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Christmas in the ballet world means “The Nutcracker,” and fans in Japan can take their pick from numerous productions of this mistle-toed magic originally choreographed by Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov and premiered at the Marinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg on Dec. 18, 1892, with music by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky.

Set on Christmas Eve, the storyline of “The Nutcracker” follows an adaptation by French author Alexandre Dumas of “The Nutcracker and the Mouse King,” a novella by the multitalented German Romantic E.T.A. Hoffmann (1776-1822), and the work is renowned for appealing to ballet newcomers and veterans alike.

In 1982, Tokyo-based Matsuyama Ballet was the first company in Japan to stage “The Nutcracker,” and they’ve continued the holiday tradition ever since. From the outset, too, whatever her other commitments worldwide, the renowned ballerina Yoko Morishita, who joined the company in 1971, has been part of that tradition. That’s over 400 times dreaming with sugar-plum fairies, facing down the Mouse King and marveling over the joyous appearance of a troupe of Russian dancers.

Nonetheless, as Morishita, who has led the company since 2001, told The Japan Times recently, she never tires of this iconic two-act ballet’s holiday cheer.

“I believe ‘The Nutcracker’ is really about caring,” she explained, “about how a girl realizes the importance of compassion and of gratitude to those around her — which she learns from the spiritual Land of Sweets as she grows up to be a beautiful young woman. So it’s really not just a fairy tale about a dream but the story with much deeper meaning.

“In a world where there are so many wars and struggles, the only way to achieve true peace is by learning compassion.”

The Matsuyama production is special, as Morishita — whose innumerable plaudits include those of “prima ballerina of the world” and “pearl of the Orient” — pointed out, saying, “The sets are gorgeous and change very, very quickly — almost like watching a dream — so it’s very dramatic and exciting.”

And of course, to see a true legend on stage is also exciting.

Born in Hiroshima three years after the city was atom-bombed in 1945, Morishita was the first ballerina from Japan to gain international stardom. In 1981, she became the first Japanese dancer with the Paris Opera Ballet, where she partnered with the legendary Rudolf Nureyev more than 200 times. She has also been awarded many of ballet’s highest honors and, in 2012, she received the Praemium Imperiale, Japan’s highest cultural decoration.

Despite all this, Morishita — who was brought up by a grandmother terribly burnt in the bombing, but who she’s said “smiled all the time and often said she felt blessed to be alive” — has always aligned her art with the simple message of spreading peace.

“I believe the purpose of art is to make people happy, and it’s particularly important for those of us who express ourselves on stage to give hope and courage to those who come to see our performances,” she declared. “It’s not about how many times one dancer spins or how high he or she jumps, but about putting our hearts and souls into the performance so the audience is moved and feels encouraged when it’s all over.

“I hope that I can continue making a contribution to world peace through ballet, and through my dancing help people to realize the importance of joining hands, compassion, and gratitude.”

Yoko Morishita will dance in “The Nutcracker” with the Matsuyama Ballet at different Tokyo venues on Dec. 14, 20 and 23. For full details, visit www.matsuyama-ballet.com/newprogram/2014nutcracker.


If your December dates don’t align with Matsuyama Ballet’s schedule, you may be able to catch one of these productions of “The Nutcracker” instead.

• The Tokyo Ballet will perform a version featuring choreography by the renowned Soviet artist Vasily Vainonen, with the Bolshoi Ballet’s Evgenia Obraztsova as Clara and Stuttgart Ballet’s Marijn Rademaker as the Nutcracker Prince. Shows run Dec. 19-21 at Tokyo Bunka Kaikan, with one on Dec. 23 at Yokosuka Arts Theatre in Kanagawa Prefecture (www.nbs.or.jp).

• K-Ballet founder Tetsuya Kumakawa’s lavish takes on the work are seasonal classics in themselves, though he isn’t dancing in the Dec. 20-26 performances at Akasaka ACT Theatre in Tokyo (www.k-ballet.co.jp/performances/2014nutscracker)

• The 140-year-old Kiev Ballet travels from Ukraine to Tokyo with “The Nutcracker” and a larger “Winter Special” being staged Dec. 20 and 23 at Tokyo International Forum and Dec. 25 at Runekodaira Hall in Kodaira, Tokyo (www.koransha.com).

• Other productions around the capital include ones by the Asami Maki Ballet Tokyo (www.ambt.jp), Ballet Chambre Ouest in Hachioji (www.chambreouest.com) and Star Dancers Ballet (www.sdballet.com).

• Meanwhile, productions of “The Nutcracker” elsewhere in Japan include Yoko Tsukamoto’s Theatre de Ballet’s annual show on Dec. 12 at Aichi Prefectural Art Theatre in Nagoya (theater-de-ballet.jp/); Hokkaido Arts Foundation’s annual staging Dec. 20 and 21 at Sapporo Educational Cultural Theatre (love-ballet-hokkaido.org); and Sadamatsu-Hamada Ballet’s Dec. 20 and 21 shows at Kobe Bunka Hall (www. kcc.zaq.ne.jp/shballet/sche.html).

Finally, for those spending Christmas far away, St. Petersburg’s venerable Mikhailovsky Theatre Ballet brings “The Nutcracker” to Tokyo International Forum Jan. 3 and 4 as part of a special ballet gala (www.t-i-forum.co.jp), while Osaka Ballet Academy presents its production Jan. 24 at the Festival Hall in Kita-ku (www.osakaballetacademy.com/performance/)

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