In the competitive melee of world-class dance, the Royal Ballet keeps on its toes. Since 2011, when Christopher Wheeldon’s groundbreaking “Alice in Wonderland” became its first new, full-length work in 16 years, the company based at the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden, London, has been continually pushing new boundaries of innovation.
But that, according to its director, Kevin O’Hare, is all part of maintaining their “tradition of excellence.”
“We are very lucky we have such a broad repertoire, with the classics from the 19th century and the heritage of (former Artistic Director and Principal Choreographer) Kenneth MacMillan and (Founding Choreographer and Director) Frederick Ashton in the 20th,” O’Hare said in a recent phone interview.
“At the moment, we are in a new period, with wonderful choreographers such as Wayne McGregor, Christopher Wheeldon and Liam Scarlett associated with the company, together with a lot of other choreographers, and it’s important to continue our creative drive to create the classic ballets of this century and to keep moving forward with success.”
Next month and into July, that drive brings the company to Japan for a short Tokyo season followed by performances in four other cities, with audiences everywhere able to savor O’Hare’s trademark blend of tradition tempered with innovation.
To help commemorate the 400th anniversary of William Shakespeare’s death, and also celebrate this year’s half-century since MacMillan created the ballet, the tour will feature “Romeo and Juliet” — a work which, thanks to MacMillan’s take on Sergei Prokofiev’s classic score, has become a 20th-century classic that offers a marvelous opportunity to see the breadth of the company.
“This is a work that shows off the entire company, and it’s an important chance for audiences to see our soloists dancing Mercutio and Benvolio, and the great character roles like Lady Capulet,” O’Hare pointed out.
However, the Royal Ballet’s great depth will also dazzle audiences, with this work featuring four different pairings of star dancers during the tour.
Meanwhile, “Giselle” is the other Royal Ballet gem set to sparkle in Japan.
First staged in 1884, “Giselle” changed ballet with its inventive face-off between the spiritual realm and the transcendental power of love. Based on Marius Petipa’s classic version (which followed the original choreography by Jules Perrot and Jean Coralli), Peter Wright’s production being staged in Japan has become a “signature piece” of the company.
As O’Hare explained, “Especially as performed this season, ‘Giselle’ really proves that the company is strong across all levels: the corps de ballet looking fantastic, the soloists taking on the pas de six, and then we have these wonderful dancers taking on the great romantic roles of dance.
“We just finished our run of ‘Giselle’ here in London, and the performances generated a feeling of fresh excitement for the classic.
“We have so many great dancers,” O’Hare continued, “and it is rewarding to see how the ballerinas in particular have grown in their roles.”
It’s been 21 years since the Royal Ballet last performed “Giselle” in Japan, and just as with “Romeo and Juliet,” fans must choose between a different star-studded pairing in the principal roles each night.
Besides the performances themselves, a seldom mentioned aspect of the tour will be the educational opportunities available for young Japanese dancers.
As O’Hare explained, “Not only are we doing two school performances, but beyond that, there will be some educational work as well.
“We are bringing David Pickering, who used to be a soloist with the company, and who now heads our Learning and Participation for Ballet (section); he will be coming to do some workshops for children around the performances.
“It’s obviously great to come and perform, but to leave something behind for the schoolchildren or children doing the workshops, to ignite something in them to take up dance or to become audience members in the future, is equally important.
“Spreading dance culture as far and wide as we can; it is very important to us, to reach as many people as possible.”
O’Hare, the company’s director since 2012, noted that during his career as a dancer he performed in Japan more than anywhere else outside Britain, saying, “I love the people, I love the food, the architecture and the design element; the Japanese mixture between really strong tradition, and looking towards the future — not unlike the Royal Ballet.”
As for the reception the Royal Ballet can expect here, O’Hare enthused unequivocally, saying, “The Japanese audiences really are fantastic, they really do love the company, they love ballet and are very knowledgeable, and they know so much that is going on (in the works).
“That is exciting for the company, to be acknowledged by a knowledgeable audience.”
Looking to the future, O’Hare’s much-vaunted goal of the Royal Ballet celebrating innovation with a 2020 season of exclusively new works, increasingly appears well within his grasp.
“I would really like it to be works that have been created in the last 10 years,” O’Hare said. “It’s really exciting, and there should be a lot to choose from at that point. It’s a challenge, but I am determined to stick to it.”
With Tokyo’s own exciting 2020 to look forward to, he added that it would be “a good idea to share our 2020 goal with Japan” — and credited the Japan Performing Arts Foundation with their continued support of the company.
“Romeo and Juliet” runs June 16-19, and “Giselle” runs June 22-26, both at the Tokyo Bunka Kaikan in Ueno. “Giselle” also plays June 29 at The Sun Palace Hall, Fukuoka; July 1 at the Hyogo Performing Arts Center, Nishinomiya: and July 6 at the Hall of Art & Culture in Fukuyama, Hiroshima Prefecture; “Romeo and Juliet” also plays July 3 at Aichi Arts Center, Nagoya. Tickets from ¥25,000 to ¥4,000 (students), for more details in English and Japanese, visit www.nbs.or.jp.
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