Stage

The triennial World Ballet Festival brings classics, rarities and international dance talent to Tokyo

by Kris Kosaka

Special To The Japan Times

While music fans are still reeling from this year’s Fuji Rock Festival (and prepping for Rock in Japan and Summer Sonic ahead), classical music fans are just warming up as the World Ballet Festival is set to hit Tokyo this weekend.

Held every three years since 1976, the festival brings together the global stars of dance from Aug. 1 to 13 for a fortnight of explosive pairings at Bunka Kaikan in Tokyo’s Taito Ward.

Vladimir Malakhov, the current artistic adviser of the Tokyo Ballet, says that this 14th edition of the festival will be very special as the most talented dancers from around the world are united on one stage — something the event has sought to achieve since it began in 1976.

“When the festival was born and grew under the guidance of Tadatsugu Sasaki (executive director of the Japan Performing Arts Foundation), it had one main goal — to show Japanese audiences the best of what the ballet world had on offer,” Malakhov says. “Over the years it sustained this quality; each time the very best and the most talented dancers from different parts of the world are invited to participate.”

Sasaki’s first challenge when starting the festival was to convince three of the most popular ballerinas of the time to come to Tokyo: Margot Fonteyn, who was awarded Prima Ballerina Assoluta by Queen Elizabeth for the Royal Ballet; Alicia Alonso, a Cuban prima ballerina who founded her own company in 1955; and Maya Plisetskaya, a dancer from Moscow who was awarded Prima Ballerina Assoluta by the Bolshoi. These guests set the bar high for future festivals.

Now almost 40 years later, the World Ballet Festival will welcome more than 30 dancers from across the globe. One highly anticipated pairing is superstar Alina Cojocaru appearing on stage with her fiance, Johan Kobborg. Or catch fresh phenomenon Osiel Gouneo, 24, who was one of the youngest ever principal dancers at the National Ballet of Cuba and is now with the Norwegian National Ballet. Equally exciting is the chance to see Aurelie Dupont, who will retire from the Paris Opera at the end of the season after an impressive career that has lasted more than 30 years. Superstars including Mathias Heymann, Sarah Lamb, Steven McRae and Friedemann Vogel will take their bows alongside newcomers such as Maria Kochetkova, Osiel Gouneo and Alban Lendorf. It’s a who’s-who of dance, a melting pot of true talent.

Like other international gatherings, the chance to share a stage with one’s artistic peers from around the world can lead to the exchange of ideas and philosophies, too.

Tamara Rojo, a Spanish ballerina who rose to fame with the Royal Ballet as a dancer and who is currently the artistic director for the English National Ballet agrees the more cross-cultural interaction the better.

“I am even more aware of the importance of the arts for a successful society, of the good that artists and artistic companies can do,” Rojo says. “I am also more questioning of things that are done just because it has always been done in a certain way. Change is good and possible if there is a good reason and ethic behind it.”

In addition to cultural exchange, Malakhov sees the World Ballet Festival as a premium chance to get a look at the future of dance.

“The ballet world, just like all other areas of performing arts, constantly evolves,” he says. “In addition to the rich and varied classical repertory of the 19th century and the best works of the 20th, new ballets and different dance creations appear all the time. Young and talented choreographers, composers and designers create new works and quite often the best of these works can be seen for the first time at the World Ballet Festival.”

This will be Malakhov’s eighth appearance at the festival in a span of over 20 years. Only Manuel Legris, the current artistic director of the Vienna State Ballet who is also taking the stage again this year, rivals him in festival attendance.

Over the nearly two weeks of dance, audiences can partake in two separate programs that will feature excerpts from such classics as “Swan Lake,” “Giselle,” “Don Quixote,” “Romeo and Juliet” and “Manon.” They can also delight in the newest in modern ballet with “The Old Man and Me,” choreographed by Hans Van Manen with music by American guitar great J.J. Cale, or see a ballerina in jeans in “Together Alone,” created by famed choreographer and artistic director of the Paris Opera Ballet, Benjamin Millepied (he played opposite Natalie Portman in the 2010 film “Black Swan”).

Balletomanes are spoiled for choice, with the festival offering selections organizers hope will appeal to experts. The event includes rarely seen classics such as “The Flames of Paris,” choreographed by Vasily Vainonen to music by Boris Asafyev based on songs of the French Revolution, and Jiri Kylian’s “Nuages” with music from Claude Debussy’s “Trois Nocturnes.”

“The festival really brings together so many incredible artists from all over the world,” says Stephen McRae, a principal dancer at the Royal Ballet who will be taking part in the festival for his second time. “It is a chance not only for the audience to see such a diverse range of professional dancers, but it is also a chance for the artists to watch and learn from their fellow dancers.”

McRae’s Royal Ballet colleague Sarah Lamb believes that the physical act of watching ballet is important in the modern era.

“Ballet is relevant today as technology is overtaking many aspects of our lives,” she says. “Ballet, and any live performance, is a reminder of our abilities to transcend our basic existence.”

McRae agrees, adding that dance is a universal language.

“Dancers can communicate with any audience in any corner of the world,” he says. “A dancer can take an audience on a journey and the dancer can also be taken on a journey. Ballet, along with arts culture in general, can break down political barriers and continue to inspire people globally.”

There’s been an increase in the popularity of dance on reality television shows overseas, but ballet fans here have constantly kept their eyes on the stage.

“I always look forward to being in Tokyo as I love the festival and the audience,” Rojo says in conclusion. The next two weeks should be a good chance for the audience to return the sentiment.

The World Ballet Festival 2015 takes place at Tokyo Bunka Kaikan in Taito-ku from Aug. 1 to 13. Program A will run from Aug. 1 to 6, Program B will run from Aug. 8 to 13. Tickets cost from ¥8,000 to ¥26,000. For more information on shows, visit the Japan Performing Arts Foundation website at www.nbs.or.jp, or email english@nbs.or.jp (in English).