Stage

The Tokyo Ballet's 'Swan Lake' gives fans a fresh take on a classic and an uplifting ending

by Kris Kosaka

Contributing Writer

Picture the scene: The Black Swan seduces the Prince away from the White Swan princess for one of the most timeless love triangles ever enacted on stage. Even those who aren’t fans of dance are familiar with “Swan Lake.” As Yukari Saito, artistic director of The Tokyo Ballet, puts it, “Swan Lake is synonymous with ballet.”

However, what most ballet fans don’t realize is that there are many choreographic versions of the ballet — like those by George Balanchine and Matthew Bourne — and Saito recently took the bold step of guiding her company toward a different production. In 2016, The Tokyo Ballet premiered Vladimir Burmeister’s interpretation of “Swan Lake” over its classic, 50-year performance run of Alexander Gorsky’s. With a successful opening, a recent tour to Sapporo and an upcoming reprisal over the Golden Week holidays, it looks like Saito’s boldness has paid off.

“The official name of The Tokyo Ballet is ‘Tchaikovsky Memorial Ballet Company,’ so it has always been an important ballet for the company,” says Saito, referring to the fact that Tchaikovsky composed the music for “Swan Lake.” It was the first classical ballet the company added to its repertoire and the first ballet Saito danced in the lead role. Yet, even as a young dancer, Saito, a 30-year veteran of the company and its principal ballerina for decades, was dissatisfied with the Gorsky version of “Swan Lake,” saying, “The more I danced in it, the more frustrated I became.”

On tour in Russia while still a dancer, Saito saw Burmeister’s version for the first time.

“Everything about his version was so well done,” she says. “The dramatic unfolding of the story, the speedy pace, the character dancing in Act 3. Burmeister was also a relative of Tchaikovsky, so he really honored the original. He decided to keep the musical score as close as possible to Tchaikovsky’s original production, so that’s why his version is so different from other productions.

“There are no spoken words in dance, so movement must be used in place of words. It doesn’t matter to me how high the dancers jump or how many times they turn — people can watch sports if they only care about physical talent. Dance must also be dramatic so that the audience is drawn into the story. Because Burmeister was such an accomplished character dancer, his version really allows the audience to see the mental states of Prince Siegfried, Odette and all the other characters. The performers are not just dancers, but actors.”

Her dancers agree. As principal, Yasuomi Akimoto, who will dance Prince Siegfried on April 28, tells The Japan Times that one difference between Burmeister’s version of “Swan Lake” and the others is that the role of Prince Siegfried expands, both in choreography and emotional importance.

“For example, the physical presence of Prince Siegfried on stage in Act 3 is dramatically significant,” he says. “In other versions of ‘Swan Lake,’ the dancers from various countries are doing celebratory dances, and Prince Siegfried’s role is quite minimal, but in Burmeister’s version, the dancers are all performing to cheer him up.

“One of the biggest challenges of this role is that I must convey to the audience his unhappiness and confusion, his inner dilemma of looking for Odette, even as, outwardly, he is watching the dancers perform in his honor. It’s challenging, but enjoyable. I get completely into the story.”

Akimoto admits it’s a physically exhausting role, but one that he relishes dancing, with its many dramatic opportunities.

Mamiko Kawashima, a principal dancer who will dance opposite Akimoto as Odette and Odile, agrees.

“No matter what role you play in ‘Swan Lake,’ whether it’s the Prince or Odette and Odile or whomever, it’s important to discuss the acting and strategize with other dancers at rehearsals, otherwise the dramatic side of the production won’t work — especially in Burmeister’s version,” she says. “It’s a exciting production, so we really want people to come to see it.

“The sadness of the second act, the intensity of watching the unfolding conflict between the White Swan, Odette and the Black Swan, Odile. It’s the ultimate challenge for a ballerina, to play both roles and authentically represent the markedly different personalities between these two characters. Also, we want people to come and see how Act 3 is so different from other versions.”

Another difference between “Swan Lake” productions is the ending. Some versions end happily ever after while others end tragically, with Odette doomed to stay a swan forever. Burmeister’s version allows the lovers to be reunited when Von Rothbart, the wily sorcerer, is defeated. Akimoto admits some fans will resist the happy ending. “There are those who think a tragic ending is more natural,” he says.

“What makes Burmeister’s version special is the coherence in the storytelling. Not only will you enjoy the dancing, but also the strong, clear narrative,” says Kawashima.

Saito agrees, “What’s most important is that everyone, whether they are ballet fans or not, comes away from a performance feeling completely satisfied with the performance and the storytelling, so I don’t think the ending is that important if it feels justified within the performance.”

As a young dancer she never dreamed of becoming artistic director, and so Saito admits it is ironic how her career has evolved, giving her the opportunity to stage Burmeister’s version with The Tokyo Ballet.

“I had finally decided that the only way to do ‘Swan Lake’ the way I wanted would be to become an artistic director, although I had absolutely no real aspirations at the time,” Saito says. “Once I retired from dancing, I thought I’d just become a free spirit — growing vegetables, making my own clothes, and, since I love being outdoors, gathering mushrooms in the fall. I wanted to become a danshari (minimalist) — get rid of all the clutter in my life.”

It’s a good thing for ballet lovers that she didn’t. For new fans, the upcoming production will be run simultaneously with a special matinee showing of Act 3 for the Ballet Holiday in Ueno no Mori at Tokyo Bunka Kaikan event during the Golden Week holidays, a great chance for newcomers or families to see ballet.

“Act 3 is easy for children to understand and enjoy, but children also get a chance to see dances from different countries in the form of classic ballet and get a glimpse into the characters of these countries. It’s not only an experience with ballet, it’s like traveling to different countries,” Saito says. “A lot of people go to concerts to hear popular music, but are hesitant to go to see ballet. It’s too bad because classic ballet is an art form and there’s so much you can learn from it.

“It’s only been in Japan for about 70 years, but many people are passionate about it, especially the dancers who give their lives to it. The stage is different from a movie; you never know what will happen at each performance.

“We have an expression in Japanese, ‘ichi go ichi e,’ which means ‘once in a lifetime.’ No live staging is ever the same. I hope that many more people will go to see ballet, starting with ‘Swan Lake.’ Burmeister’s version is easy to understand even for those who have never been to ballet before, so it’s a great chance to find out what makes ballet so appealing. I hope that having seen it once, they will want to come back again and again.”

The Tokyo Ballet presents “Swan Lake” at the Tokyo Bunka Kaikan at 3 p.m. on April 27, 28 and 29. A family-friendly version (Act 3 only) will be performed at 12 p.m. on the same days, at the same venue as part of the Ballet Holiday in Ueno no Mori. For more information, visit www.nbs.or.jp/english/stages/2019/swan and www.nbs.or.jp/english/stages/2019/firstswan.