Kumakawa’s The Sleeping Beauty

Tetsuya Kumakawa, 38 year old founder, artistic director, and dashingly modish first principal dancer of K-Ballet, needs a reputation make-over. Badly. Kumakawa’s astonishing leaps, quick feet, needlepoint precision often take a backseat in the West to his perceived spoiled playboy antics, his “colossal stage ego” and well, his own incontrovertible actions and speech. Charmingly devilish, in English press Kumakawa off-handedly details his fame in Japan (celebrity status with trailing groupies) his penchant for expensive sports cars (three in Japan and one in England at last count) and brashly avows he cares more about his own career than his company. And there’s no escaping his infamous Royal Ballet Walk-Out during the ROH crisis, immortalized in Britain with the help of the dancers he lured away to start K-Ballet in 1999, in the laddishly amusing Ballet Boyz videos.

But for this Boyz, back in his hood over a decade now, a dapper playboy coat no longer fits. His recent production of The Sleeping Beauty reasserts his genius as a master story-teller, and offers a new style for this self-styled impetuous dancer: an artistic director with subtle wisdom and a keen awareness of the team.

Peptiva’s The Sleeping Beauty, historically one of the first ballets to unite choreographer, composer, and producer with a common vision, is the perfect vehicle for Kumakawa to step away from center-stage. Kumakawa first created the ballet in 2002, the same year Michael Nunn and William Trevitt defected from K-Ballet to start their own company back in London. This revival shows even more clearly the lessons Kumakawa learned from the early years of running a company, and he seems to have discovered a balance between satisfying his Japanese groupies and directing true productions for the ballet world.

There are touches of genius within the storytelling. As soon as the curtain rises, haunting still-scenes entice the eyes, cleverly rendered with the use of gauze inner curtains and lighting effects, introducing the narrative before The Prologue begins. The opening of Act II: The Vision focuses on the camaraderie of the male dancers, all hunters on a day of sport, and also plants an important narrative seed: the restless heart of Prince Florimund who silences the antics of his huntsmen with one quick, well-aimed bulls-eye. Kumakawa’s version of Carabosse and the Gargoyles (I will never be satisfied again with Carabosse as a tepid witch with rats) throb with dervish life, and Stuart Cassidy’s superb characterization delights the audience.

With choreography, Kumakawa remains true to Peptiva’s brilliance with subtle, sometimes playful digressions that throw expectation off balance and leave the audience freshly enthralled. Kumakawa manages to satisfy his many seething fans with an impressive adagio in Act II and triumphant solo in Act III, but more importantly, he endeavors to partner his Beauty with subtle, refined strength. Act III showcases the broad talent Kumakawa is developing with K-Ballet; the Bluebird and Princess Florine (Naoki Hashimoto and Yuko Arai) perform flawlessly, and the fairy-tale soloists enliven the stage with their efforts. The grand coda finale gives everyone a chance to join the celebration, and the overall effect blazons harmonious collaboration, not showpiece-for-spoiled-star.

The sets and costumes, by Peter Farmer, gorgeously detailed and reminiscent of a Miyazaki storyboard, combine the best of Japanese subtlety with the more lavish style of Western productions. The Gargoyles are costumed cleverly, their many leaps and rolls accentuated by their flaying rags.

There are imperfections: any Aurora gulps at the challenging test of balance in the Rose Adagio, but his Aurora on the day I watched (Rina Kambe) seemed brittle with nerves, and her courtly smile of greeting spoke instead too much relief at keeping her own balance. Act II, streamlined beautifully for story, ends suddenly; after the humorous antics of the huntsmen and the mystical beauty of the Jewels during the vision of Princess Aurora, Prince Florimund’s battle with Carabosse cuts off too abruptly, a jarring note in the harmony, especially as Cassidy’s Carabosse brought so much impish enjoyment to the stage.

Overall, Kumakawa’s The Sleeping Beauty deserves recognition, and demands the world reassesses their estimation of its star, Tetsuya Kumakawa. He is no longer a pampered artiste, vassal to ego and immaturity– but a master story-teller, aware of his own capabilities and talents to best unite and expand his entire company while placating his many benefactors. It’s time to re-stage the story, and refit Kumakawa with a more fitting mantle.

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