For a dance-loving country like Japan, every year brings delight in the variety of performances on offer, but the depth and breadth of 2018 on stage has been particularly grand for fans across a wide range of genres and movements.
In January, the New National Theatre, Tokyo (NNTT) offered its traditional New Year Ballet, the 20th anniversary of this special production that starts each year with a homage to dance. For 2018, NNTT featured a special combination of famous excerpts to showcase diversity. Performances included Cesare Pugni’s “Pas de quatre,” choreographed by English dancer Anton Dolin, Francois Auber’s “Grand pas classique” by Russian choreographer Victor Gsovsky and two pieces from American choreographic great George Balanchine with music from Georges Bizet — “Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux” and “Symphony in C.”
The end of January offered the perfect chance to start the year with a new perspective as Saitama Arts Theater welcomed Jerome Bel, a French dancer and choreographer noted for his creations of “nondance” with “Gala,” an interactive work staged with local performers of all ages, both amateur and professional. According to Bel’s website, “Gala” attempts to “open up the theater to those who are never represented there; to ask how art leads us to a common ground.” Since its premiere in Brussels in 2015, the production has traveled across 50 countries, and Japanese audiences were charmed by this innovative, interactive production.
Another internationally acclaimed work, the collaboration of Belgian dance artist Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui and Spanish flamenco dancer Maria Pages, was 2009’s “Dunas,” which finally made its Japanese debut at Bunkamura Orchard Hall in Shibuya. With flamenco a popular favorite across the nation, the production proved to be a definite highlight, as “Dunas” showcased a fascinating duet that combined a variety of musical styles and fused elements of flamenco and contemporary dance.
The most ground-breaking production of the spring, however, was when the traditional graciously hosted the avant-garde. The NNTT opened its hallowed doors to Dairakudakan, Japan’s leading butoh company, offering its Tokyo Playhouse for two performances of “Tsumi to Batsu” (“Crime and Punishment”), Dairakudakan’s interpretation of the classic Fyodor Dostoyevsky novel of the same name. Born on the fringes of performance art in 1970s Japan, butoh was not even accepted as dance at its inception, as its grotesque movements and surreal gestures firmly contrasted with those in the contemporary dance scene. It took nearly 50 years, but the trademark white-faced, shaven-headed dancers finally tore down one of the last barriers of acceptance by performing at Japan’s national theater of dance.
In another sign that The National Ballet of Japan (NBJ) is embracing its modern potential, the summer heated up with a stunning announcement to excite fans. Arguably the most important event in dance for 2018 was the news that acclaimed Japanese ballerina, Miyako Yoshida, a retired principal dancer with the Royal Ballet in the U.K., would be taking the helm of the NBJ as artistic director starting in September 2020. Yoshida will first train under current artistic director, Noriko Ohara, as artistic consultant. The expectations on Yoshida will indeed be high, but the summer also brought a variety of scorchingly popular productions to satisfy fans while Yoshida assumed her duties.
A reprisal of K-Ballet founder Tetsuya Kumakawa’s original ballet, “Cleopatra,” first performed last October, was quickly restaged at the start of the summer season due to its popularity and critical success. Tokyu Theatre Orb continued to offer the best in musical theater with a popular run of “Evita” in July, and summer stagings at Saitama Arts Theater revealed the great diversity of contemporary dance from Japanese companies. The all-male troupe, the Condors’ “18 ticket,” satisfied their legions of fans, and Kaori Ito, a rising young modern dancer who studied with such diverse contemporary companies as America’s Alvin Ailey Dance Theater and France’s Compagnie DCA under Philippe Decoufle, provided a stunning performance with her father in “I dance because I do not trust the words.”
The summer season simmered on through August and September with two popular dance festivals, the 15th World Ballet Festival, hosted by the Japan Performing Arts Foundation and The Tokyo Ballet, which brings the best international dancers on stage in Tokyo, and Dance Dance Dance @ Yokohama 2018, an exciting two-month extravaganza where the entire city became a stage featuring a diverse range of dance.
As the year headed to an end, ballet fans delighted in a new production from NNTT, Christopher Wheeldon’s highly acclaimed, “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland,” and a return of an old favorite, “The Kabuki,” from The Tokyo Ballet. Takarazuka Revue, the famed all-female musical theater troupe from Hyogo Prefecture, premiered “Phantom” at its Takarazuka Grand Theatre, with performances scheduled in Tokyo to kick off 2019.
As 2018 winds down, dance fans across the country are already looking forward to 2019 with a Beethoven triple bill from K-Ballet with performances from Kumakawa in late January, and an international tour by the The Royal Ballet scheduled for the summer.