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The Tokyo Ballet In Rehearsal

by Linda on June 15, 2010

The Tokyo Ballet is one of the largest troupes in Ballet-loving Japan. The company is renowned for its association with Béjart; 18 of his ballets – including original pieces – are currently in repertory. They also boast impressive guests; Sylvie Guillem and Manuel Legris are regulars and, earlier this year, Polina Semionova and Marcelo Gomes  – a match made in ballet heaven – appeared in their production of Ashton’s Sylvia.

During our stay in Japan we were invited to attend rehearsals for some of the Béjart works scheduled to be performed in The Tokyo Ballet’s upcoming European tour. In this feature we give you a bit of the company’s background and share some of the fab images taken by our collaborator Susanne Reffert, whose own blog Chipango captures life in Japan through the eyes of a Westerner. We hope it provides a nice calling card for those not yet familiar with the company.

Background

The Tokyo Ballet emerged in the early 60s as a company for graduates of the Tokyo Ballet Gakko, one of the city’s first classical ballet schools.  In 1964 it was taken over by opera impresario Tadatsugu Sasaki who worked to raise the company’s profile. Believing that Japanese dancers could achieve high standards if they focused on ensemble work, he invested in the company, widening its repertory. The company thrived under Sasaki and was soon invited to tour abroad, visiting Moscow, St. Petersburg (Leningrad at the time) and Kazan in 1966 (as “The Tchaikovsky Memorial Ballet”) and undertaking its first European tour in 1970, now as The Tokyo Ballet.

Growing clamour for governmental support of the arts led to the establishment of Japan’s Performing Arts Foundation (NBS) in 1981. With Sasaki as its Executive Director the company sought to promote and facilitate international exchange in performing arts. This not only paved the way for major international ballet troupes to appear in Tokyo, but for The Tokyo Ballet to attract major choreographers; John Neumeier, Jiří Kylián and Maurice Béjart all created works for the company, the latter having bequeathed performing rights to many of his works.

Mika Yoshioka and Artists of The Tokyo Ballet in Béjart's The Kabuki. Photo: Kiyonori Hasegawa / The Tokyo Ballet ©

The Tokyo Ballet Today

  • The company has 86 dancers
  • In 2007 it received the 6th Asahi Performing Arts Prize for artistic achievements
  • Every other year the company tours Europe; occasionally North and South America
  • It has completed 23 tours and over 680 performances in some of the world’s most iconic theatres: La Scala, Wiener Staatsoper, Deutsche Oper Berlin, Teatro Colón, Bolshoi Theatre, Mariinsky Theatre and the Paris Opera
  • It has a wide-ranging repertory including original works by Neumeier (Seven Haiku of the Moon; Seasons – The Colours of Time) and Kylián (Perfect Conception).
  • In 2010 the company premiered John Cranko’s Onegin and Sir Frederick Ashton’s Sylvia

The Tokyo Ballet rehearses Maurice Béjart

Tadatsugu Sasaki developed a close friendship with French choreographer Maurice Béjart who felt “very much at home in Japan”. Through this connection The Tokyo Ballet formed an important association with Béjart whose work was often inspired by Eastern themes. The choreographer first collaborated with the company in 1982 when Bolero was staged. This led to three original ballets being created for them: The Kabuki (1986), M – based on the biography of novelist Mishima Yukio – (1993) and Bugaku (1989).

I caught up with The Tokyo Ballet on the run-up to its 24th European tour; a showcase of Béjart big ensemble pieces The Kabuki, Don Giovanni and Le Sacre du Printemps. The first rehearsal I saw was for Don Giovanni (or The Don Giovanni Variations). Béjart loved Mozart’s operas, so he created this short ballet where a group of women try to impress and lure an imaginary playboy with their charm and grace.

The piece is set it to Chopin’s Variations on Don Giovanni. Under the watchful eye of ballet mistress Hiroko Tomoda,  Junko Takamura, whose warm smile and quick feet perfectly sum up the role of “the girl with a book”, practices with her colleagues.

Artists of The Tokyo Ballet rehearsing Béjart's Don Giovanni. Photo: Susanne Reffert / The Ballet Bag ©

The ballet starts with the women waiting in a rehearsal studio. They suddenly hear a voice and respond with movement. Don Giovanni is split between mime scenes (where the girls act coquettish and flirty) and classical petit allegro sequences.

Artists of The Tokyo Ballet rehearsing Béjart's Don Giovanni. Photo: Susanne Reffert / The Ballet Bag ©

There are also plenty of solo roles. The powerful jump of Aya Takagi and Chika Saeki’s beautiful upper body (as well as her sparkly hairband) caught my eye more than once.

Artists of The Tokyo Ballet rehearsing Béjart's Don Giovanni. Photo: Susanne Reffert / The Ballet Bag ©

Béjart’s ballets tend to focus on male dancers,  so an all-female piece like Don Giovanni was a new direction for him. At times in the ballet we see 26 ballerinas move in unison; then they smoothly transition into smaller groups.

Artists of The Tokyo Ballet in Béjart's Don Giovanni. Photo: Kiyonori Hasegawa / The Tokyo Ballet ©

Next it was time for the boys to join the girls for Le Sacre du Printemps (The Rite of Spring), Béjart’s first big success. This session was led by Artistic Director Munetaka Iida, a very energetic ballet master.

Artists of The Tokyo Ballet rehearsing Béjart's Sacre du Printemps. Photo: Susanne Reffert / The Ballet Bag ©

Rite was commissioned by Maurice Huisman, then director of the Théâtre Royal de la Monnaie in Brussels. It premiered in 1959 to general acclaim.

Artists of The Tokyo Ballet rehearsing Béjart's Sacre du Printemps. Photo: Susanne Reffert / The Ballet Bag ©

Even in rehearsal, with no costumes or setting, the ballet retains its power. One could feel an overall sense of occasion and commitment from the dancers.

Mika Yoshioka and artists of The Tokyo Ballet rehearsing Béjart's Sacre du Printemps. Photo: Susanne Reffert / The Ballet Bag ©

Artists of The Tokyo Ballet rehearsing Béjart's Sacre du Printemps. Photo: Susanne Reffert / The Ballet Bag ©

Béjart’s intention was to present a hymn to the union between “man and woman” at its most fundamental level, with a large corps de ballet also taking part in this savage ritual.

Artists of The Tokyo Ballet rehearsing Béjart's Sacre du Printemps. Photo: Susanne Reffert / The Ballet Bag ©

The main roles were taken by principal Mika Yoshioka, a dancer who has a clear sense of drama, and soloist Naoyoshi Nagase

Mika Yoshioka and artists of The Tokyo Ballet rehearsing Béjart's Sacre du Printemps. Photo: Susanne Reffert / The Ballet Bag ©

Béjart’s work is highly theatrical. He gave importance to content over movement and drew frequently from biographical, social and cultural subjects, rejecting “fairy tale” themes and often including an erotic vein.

Mika Yoshioka and artists of The Tokyo Ballet rehearsing Béjart's Sacre du Printemps. Photo: Susanne Reffert / The Ballet Bag ©

I got the feeling that the dancers very much enjoy performing in these ballets and that they have an understanding of what Béjart wanted to transmit. A spectacular, kinetic piece like Rite requires their total commitment as they are on stage at all times.

Mika Yoshioka and artists of The Tokyo Ballet rehearsing Béjart's Sacre du Printemps. Photo: Susanne Reffert / The Ballet Bag ©

Artists of The Tokyo Ballet rehearsing Béjart's Sacre du Printemps. Photo: Susanne Reffert / The Ballet Bag ©

The rights to perform Rite were suspended in 1990. But three years later Béjart allowed The Tokyo Ballet to revive the work for its 30th anniversary; also giving the company exclusive performance rights.

Artists of The Tokyo Ballet in Béjart's Le Sacre du Printemps. Photo: Kiyonori Hasegawa / The Tokyo Ballet ©

More rehearsal images and candid shots available from The Tokyo Ballet’s official blog. All images here either courtesy of  The Tokyo Ballet/NBS or posted with their kind permission. With many thanks to NBS Press officer Maiko Uchida for the tour and for making it all happen.

Sources and Further Information

  1. Maurice Béjart Obituary by Ruth Leon, Bloomberg. Nov, 2007. [link]
  2. Maurice Béjart entry in GLBTQ Encyclopedia by John McFarland. [link]
  3. Maurice Béjart Obituary, NYT. Nov 2007. [link]
  4. Nuits de Fourvière, Info site. The Tokyo Ballet dances Béjart.[link]
  5. Programme Notes for Don Giovanni, The Kabuki and Le Sacre du Printemps, The Tokyo Ballet, 2010.
  6. The Tokyo Ballet. Lausanne city portal. [link]

Where to see The Tokyo Ballet performing Béjart

During their 2010 tour of Europe:

  • Turkey: Don Giovanni / Dances Grecques / Sacre du Printemps (Aspendos 17 June; Istanbul 19 June)
  • Germany: Images of Asia by Béjart: Bugaku / The Kabuki Suite (Hamburg State Opera June 22, 23) The Kabuki (Deutsche Oper Berlin. July 6, 7)
  • Italy: Danses Grecques / Don Giovanni / Sacre du Printemps (Napoli June 26, 27;  Cremona, Festival di Mezza  July 4; Racconigi, July 17, 18)  Don Giovanni / Bugaku / Danses Grecques (Civitanova, July 1); Gala Evening for 700th Performance Abroad feat. The Kabuki (Milan, Teatro Alla Scala July 11); Don Giovanni / Bugaku / Bolero (Como, Festival Como Città della Musica July 13).
  • France: Bolero / Danses Grecques / Don Giovanni  (Lyon, July 15)

Further details from the local promoter’s websites or by searching Tokyo Ballet on Bachtrack.


{ 6 trackbacks }

Shopaholic & Chacott
June 17, 2010 at 3:19 pm
Interview with The Tokyo Ballet's Aya Takagi
June 22, 2010 at 12:03 pm
On the road with Birmingham Royal Ballet
August 2, 2010 at 5:12 pm
The Tokyo Ballet In Rehersal for Béjart’s M
December 8, 2010 at 6:22 pm
Maurice Béjart: Ballet for Life
January 29, 2011 at 5:25 pm
Béjart’s Kabuki: A Preview
May 10, 2012 at 2:21 pm

{ 11 comments }

David D June 16, 2010 at 1:13 pm

I would LOOOOOOOOOOOOOOVE to see Tokyo Ballet in person.

Emilia June 16, 2010 at 9:50 pm

I certainly know the feeling David! I am quite jealous of L. right now : )

Best,

E.

Luis Solis June 19, 2010 at 2:19 pm

I’ll be in Tokyo this coming December, with wife and kids. Do you happen to know if there is any chnce of us getting to see a performance of The Nutcracker? Where?, When? Any information will be greatly apreciated.
Thank you very much

Emilia June 19, 2010 at 11:34 pm

See if these listings help http://www.bachtrack.com/find-a-ballet/what/composer=109-Tchaikovsky;city=490-Tokyo

And have a great time in this wonderful city!

coco June 28, 2010 at 4:25 am

Esta padrisimo tu blog!!!

Marylou June 28, 2010 at 8:41 pm

I was very lucky to be in Turkey when the Tokyo Ballet company were performing at the Aspendos Amphitheatre, Opera and Ballet Frestival, words can not descripe how fantastic it was, I have not experienced anything like it, BOLERO was breathtaking. I would like to know if there is a DVD of the performance, as I did notice they were filming it

Maria July 7, 2010 at 1:03 pm

I would like to share this blog-entry on my LJ account….I’ve been to their Berlin performance of The Kabuki yesterday evening…so beautiful…I’m deeply moved

Emilia July 7, 2010 at 1:32 pm

Marylou – we can certainly find out about Tokyo Ballet’s DVD plans if you wish, just drop us a line.

Maria – many thanks for sharing, much appreciated!

Luis Solis July 10, 2010 at 12:37 pm

Emilia,
Thank you so much for the information. The page you suggested is excellent.

Josiane De Gols July 17, 2010 at 12:32 pm

I saw them in Como last Tuesday, what a performance ! Unforgettable.

G. Gagnon September 1, 2010 at 4:37 am

I danced with Tokyo Ballet when both it and I were quite young. At the time, it was the only truly professional classical ballet school and company, and the repertoire was mostly the classical standards. Ever since, I’ve kept my programs, my pointe shoes, and my many many memories of a wonderful company, with very thoughtful and astute teachers, who understood a foreignor’s (I’m American) limited ability to convey my gratitude for all they taught me.

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