer Guillem makes decisions on script and staging. Costumes by late designer Alexander McQueen mix kimono and petticoat, elaborate military jackets over simple flesh-colored unitards with androgynous padding. At the very least, the performance will kaleidoscope through multiple worlds entwined.

“I am really happy to present ‘Eonnagata’ in Japan,” Guillem says. “I hope the Japanese people will understand our interpretation or vision, and what we love about kabuki.”

Part of Guillem’s excitement comes from having watched the work evolve from when it was first performed in London until now, “It is a completely different piece. We added things, cut other things, added dialogue … things change place. That is the way Robert Lepage works, and it is quite fascinating, because you can see the work take shape.

“It was great to live this transformation,” Guillem continues. “Robert and Russell are creators. They are used to adding things, and it was great if you are just a dancer like me to start thinking, ‘Yes, what if we did this or added that, what do you think?’ And it became like a game. You learn and take a lot of pleasure in seeing what could be better, what questions still need to be answered.”

That Guillem’s voice still swells when speaking of dance after 35 years of single-minded devotion gives pause. A final story from her past perhaps explains this enduring awe.

Only 18 years old and preparing for the Varna International Competition in Bulgaria, Guillem memorized a section from one of Bejart’s works off video for the modern dance requirement. As she explains, “I was quite straight about it: this is what I wanted to take and nothing else. So I wrote a letter for the first time in my life, with my kid’s words, my first letter to Maurice asking for authorization.”

Unknown to Bejart himself, a quick refusal arrived from his administration. “I received the letter, and I thought, ‘Bah! I will dance it anyway,’ ” says Guillem — who took Varna’s special prize with the piece in 1983. Afterward, Bejart himself validated her impetuous determination when the two finally met a few years later.

Since that day in 1983, audiences have marveled at her body’s fluid alchemy and inflexible artistry. Amid the acclaim, Guillem manages to maintain the wonder she felt as a teenager on her first trip abroad.

“If there is a year I do not come to Japan, it feels very strange to me,” she says. “Whenever I come, people say, ‘Welcome home.’ “

The Hope Japan charity gala takes place Oct. 19 at Tokyo Bunka Kaikan, followed by performances from Oct. 22-30. Guillem returns to Tokyo with “Eonnagata” at U-Port Hall from Nov. 17-20. Tickets are ¥4,000-¥15,000; call the NBS ticket center at (03) 3791-8888 (Japanese only) or email (English). Hope Japan tours the rest of the country from Oct. 31-Nov. 13. For details, visit