As Noriko Ohara, the newly appointed artistic director of the National Ballet of Japan put it during a recent interview with The Japan Times: ” ‘The Sleeping Beauty’ should be a spectacle — it should be gorgeous and dramatic.”
Our conversation, animated with Ohara’s frequent laughter, ranged from the differences between Scots and the English to her love of nature and open space (and the Victorian flat in Glasgow she shares with her husband and two cats in the off season) — and why her successful career overseas was “not really about success but more about survival.”
As Ohara only took over from Englishman David Bintley in September, the company enters its new era by staging a fresh contemporary take on “The Sleeping Beauty,” the classic Marius Petipa tale of pricked Princess Aurora waiting 100 years for the magical kiss of her Prince Desire that has, with Tchaikovsky’s music, captivated audiences since its premiere in 1890. It was also the NNTT’s first-ever production back in 1997.
“However, in considering our first production for this season, I thought that as a national ballet we needed to have our own version of ‘The Sleeping Beauty,’ ” Ohara said. “Basically, we wanted to keep its celebrated essence but with some new flavor to modernize the classic and make it fresh.”
Along with new sets by Naoji Kawaguchi and costumes by Toer van Schayk, Ohara enlisted the help of choreographer Wayne Eagling, a former artistic director of the Dutch National Ballet and the English National Ballet who, Ohara said, “brings a lot of creativity and experience to this work.”
One major update is how the ballet deals with the fight between good and evil. The Lilac Fairy, representing goodness, is usually portrayed by a ballerina, while the evil fairy, Carabosse, is normally played by a male dancer — and “is quite aggressive and usually quite ugly,” Ohara said.
Not so this time, she explained. “Wayne said to me, ‘The evil side is not always ugly; in fact, evil is frequently beautiful. The two fairies must be equally beautiful,’ ” she said. “So he choreographed complicated steps to dramaticize the fight between the fairies — with Carabosse on pointe shoes — and there are a lot of other new choreographic ideas layered into the production,” she said.
One strength Ohara brings to her new position is her dramatic flair. As a principal dancer at the Scottish Ballet from 1975, she became famous for her dynamic expressiveness as well as her technical skill. Describing her time in Scotland, Ohara, who turns 71 this year, said, “Life for a professional dancer in Japan at that time was difficult, and I moved overseas to find a way to survive as a dancer. And with the emphasis placed on drama in dance by Peter Darrell (the founder of The Scottish Ballet), I found what I was looking for creatively.”
Awarded an OBE by Queen Elizabeth in 1997 for her services to dance, Ohara also discovered in Scotland a love for training young dancers, which she undertook while still dancing herself.
When the Scottish Ballet began taking on more contemporary productions, Ohara decided to return to Japan in 1999 to help with the newly launched National Ballet at the NNTT. She’s been with the company ever since, as ballet mistress and then assistant artistic director under David Bintley, who since 2010 had combined his role in Tokyo with that of artistic director of the Birmingham Royal Ballet in England.
Now, though, Ohara said she has two main “targets” as artistic director.
“Part of an artistic director’s job is to bring as many of the public into the theater as possible. It is quite a difficult target, since the ballet population is great, but a true ballet fan is actually rare. Educating young people to appreciate ballet is a key, but it’s not an immediate fix like instant noodles.”
Ohara’s other main “target” is to maintain and enhance the company’s high standard of performance, playing on her own dramatic skills as a coach.
“Japanese dancers, technically they have a very high standard, but one weak point is in expressing themselves,” she explained. “As a nation, we keep emotion inside, but dancers must reveal emotion. How to express ourselves, how to act as a dancer — that is my strength. So as much as I can, I try to help dancers with the expressive side.”
As a result, Ohara spends most of her day in the studio because, as she said, “I want to understand each dancer individually since that is important to match my abilities. I am not a choreographer; I could do that, but very badly, so I don’t want to. I want to do what I am able to do best — coaching in rehearsal, and staging.”
“The Sleeping Beauty” connects to these strengths.
“This ballet gives many dancers the chance to grow, as there are various soloist roles and it makes dramatic and technical demands on the dancers,” Ohara explained.
“But not in wigs,” she added with deadpan humor. “Japanese dancers don’t do wigs so well.”
Then, finally, she reflected, “This is my first production, so everyone is watching and waiting. I’d better keep quiet. After it’s over, maybe I will have something more to say — either way.”
“The Sleeping Beauty” runs Nov. 8-16 at the New National Theatre, Tokyo’s Opera Palace in Hatsudai. Tickets range upward from ¥3,240. For more details, visit www.nntt.jac.go.jp.