The Ballet Bag in Japan

Flyer for the upcoming production of "M".

The Ballet Bag, a wonderfully now and informative blog on ballet, graciously arranged for me to visit Tokyo Ballet recently, with the help of Maiko Uchida of NBS.   The photoblog of that day is here:  The Ballet Bag in Japan.

Check out the photoblog first, but my full text for the rehearsal is pasted below, in case there are any Mishima/ Bejart fans who need more details.

Thank you, Ballet Bag and Maiko san — and my ballet master, Yoshiaki Nagahata, who introduced me to Bejart and “M”, providing insight and wisdom I could (hopefully) pass along.

Full Text:

Clear and crisp, the blue sky freshly washed and gleaming, I clapped twice and bowed as I passed the Meguro river on my way to the Tokyo Ballet studios, to honor the shade of Yukio Mishima (1925-1970). Today, November 25, 2010, marks the 40th anniversary of Mishima’s seppuku, ritual suicide, at the age of 45, and to commemorate his death, Tokyo Ballet will stage Maurice Bejart’s “M” in mid December. Many of the original cast from 1993 will reprise their roles, including a return to ballet from a 7 years absence by Juichi Kobayashi, who was sidelined due to intervertebral disk degeneration. Kobayashi, who hails from a famous Japanese Rakugo (comedic storytelling) family, has kept busy in the last seven years, as a rehearsal advisor in 2005 for Tokyo Ballet’s last production of “M”, but also by spreading out into stage and television acting. Fans anticipate a new dramatic maturity as he reprises the enigmatic role of Shi (4). The other big news with this production: it marks the debut of Tokyo Ballet’s rising soloist, Naoyoshi Nagase, in the ingenuously erotic role of Saint Sebastian.

Rehearsal officially opened with a 30 minute speech by Administrative Director Norio Takahashi, in honor of the anniversary of Yukio Mishima’s death. Takahashi san spoke of Bejart’s desire to pay tribute to Mishima, as an avid fan, encouraged by the revered Japanese composer, Toshiro Mayuzumi, who had worked with Bejart earlier composing the music for “The Kabuki.” Mayuzumi himself spoke to Mishima’s widow during the collaboration, and Bejart choreographed the ballet in one month.

Rehearsals started with Bushido/ Kyoko’s House, the longest section, and a sequence that opens with a scene evocative of Mishima’s novel, Kyoko’s House. The novel presents four stages of man, and Bejart took this idea and expanded it in the ballet, with the characters, ichi (1), ni (2), san (3), shi (4). A homophone in Japanese, the number four also sounds like the word for death, and that double meaning is obvious with the character of shi in the ballet. Back to rehearsal: as the scene opens, a man and woman recline on a red couch, observing with ennui the pas de deux of ichi, Bejart’s first stage of Mishima, and woman. Naoki Takagishi and Mika Yoshioka, both reprising their roles from the original production, rehearsed first. Their ease together was evident, and with the advantage of such a close view, I gained new respect for the acting intrinsic to ballet. Seconds earlier the two were exchanging teasing smiles, but they transformed instantly into a young Mishima, struggling with his sexuality, and woman, both his tormentor and potential savior. Mizuka Ueno, who will perform the role of woman on the 19th, rehearsed next, and all three seasoned veterans, Takagishi, Yoshioka and artistic director Munetaka Iida, advised her through the difficult, contemporary steps.

This sequence moves from Mishima’s inner struggles and frustration to his discovery of the physical – he was an avid body builder and model, and later formed his own self-defense force, Tate no Kai. Revealed through the dance, the scene morphs to one of physical male, and the pas de deux segues into a powerful all-male sequence, led by Shi, (4). The sheer masculinity of the scene impresses, with traces of Noh and Kabuki in the steps. Bejart is known as a choreographer for the danseur, and this scene certainly showcases the beauty and power of masculinity. Kobayashi’s recovery is obviously complete, as he never marked during rehearsal, and danced with strength and power, although occasionally in some pain. Nagase san came by to graciously explain he is resting a slight injury, and will thus only mark his solo. Still, he somehow managed to exemplify beauty, youth, and grace in motion, and Japanese audiences are correct to anticipate his performance.

The next scene was Rokumeikan – an uplifting, joyful celebration of Western Culture that ends in disaster– another reference to Mishima, this time to his play of the same name. The play reveals Japan’s conflicted feelings towards the influx of Western Culture. Set in 1886, the title alludes to the historical Rokumeikan Hall in Tokyo, a controversial symbol of Japan’s Westernization. Balls and banquets were held there, with Japanese elite copying the latest styles and dances from Europe; foreign diplomats were housed nearby. In Bejart’s hands, the lively, classical scene, the refined energy of the dancers is interrupted by gunshots – another allusion to Mishima’s play – and the schoolboy returns onstage to disrupt the dance. In rehearsal, the dancers were elegant and genteel, the classical steps and Strauss’s waltz beautifully reflecting Western culture. Yuji Matsushita danced with particular energy, and the character “Moon on the Water” with her brief solo: in rehearsal, Reiko Koide and Rie Watanabe (debuting in the role) each revealed an ethereal and graceful luminescence.

Finally, the dancers practiced the ending, Tate no kai, the special self-defense force, formed and led by Mishima to “protect” the Emperor. Translated, it means shield, and the male dancers act as a barrier and then a background to the schoolboy’s reenactment of Mishima’s infamous seppuku, ritual suicide. The rehearsal required many stops and starts, as Artistic Director Iida san went through the timing and precision movements with the male corps several times. “Don’t run into each other!” he extolled good-naturedly, and reset the music again. Once the men were released, the woman went through the same treatment from Iida san, as the Tate no kai scene blends with the reentrance of the sea, another sequence requiring exact timing, this time from the female corps who mimic the oceans’ grace.

Rehearsal ended slightly later than scheduled, because of the speech by Takahashi san, but the dancers seemed still lively at the end. Juichi Kobayashi and Ryuta Takahashi practiced some hip hop in the corner, while other dancers moved to the side to go over steps or stretch. There did not seem to be any tension or frustrations, even at this early stage of rehearsal; perhaps with so many veterans reprising their roles, their confidence has permeated the company. I left the rehearsal hall with the sunshine dissipating and my stomach growling, so I found the nearest ramen stand and ate hot noodles with a beer, toasting Mishima san and the Tokyo Ballet, with a special thanks to Maiko Uchida of NBS and The Ballet Bag, for arranging this day, and Nagahata Yoshiaki of Nagahata Ballet, for sharing his insight of Bejart and “M”. Kampai to “M”.

 

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