As I sipped my vin rouge last week during an interval in “The Sleeping Beauty,” K-Ballet’s latest Tokyo production, a woman at the next table said to her companion: “I can’t believe that evil fairy was a man! I just naturally thought it was a woman dancing that role.”
Beyond disbelief, I am sure she would have been lost for words if she were to meet that “fairy,” Stuart Cassidy, whose splendid dancing and cross-gender acting of the voluptuous, wicked Carabosse drew the first “Bravo!” of the whole show from somewhere high up in the massive five-story auditorium that is Tokyo Bunka Kaikan in Ueno.
That’s because the 41-year-old English dancer is recognized across the ballet world as a sensitive but essentially male dancer, who is blessed with looks tailormade for the handsome prince in any dreamy landscape of classical ballet.
That face of a noble prince, though, is only one, professional, visage of Cassidy, as I can testify from my recent meeting with him for this interview.
When I opened the door of K-Ballet’s studio in residential Koishikawa in Tokyo’s leafy Bunkyo Ward, Cassidy crossed the room dressed in a polo shirt and jeans and welcomed me with a big, open smile. He was the opposite of any image of an airy-fairy male ballet dancer some people might have in their heads, and as he cheerfully and naturally greeted every passing dancer, student or staff member, making jokes all the while, he displayed nothing so much as an entirely ordinary Englishness.
But then, like a true professional, he instantly changed his relaxed expression to focus clearly on my questions and his responses when we began the interview.
Cassidy, who was a hugely popular star of the renowned London-based Royal Ballet in the 1990s, danced most of the art form’s standout pas de deux with its prima ballerinas, including Viviana Durante, Darcey Bussell and Deborah Bull. Now, though, he says quite openly that he is really enjoying playing character roles with K-Ballet, with his acted character often key to explaining the story.
Since he cofounded K-Ballet in 1999 with former Royal Ballet colleagues Tetsuya Kumakawa, William Trevitt, Michael Nunn, Gary Avis and Matthew Dibble, Cassidy has remained an indispensable principal dancer [the highest rank in the ballet world] with the company. Indeed, his role there became all the more key as the other four Western dancers drifted away to pursue their own, more avant-garde tastes elsewhere.
So it was that I sat down with this leading light of Japanese and European ballet and we began to talk.
Why did you start to do ballet?
My father was an accountant and my mother met him at the firm where he worked, and neither of them were connected to dance or theater at all. I started ballet just after I turned 5 because I was bored just watching my sister in her ballet classes, so one day I asked if I could join in — and they let me. That’s why I started to dance, but I also did karate, played football and was in a running team. So ballet wasn’t the only thing I did, but I just loved being physical.
My dance teacher, Irene Kinsey, was in the Royal Ballet [RB] at the same sort of time as the great choreographer Sir Frederick Ashton (1904-88), and her daughter Rosalyn Eyre was also in the RB, so the connection was through her family and she said I should take an audition for the Royal Ballet School [RBS]. She said I had potential and I went for the audition to be a Junior Associate, which was just a once-a-week lesson. Well, I got into that, and there I was told I was good enough for the White Lodge, the RB’s Lower School in Richmond Park, west London. So I took a further audition and I got into there.
As a result, all the way through people were telling me that I was good enough and I should try — so I did so, without it really being my idea.
But if you didn’t want to be a ballet dancer, you could have taken a different direction, couldn’t you?
Actually, I enjoyed doing ballet and I loved being the only boy with all the girls. I was showing off among the girls. Although I was good at lots of sports, the ladies in the RB told me I was good at ballet, so I took their advice.
What was it like being a boy learning ballet in those days? Was it like the film “Billy Elliot,” with other boys making fun of you?
Well I had no problem, because I was in a football team and I did all the other things. If I was just doing ballet, I would have been in a big trouble and maybe they’d have called me a poof or a sissy or taken the mickey. But they knew I could run faster than anyone and I was more physical than they were, so they never bothered me.
When you entered the RBS, how was the life there?
When I was there, in the early ’80s, there were very few boys in each year’s class. It started at about 15 and went down to seven or something later, compared to about 30 girls. It was a very small group, so very quickly you could establish where you were in the pecking order of talents, and I knew I was one of the best in the class. So I had no problem with the competition or rivalries, though it’s probably tough for girls. In fact the competition among us was so healthy, because we always wanted to do most turns or jump the highest or pick up the heaviest girls or whatever.
However, it took me a while to get used to being in a boarding school. I left my family at 10 probably, and I actually hated it. It’s too young to be apart from the family, so I always cried on the phone saying to my mum I wanted to get back home. It was very difficult for them not to say, “OK, come home,” but they said, “No, you’ve chosen to do this and you must try and get used to it. Boarding school is very different from the way we were living, but it’s very important if you want to be a good dancer, because it’s the best place to be.” So I said, “OK, I will stick with it.”
After you graduated from the RBS, you were selected to join the RB and instantly became actively involved in the so-called “bright male dancers period” along with other dancers including Jonathan Cope, Adam Cooper and Tetsuya Kumakawa.
I joined there at lucky time because there were a lot of male principals leaving the top end of the company, such Mark Silver, Derek Deane, Anthony Dowson, Stephen Jefferies, Jay Jolley and Wayne Eagling. So, we were so lucky as they needed to bring people along after them very quickly to fill their shoes.
Another reason I was so lucky was because Sir Kenneth MacMillan [the RB’s artistic director from 1970-77] had spotted me in RBS performances before I joined the company, and most of the company people knew me from that time. Actually, I danced with the main RB one Christmas in “The Nutcracker” before I joined the company, and people also knew I’d done good support for Darcey Bussell at the RBS, so they knew I could work well in the company.
In other words, it wasn’t like I joined the company at the beginning of my history. They knew what I was like.
But certainly it was a very good time for those of us coming through then, and the guys who did were very masculine dancers, whereas many before had been more effeminate or femalelike. We were very macho men. We all had girlfriends and got married, and a Russian star dancer, Irek Mukhamedov, joined us at that time and he was also very masculine and strong, so that time was good for male dancers — it was a sort of very male atmosphere period.
For me, it was really fantastic. I’d only been in the company for a year and I was doing Romeo in “Romeo and Juliet” — so from the very start I was seriously busy. I didn’t have time to think about if I enjoyed it or not, because I was off — I did so much so quickly.
I was a principal dancer by 21, so I just went straight into all those great roles almost immediately, and I had a great time. Every ballet I did was a new experience for me, and for the first four years every single production was new for me, so I was just constantly learning new roles. It was very exciting and very busy — and it was so tiring.
How did you feel when you announced your departure from the RB in 1998 with some other colleagues and Kumakawa?
Well, Teddy [the nickname Kumakawa first got at the RBS, as kuma in Japanese means “bear”] left the RB in September 1998, and then the other four (William Trevitt, Michael Nunn, Gary Avis and Matthew Dibble) announced in Belfast in front of the press in November, in the middle of a RB tour, that they, and I, were leaving too. I was in London then because I was injured.
Anyway, it was exciting for us to tell the news. We’d discussed it for a long time, and it wasn’t a decision we made lightly. Back then, though, there were problems at the Royal Opera House (ROH). They were closing the building for two years for redevelopment and we weren’t sure whether the company might be getting smaller. In fact they were even thinking about maybe closing for that period . . . and we didn’t know what was going to happen.
So, rather just sit back and worry about what might happen, we decided that as we’d been doing our “Made in London” tours of Japan [a project led by Kumakawa] during the summer break from the RB since 1996 — and as they’d been so successful and sold out instantly — why not expand that and do two or three tours a year and take it on fulltime?
It was very exciting because my wife was pregnant with our first child when I finally decided to leave the RB, and we’d just sold our house and were moving into a new, bigger property. So, potentially, it was a very risky decision, because if it hadn’t worked I would have a new home with a big mortgage and a child — and no job. But it worked very well and K-Ballet started in January 1999 — with us six, some female Japanese corps de ballet dancers and guest dancers including Miyako Yoshida and Viviana Durante — and it’s just been fantastic the way the company has grown and the way the productions have expanded. You know, it’s amazing where the company is now. For me, it’s been a great ride, a great journey.
Do you have any particular memories with Teddy at the RBS or the RB?
Teddy was below me in the RBS, so I wasn’t with him there, but we shared a dressing room at the ROH — me and Teddy and Errol Pickford and an Australian guy, Bruce Sansom. It was a very lively dressing room, yes, Room 22B. It was away from the others and we were so isolated, with no one else around, so it was quite nice, quite quiet and quite private. It was a nice place to be.
How did you find the reality of spending so much time in Japan? I suppose not everything went smoothly, especially at the beginning.
Actually, everything went really well from the word go, as to start with the format stayed pretty much the same as the “Made in London” tour and we just did more of the same stuff we did before. Of course we created new ballet programs as well, with some in a more modern or jazzy or tango style. But there was never a thought that it wouldn’t work or audiences wouldn’t like it.
Then, after the initial period, we started to do more classical works and expanded the company and brought in more girls and began using a slightly larger number of dancers. So, gradually, it evolved over the years; it didn’t suddenly become a full company but had a gradually controlled development from the humble beginning, which was just six guys, and the progression was sustained and gradual. There wasn’t any worry about K-Ballet.
Maybe because of the way Teddy is here — you know he is so famous and was the first Japanese principal for the RB — we realized everyone was coming to see Ted primarily. Of course, obviously we (the other five English dancers) were principals at the RB and famous in our own right, but Ted was the main drawcard. That was a guarantee really. When we started we didn’t know how many years it would go on for, but, as you know, we had a very strong following and good audiences from the start, and now we have so many loyal fans.
Looking back over your time in Japan, what would you say is your main achievement?
I think the achievement of expanding the company. Of course, it’s Ted’s achievement primarily, but to be a part of a company that has grown from a very small group of men to a full-blown company with enough dancers to put on big classical ballets is the real achievement. To be part of that achievement is fantastic. I’ve had great roles as well, so I’ve been able to expand my repertoire and do some things I’d probably never have done at the RB. To be honest, too, I don’t think my career would have gone on as long as it has now I’m dancing in Japan. As a principal dancer it’s very difficult to get into character roles, but I’m really enjoying doing those now — such as Carabosse in this “Sleeping Beauty,” Dr. Coppelius in “Coppelia,” Herr Dosselmeyer in “The Nutcracker” and Rothbart in “Swan Lake.” It’s great fun, and the character-driven roles have been a good challenge for me, and I do enjoy the acting, the story-telling side of ballet as well as the pure dance — which is wonderful as well. To tell a story and for the audience to feel involved in that story is very satisfying to me. It’s also very important to K-Ballet productions . . . it’s not just about Teddy, it’s not just about showing off — it’s about creating an atmosphere, telling a story and drawing an audience into what you are doing and how you are feeling.
Actually, Ted is very good at telling stories, and he knows the areas that maybe some people would think are a bit boring or slow in a ballet, and he just tries to get rid of them and keep everyone’s interest, keep stories flowing and keep everything ticking over. So every production Ted has put on, he’s tried to update it, get rid of boring bits and keep the audiences interested — and that shows. Sometimes, too, he’s added a scene or some small mimes to expand the story to show the audience exactly why something is happening.
You’ve appeared in almost all K-Ballet’s productions. How have you been able to keep such a strong body and healthy condition for all this time?
It wasn’t always perfect, and I had some injuries, so I danced on a few occasions with bad injuries. I did “Swan Lake,” dancing with guest principal Shoko [a Japanese principal at the Staatsballett Berlin] in 2007, my left calf was badly damaged, but I still managed to get through. In early tours, I really hurt my left leg again — that was the Achilles tendon — so in between shows I put my whole leg in a bucket of ice.
I don’t think I would have lasted as long as a principal in the RB, because I can go home to England or New Zealand between K-Ballet tours and recover, and I think that’s the reason I’ve been able to be continuously on stage. So if I have a niggle or a pain or a small injury or anything, I have time to recover before the next tour.
For me, as a dancer, the K-Ballet system has extended my career. If I were with the RB, I would be working week in and week out, but it’s worked very well for me to be able to rest between tours at K-Ballet.
Besides dancing, what other things are you doing at K-Ballet? Do you sometimes intervene on the management side?
When I’m here in Japan, I help with rehearsals and coach some of the dancers in their roles. So when I am around, I help . . . but when I am away, I have no dealings with K-Ballet at all. It’s nice, because when I come back after a rest, I am always fresh and recharged and excited and ready to give to the company. I think if you do the same job day in and day out for 365 days a year, it loses its flavor sometimes.
I’ve been living in New Zealand for nearly four years now, because my wife is from there. After we had children, we started to think about quality of life and space . . . as a married couple, London is fantastic, and we had no thought of moving from there until we had children, as you have to think about their education and the open spaces where they can play. My boys — the elder one is 12 and the other is 9 this month — both do ballet and they love sports, especially rugby, and sport is very important to them, and they have more opportunities in New Zealand. So, that was a decision for our family, not for us personally.
Also, my wife and myself are both trained pilates instructors and qualified RAD (Royal Academy of Dance) teachers. We’ve got our own pilates studio in New Zealand, so I teach pilates and ballet when I am there.
What were your first impressions of Japan?
When I first came here with the RB in the early ’90s, I was amazed by Tokyo. While London is a busy city, Tokyo was more busy, with so many people and all the neon and shops underground and on so many levels, whereas in London everything is pretty much on street level.
When my elder boy first came to Japan, he said, “Daddy, there is not so much sky!” I think it was a very good observation, because all the buildings are so tall and he could see only small patches of sky up there. In New Zealand, the sky goes all the way down.
Is there anything you’ve never understood or accepted about Japanese culture or the lifestyle?
The main thing I can’t understand is the language. I’ve been here so long, but I’ve never got to grips with it because I keep going home, so I might have two months in Japan and then two months in New Zealand, for example. Also, the people around me here speak good English. However, I always regret not having learned Japanese well enough to do an interview like this in Japanese. Still, I can just about make myself understood, but I’d love to speak Japanese properly. I am pretty ashamed about this.
And the other thing is the money. One thing I think is wrong with Japan is the ¥1 coin. I don’t understand why you still have ¥1 coins. Why do you need them? In New Zealand, the smallest coin is 10 cents. We don’t have 5-cent coins, though you have ¥5 coins as well. I can understand the ¥5 coins, yes you can keep those, but why keep ¥1 coins. Everything can be rounded up or down, which is what happens in New Zealand. If it’s ¥147, then round it up to ¥150 . . . if it’s ¥142, round it down to ¥140. I don’t understand it at all, and I think ¥1 coins should just be got rid of. That’s my advice to Japan.
So there are two things: My inability with Japanese, which is my fault, and ¥1 coins.
Is there anything you’d like to export to England from Japan?
Hmm, every time I get back to my boys, I take different flavored KitKat chocolate bars. I’ve just had a banana-flavored one, but in England and New Zealand there’s none of those. I take passion fruit-, or raspberry- or green tea-flavored ones — there’s all these fantastic KitKats! So, I would definitely export Japanese KitKats. I don’t know why other countries don’t have them. It’s a great idea.
I also like Japanese wraparound kimono-style pajamas for children (jinbei). They look so cute. My boys have worn those sort of things at weddings, and people always compliment them on how smart and how fantastic they look. I think that Japanese children’s clothes are exceptional, and I would export those, too. How about the other way around? Is there anything you’d import to Japan from England? Marmite! I was brought up with Marmite, so I love it.
What is different between the two countries in terms of ballet?
I have to say from my experience that Japanese fans are much more enthusiastic and passionate. I think British ones are more reserved.
Also, in fact, K-Ballet is an unsubsidized company, but there’s no way any ballet companies are surviving without funding in London. So that’s another big difference — and it’s extraordinary.
However, for someone to be part of ballet in Japan is very expensive. All through my background in ballet, I (or my parents) hardly needed to spend any money, and in Britain lots of people could get into ballet on talent alone — not on their parents’ funding.
In contrast, I believe it’s true that you wouldn’t be able to even think about being a dancer in Japan unless your parents have sufficient funds to take you to ballet schools and pay the fees and put you into school shows and pay for everything required. That’s the difference, and it means the opportunity to be a dancer in Japan may not be a great as in Britain, and there’s obviously lots of talent out there that we’ll never see.
Of course, there was no way my dad could afford to send me to a boarding school like the RBS without government funding. But the government helped my dad to pay, and without that help, I wouldn’t be a dancer.
But there is nothing like that here. I’m not aware of anyone who came up from a very poor background to become a ballet dancer in Japan. It’s limiting. You are more likely to succeed as a ballet dancer in Japan if you have wealthy parents — which is sad in a way.
What’s the point of classical ballet in the 21st century, especially if it costs taxpayers lots of money, as it does in Britain?
The thing about my passion, you know — coming through the RBS, working with Frederick Ashton, seeing and working with Kenneth MacMillan, seeing Rudolf Nureyev, the history of the people I have worked with and seen and learned from — is that I am ingrained with RB traditions, the way it works and the style, the acting, the importance of storytelling. And so many people there influenced me from a very young age and it’s very important for me to pass on what I’ve learned from these special people. Without that link, without the progression of learning from the past and giving to the future, then classical ballet loses its meaning.
You need companies with their own style, but that’s what is slowly being eroded and being lost. Nowadays, most companies have dancers from all over the world. So, for example, the RB is not so different anymore and all the companies are in danger of losing their specialness, their personality and their origins.
Something I wanted to pass on to the K-Ballet company, or to anyone who wants to listen, is what I learned from the people who taught me when I was young at the RB. I lived and breathed the RB from being a child, and I’ve not been to any other companies, but I would like to see the RB styles living on there. However, so many people have come into the RB from outside without knowing the traditions, and though you can learn these things to a certain extent, it’s not in your body. Among all the principals now at the RB, there are very few who came through the ranks all the way from the RBS. There’s Ed Watson, Jonathan Cope . . . and who else? It’s only a handful.
So, do you feel sad about the current situation of the RB?
I am a bit disappointed they haven’t got the depth from their own source. We were very lucky; we were in the company when there were lots of British-developed dancers and there was such a pool of talent to fill those principal roles. Now there are only a handful of British RB- trained dancers. But if there isn’t anyone up to the standard, you can’t give them the jobs, so I’m not saying that people have been coming in and pushing out dancers coming through. When I was there, we were good enough, so that was self-sustaining, but then when we left, we left a big hole and they had to fill the hole quickly, so they didn’t have chance to bring people through and they had to bring dancers in from outside.
But I would like to see the company maintain their traditions, as the Paris Opera’s style has remained intact. That way, London stays with the traditional RB style, New York City Ballet has its own style, etc. . . . I don’t like it if all the styles start to merge and you can’t tell which is which. But it’s progress, and you can’t stop people dancing where they want to — but I’d like to see the separate styles remain.
Do you have a future plan after your career as a dancer?
While my children are still at home, they are my focus. I would like to help them in whatever they want to do — ballet, rugby, other dance forms, anything. Once they have left home, then maybe I’ll think about doing directing, or doing something else related to dance . . . I don’t know.
Yes! That should be my No. 1 priority! I go to school and learn Japanese . . . don’t I? Ha ha ha . . .
K-Ballet’s “The Sleeping Beauty” tours to Kobe, Oita, Kagoshima, Aomori, Niigata, Miyagi and Hyogo between June 5 and 30. On June 26 and 27 it is at Bunkamura Orchard Hall in Tokyo, a 6-min. walk from JR Shibuya Station. For further details, call Ticket Space at (03) 3234-9999 or visit www.ints.co.jp or www.k-ballet.co.jp
Nobuko Tanaka’s stage blog (in Japanese) is at thestage.cocolog-nifty.com
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