National Ballet of Japan’s New Year Ballet, a festive gala performance featured a company premiere, David Dawson’s A Million Kisses to My Skin and George Balanchine’s Symphony in C along with two short pieces from overseas guest stars which were the icing on the cake.

Haruna Nakajima and Shogo Hayami in A Million Kisses to my Skin
© Takashi Shikama

The aim of A Million Kisses to My Skin entering the repertoire was to give a challenge to the company dancers who are not familiar with neo-classical pieces. Although based on classical technique, this piece features expanded movements, off-balance, complicated partnering and extreme extensions, at high speed and responding well to Bach’s Piano Concerto Op.1. Six female dancers and three male dancers appear in turn, passing the choreography to each other and sharing the joy of dance. The opening night featured the company’s two top ballerinas, Yui Yonezawa and Ayako Ono both excellent in their own right and the partnership between Yonezawa and Takafumi Watanabe was thrilling. But the pleasant surprise was Miho Naotsuka, who had just joined the company and danced the main role in the second cast. Her stunning arabesques and confident, bold steps were a standout. Some of the dancers struggled with understanding the off-balance, tilted axis of this work but it was however, a breath of fresh air and an eye-opener for the audience as well as the company artists.

Yasmine Naghdi and Matthew Ball in The Sleeping Beauty
© Takashi Shikama

The company often invited overseas guest artists a decade ago, but with the leverage of the company dancers, it has been rare to have them recently, so it was a treat to have top artists joining the gala. Yasmine Naghdi and Matthew Ball, principals of The Royal Ballet, danced the pas de deux from Act 3 of Sleeping Beauty. Naghdi’s precise technique and musicality, warmth alongside Ball’s good partnering skills and soft landings were attractive, but what was memorable was their stage presence. The moment the curtain rose they were believable as a real princess and prince. Every gesture in their manner, every interaction with the audience, especially in their curtain calls, showed the radiance of true ballet stars.

Alina Cojocaru and Alexandr Trusch in Don Juan
© Takashi Shikama

Alina Cojocaru and Alexandr Trusch (of Hamburg Ballet) performed a snippet from John Neumeier’s Don Juan. Cojocaru, a lady in a white dress, appears in front of Trusch’s Don Juan and seems to haunt him. Cojocaru’s dramatic ability, her ethereal movements were otherworldly and along with Trusch’s fine partnering, lifting her as though she was weightless, captivated the audience and transported us into a mysterious world. It was like watching a full evening performance. Their artistry was something that is rarely seen and is a great gift to us all.

Ayako Ono and Shun Izawa in Symphony in C
© Takashi Shikama

The evening concluded with Balanchine’s Symphony in C. This brilliant masterpiece of fireworks has been in the company’s repertoire for 20 years and with many happy memories, but this performance had some problems. In the first movement, led by reigning principals Yui Yonezawa and Yudai Fukuoka, they executed the steps with precision and clarity although the tempi seemed a little slower than at previous performances. The adagio second movement was the highlight of the piece with Ayako Ono’s lyricism and dramatic quality conquering the stage. The flexibility of her back and her timing, combined with attentive partnering by Shun Izawa, created a somewhat sensual allure. In the third movement, Risako Ikeda and Yoshito Kinoshita soared high across the stage with assured musicality. 

All the leading dancers were excellent until the final movement. A young corps de ballet dancer substituted a principal ballerina who had been injured.  Understandably, she looked very nervous and lacking in confidence. Perhaps she needed more time to prepare. This ballet needs to have the best dancers in the company in the principal roles and sadly even her very good partner could not save the situation. One pair missed the coda due to an injury occurring on stage, but there was a unifying, strong will shared by the 50 dancers, confirming that whatever happens, the show must carry on. While tough scheduling and injuries can cause problems, we could see that the dancers were doing their best in a difficult situation, which never fails to touch the audience’s hearts.