National Ballet of Japan’s 2019/20 season was forced to have an abrupt closure when the Covid-19 pandemic started to spread in Japan in February, with many cancellations. When restrictions were loosened in June, the company returned to the studio and in July a new ballet for children, Ryuugu the Turtle Princess, was staged in front of a reduced but live audience with recorded music, gaining critical success.

Shun Izawa and Yui Yonezawa in Don Quixote
© Takashi Shikama

The 2020/21 season was supposed to be a very special one, as the company welcomes Miyako Yoshida as their new director. Yoshida, a former Royal Ballet principal who continued her career until her retirement last summer, is regarded one of the greatest ballerinas in the history of ballet in Japan. Her initial plan for the season opening was to bring a new production of Swan Lake by her mentor, Sir Peter Wright. Due to travel restrictions and lack of rehearsal time, this had to be postponed, and she made a decision to replace it with Don Quixote, a casualty of last season.

 Alexei Fadeyechev’s Don Quixote has been in the company’s repertoire for more than two decades – Yoshida herself danced Kitri in 1999 – but this time, she gave the company an entirely new look. National Ballet of Japan is acclaimed for their quality, precise classical technique and beautiful, unified corps de ballet. But Japanese dancers tend to be quite shy on stage, and previously they were not really successful in bringing liveliness on stage, to exist as the merry and passionate folks of Barcelona. Yoshida has passed on her experience of how to tell the story by movement as well as to strengthen technique. The company had to rehearse under strict safety protocols, working in small groups and wearing masks in the studio, as well as disinfection and temperature measurement, occasional virus testing. But their efforts have been rewarded with a successful opening. In the era of Covid-19, an audience would welcome a bright and cheerful ballet like Don Quixote rather than the tragic Swan Lake

Shun Izawa and Yui Yonezawa in Don Quixote
© Takashi Shikama

All the dancers were eloquent and lively, as though the theatre had transformed into the sunny streets of Barcelona. We could feel how the dancers had been longing to perform in front of an audience and they seemed so happy and fulfilled to be there when the curtain opened, showing bright lighting and stage sets, along with Minkus' uplifting score. Because of travel restrictions, Fadeyechev could not come to coach, but he did manage to see rehearsals online. The dancers' performance carried the spirit of Russian ballet, with the emphasis on the upper body and epaulement, making their dance big and expressive, filling the house with excitement and passion. 

Opening night was led by Yui Yonezawa and Shun Izawa as the young lovers, Kitri and Basilio. Yonezawa, a world class ballerina who has already won critical acclaim with her crystalline technique and intellectual understanding of the role, has strengthened her stage presence and characterisation. Her Kitri was a hot-tempered, playful and independent woman who could win the hearts of every man in town. From her first step to the first développé and leap, everything has evolved into a much larger scale and her already long limbs looked even longer. Izawa is the prince of this company and Basilio is not usually his ideal character, but this time he fitted the role of the young barber. The audience could imagine the romantic, sometimes flirtatious conversation between the couple, as they were both very natural and eloquent, their great partnership developed in recent performances. Yonezawa drove the audience wild with her virtuoso fouettés that threw multiple triple turns while opening and closing her fan, but she is not only a technical powerhouse. Her brilliant musicality and elegance shone in her Dulcinea variation too. Izawa’s excellent partnering skills were shown in his one-arm lifts in Act 1 and the adagio of the Act 3 pas de deux, and his soaring leaps left a bravura impression. 

Shun Izawa and Yui Yonezawa in Don Quixote
© Takashi Shikama

Although the dancers had to train at home during the three month quarantine period, most were in very good shape. The dashing toreadors, gypsies, Spanish dancers, and the dryad fairies in the Act 2 dream scene all moved well, creating a lively atmosphere. Some of the standouts were the sensual and dangerously attractive matador Espada, danced by Yoshito Kinoshita, the light as air Cupid by Haruka Soutome, and the lyrical, dreamlike Act 3 second variation beautifully danced by Risako Ikeda. Another unforgettable character is the wealthy aristocrat Gamache comically and charmingly played by Kosuke Okumura, another prince of the company who will dance Basilio at a later date with Ikeda as Kitri. 

The score was magnificently played by Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra in full formation, under the baton of house conductor Misato Tomita. As cheering and throwing bravos are currently prohibited, the audience clapped loudly at the curtain calls like never before and almost everyone in the house gave a standing ovation, showing their gratitude and expressing their joy at attending a live ballet performance which was deprived for such a long period during the lockdown. Seating restrictions were loosened so the tickets were sold at 90% capacity (the first three rows at orchestra level were left empty) and there was so much excitement in the air. This was a triumphant season opening to mark a new era in the history of National Ballet of Japan. 

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