Following David Bintley through the corridors of the cavernous New National Theatre, Tokyo — where he is the artistic director of the National Ballet of Japan — is a bit like following Moses across the Red Sea.
Dancers slouched here and there with their mobile phones, iPods or books jump up to attention and step back to let him pass.
“Ohayō gozaimasu (Good morning),” they say, their faces bursting into smiles.
Opening two large doors, Bintley saunters into a studio with a sign outside it indicating that choreography work for a new production of “The Prince of the Pagodas” is about to begin.
Inside, three male dancers are already practicing jumps and turns in the center of the room. A grand piano stands in one corner, with a pianist fussing over the score, which was written for the Royal Ballet by the English composer Benjamin Britten in 1957. In another corner is a video camera on a tripod angled to catch all that will unfold.
Bintley offers a quiet “Hello” and then bows his head in concentration — one hand supporting his chin. All eyes follow him as he paces in a broad circle and then walks to one side. Turning to face the room, he looks up and straight ahead. “OK,” he says. “Let’s begin.”
It was midday on May 18, and I was nearing the end of two half-days spent following in Bintley’s footsteps. The objective had been to get an insight into the work of a man revered in ballet circles worldwide, but perhaps a little under-appreciated by the populace whose national ballet he directs.
In his native England, 53-year-old Bintley is considered one of the most important figures in ballet. In his youth, he was both a dancer and choreographer — such a precocious choreographer, in fact, that as a teenage student at the Royal Ballet School in London, he was singled out for special praise by the Royal Ballet’s founder, the late and legendary Sir Frederick Ashton.
Bintley joined the Sadler’s Wells Royal Ballet in London in 1976 and choreographed his first ballet there two years later. In 1985, he was made resident choreographer at the Royal Ballet itself, based at the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden. Then, in 1995, he returned to Sadler’s Wells (by then based in England’s second city and renamed as the Birmingham Royal Ballet) to be its artistic director — a role he managed to fulfill along with doing two stints as a guest choreographer at the National Ballet in Japan in 2006 and 2007.
Finally, in October last year, without leaving his position at the Birmingham Royal Ballet, Bintley was appointed as artistic director of the National Ballet of Japan — meaning he now divides his time between two high-profile companies on opposites sides of the globe. Over those two days in May, however, it was possible to see Bintley wearing each of his hats in quick succession — without having to set foot outside of Tokyo.
That was because the BRB was then in the midst of a tour of Japan, and on May 17 it was holding rehearsals and then a gala charity performance in aid of victims of the March 11 megaquake and tsunami at U Port Hall in the capital’s Gotanda district. The following day, Bintley would be back at the National Ballet headquarters in Shinjuku, choreographing a new version of “Pagodas” set in Japan. I would be with him throughout.
‘There’s 110 people out here with the tour, including about 60 dancers,” BRB media representative Simon Harper said as he led me backstage at U Port Hall at 1 p.m. on the 17th.
“Physio room, wig room, wardrobe, warm-up room, touring schedule, cast list for tonight,” Harper said, pointing this way and that as we maneuvered down the corridors.
Out in the auditorium, Bintley was seated in the middle of the first-floor seats. Nearby were members of the BRB’s ballet staff, including ballet mistress Marion Tait; the technical director; the head of scenic presentation; and several dancers — all of them newly arrived from England.
Later on, Bintley explained that the purpose of this rehearsal — which would be of “Daphnis and Chloe,” a ballet scored by Maurice Ravel in 1912 and choreographed for the Sadler’s Wells Ballet by Ashton in 1951 — was to get the cast familiar with the stage and the orchestra (the Tokyo City Philharmonic Orchestra, which had been contracted for the Tokyo shows), and also to “iron out any other details.”
The same ballet would be performed later that night — but with different principal dancers — as part of a double-bill with another work by Ashton, 1964’s one-act ballet “The Dream,” at the gala charity performance. The corps de ballet would be more or less the same.
The rehearsal got under way with six young ladies and six young men offering gifts to the nymphs in an ancient grotto — the introduction to what was originally an Ancient Greek tale of love between a goatherd and a shepherdess.
The rehearsal went without a hitch for the most part. About halfway through, Bintley got up and walked over to the lighting desk. “The performance has a painted canvas backdrop,” he explained later. “There were some shadows on the canvas, so I went over and checked they were looking into it.”
Every now and again the crackles and beeps of walkie-talkies could be heard from the lighting staff. They made an odd conjunction with Ravel’s plaintiff oboes and twittering flutes, yet the mix seemed to highlight the scale of the logistical operation that in fact supports even this most delicate of arts.
One of the challenges of the rehearsal — and that night’s performance — was that the company hadn’t performed “Daphnis and Chloe” since 2007, so some dancers were doing it for the first time. In one scene in particular, when Chloe has been spirited away by pirates, ballet master Marion Tait saw room for improvement.
“Lady pirates,” she said after ascending the stage at the end of the rehearsal. “Can you just walk your lines, please. I want (the new dancers) to see who they should be following. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6; 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 … ,” she said, leading them through the sequence.
At the same time, the touring conductor, Paul Murphy, was issuing some final advice to his charges from the Tokyo Philharmonic. “Do not listen, do only what you see,” he said, waving his baton — which he wanted them to watch like musical hawks. “All absolutely together.”
After the rehearsals, Bintley had about one hour before people started arriving for the charity show.
“I speak Japanese a little, but tonight I speak in English,” he told the audience as he made a pre-performance greeting. “We’re delighted to be here to comfort Japan at this time of tragedy. We hope you enjoy this evening’s performance.”
The packed house certainly seemed to — especially when the guest performer of the night, Miyako Yoshida, appeared in the role of Titania in “The Dream.”
Having danced with the BRB from 1984 to ’95 — and then as a principal dancer at the Royal Ballet from ’95 through 2010 (the only Japanese ballerina ever appointed to that pinnacle position there) — the 45-year-old is a celebrity in Japan’s ballet scene, and watching her it was easy to understand why. The petite Yoshida seemed to defy gravity as she moved across the stage — springing, leaping and spinning, and all without making even the faintest of footfall sounds.
At the conclusion of the night’s performances, a representative of the production company handling the tour took to the stage to express his appreciation to the BRB for going ahead with the tour at a time when many artists were canceling due to radiation fears. The crowd echoed the sentiment with a burst of applause that lasted over two minutes.
According to Harper, a lot of young dancers join the BRB because they want the chance to work with Bintley. That admiration stems in part from the fact that he is not just a respected artistic director, but also a former dancer and a choreographer. “He’s worked with the greats,” Harper said. “He’s a direct link with Ashton and others.”
So why would he take the job at Japan’s National Ballet — a role that, he said, occupies him for about four months of the year?
Sitting down with him the following morning, Bintley offered me a lengthy explanation.
“In Japan and in Britain, what we are doing is the same: It’s ballet. And yet, it is so entirely different in every single respect. That’s what I like about working here,” he said.
He rolled his eyes and smiled when asked for examples.
“When I come into the studio (in Japan), everyone stands up and bows. When I go in the studio back home, nobody even looks at me,” Bintley said, chuckling to himself. “Both approaches of course have their attractions.”
The approach to the dancing, too, is different.
“Yesterday, at the rehearsals,” he said, referring to the BRB rehearsals I had seen the day before, “I’m there wincing because the dancers in the corps are not together — they’re not doing it together! But here (at the National Ballet), we have a corps de ballet for which you need binoculars to spot a single mistake.
“Of course, with our lot (the BRB), once the show starts then suddenly they pull it all together. We work kind of like we’re putting out fires back there.”
Part of that difference stems from the vastly different programming schedules, he said. The BRB puts on 150 to 160 shows per year, the National Ballet just 40.
“The BRB has a budget for touring,” Bintley said. “In 2013, we are going to do ‘Aladdin’ and we will perform it 39 times over six weeks — in multiple locations in Britain. They did ‘Aladdin’ here in Japan, too. But they’ve only done 13 performances in the course of 2? years.”
Bintley went on to explain that the National Ballet of Japan has no touring budget, and that the number of performances is calculated on the basis of the number that can be expected to sell out.
“Here, they hire the costumes and wigs and the orchestra at a per-day rate, so unless they are selling out shows, they are losing money,” he said. At the BRB, where he said that the wigs and costumes are owned by the company, and there is a salaried orchestra, he explained that “even if the shows are only half full, you’re still making money.”
“I’m not so sure there is anything that can be done about this problem,” he said, before noting that “Pagodas” would be performed just six times in late October and early November.
Another difference he sees is in the dancers themselves.
“I think that the dancers here — because ballet comes from overseas — are quick to appropriate and to just say, OK, that’s how it’s done,” he said.
“However, it is my belief that ballet starts in the heart. It doesn’t start out there. It’s not something you put on like a suit.”
Bintley aims to inspire his dancers to convey personality on stage. And the key to that, he believes, is to create a ballet that is about Japan — a ballet that “touches the Japanese people”; a ballet, that is to say, like his new “Pagodas.”
The original “Pagodas” was choreographed by John Cranko in 1957, and set in the same Balinese locales where Britten had been inspired in composing the musical score.
Bintley decided to move the action to Japan — at least until the main character of Belle Rose (Belle Sakura in this production) travels to the imaginary Pagoda Land in search of a prince who has taken the form of a salamander.
“In the first act, we’ll be using real kimonos,” Bintley said, before adding that they will gradually be transformed into similarly styled dress that allows for a little more movement.
Bintley found inspiration for the production in the depictions of ghosts and monsters by the 19th-century ukiyo-e painter Utagawa Kuniyoshi. Those assorted nasties have inspired the costumes for the various creatures Sakura meets in Pagoda Land.
Soon it was time for Bintley and myself to travel to the mysterious and magical Pagoda Land, too — as the choreographing session scheduled for that day was about to begin.
So, it was over to the National Ballet’s basement studios we headed, with Bintley parting that slouched sea of dancers who stood and smiled as they stepped aside to let us past.
Watching a choreographer at work is an extraordinary experience. Bintley walked over to the three dancers, spun around to face the same direction as them and then started making small approximations of various dance steps — spinning pirouettes on the left leg, then the right leg; moving one way and then another; punctuating each change of direction with a cabriole, where the extended legs are beaten in the air; then three rapid sliding “glissade” steps back into a corner.
“We had no idea what he’d ask us to do until he came into the studio,” one of the dancers, Yudai Fukuoka, told me later on. If so, to my eyes at least, all three dancers appeared capable of reading his mind.
Picking up on even the slightest flick of the leg or turn of the head, they watched his movements and then instantly translated them into bold dance steps. The three of them appeared to have become extensions of Bintley’s very imagination.
Not only that, but they memorized it as they went. After an hour, a rapid-fire sequence filled with small, detailed steps and lasting around 90 seconds had been created.
With the sweat showing on his shirt and his breath just slightly quickened, Bintley stopped and asked the trio — who will take turns playing the lead role of the prince opposite ballerina Ayako Ono’s Belle Sakura — to run through the sequence one more time. He pulled out his iPhone and held it up to video the scene.
“I have to remember it,” he said modestly.
Of course, when it’s done — a ballet made in and about Japan for Japanese dancers by one of the world’s most renowned choreographers — it is not likely to be easy to forget.
Tickets for “The Prince of the Pagodas,” which runs from Oct. 30 through Nov. 6, go on sale today. Call (03) 5352-9999 or visit www.nntt.jac.go.jp or for details.