On a wet Thursday night Les Grands Ballets kicked off their new season, the last under Gradimir Pankov's artistic directorship. The opening performance, Kaguyahime, is inspired by a Japanese legend and translated into dance by Jiří Kylián. The marketing campaign around it has been immense, from the commercials and the billboards to the soirées, like last month's 5 à 7. The promotion was enough to raise a general curiosity, yet I did not know what to expect.

Dating back as early as the 9th century, Kaguyahime is the name of the moon princess sent to Earth in one of the world's oldest written tales, The Bamboo Cutter. A symbol of purity, Kaguyahime is discovered in a stalk of bamboo and raised by a humble bamboo cutter. Her beauty captures all who see her, and many men vie for her hand in marriage. Though she would marry none of them, destined instead to return to the moon after a short time, the competition for her affection grows fierce. Fighting ensues between the suitors and catches the Emperor's attention, whose troops also join in the fray. Finally the Emperor insists on seeing Kaguyahime himself and is enraptured by her beauty. Unwilling to see her go, he orders his guards to keep her on Earth for him. Yet, Kaguyahime's purity reflected by the next full moon blinds the Emperor and anyone attempting to restrain her. Finally she ascends back to her distant home, her absence hopefully taming the unrest of the men she leaves behind. The first striking element of Kaguyahime is the trio of musicians in traditional Japanese costume, elevated from the orchestra pit and standing under a spotlight at the very front of the stage. They are members of Reigakusha, an ensemble that plays gagaku, the world's oldest orchestral music originating in the Imperial Japanese Court of the 6th century. The sound of bamboo flutes immediately transports you far from western culture.

Next, stars seem to sparkle in mid-air between long, hanging ropes. As the lighting changes, we see the ropes are holding long, illuminated slats that cover the stage both across and deep and swing in a hypnotizing pattern. A row of men slowly make their way through the alleys left by the slats in a steady and determined march. Kaguyahime floats above the swinging slats, an otherworldly being shining white under an icy spotlight. Her mix of angular poses and rounded movements are beautiful and foreign. Though the stage is full with dancers and elements of the set, it still feels minimalist. There is little movement and the music creates more of a soundscape than a melody. After being completely drawn in, I catch my mind starting to wander as the introduction goes on and on. 

Kylian refined the story of The Bamboo Cutter, keeping only key elements of the plot. Though this makes it easy to know what’s going on in each scene, it’s a bit oversimplified. It feels at times like the choreography is streched for inspiration as moves are repeated, especially in the case of Kaguyahime. During group passages it is always the same phrase of run, jump, counterweight, and separate. Fighting scenes lack excitement and celebration dances lack heart, and I wouldn’t blame this on the dancers’ performance. When the strobe lights kick in it looks out of place and, if anything, makes it harder to see the dancing rather than enhancing it. If this is all an attempt to recreate the more understated Japanese aesthetic, it is not successful.

After a black curtain dramatically falls from the ceiling and covers the stage, Kaguyahime emerges for a solo that is the highlight of the night. Sarah Kingston embodies the role and is every bit as pure as a moon princess should be. She is at once inviting and untouchable. I don't envy the skin tight, bedazzled, white onesie she has to wear, but it makes a gorgeous statement. There is no room for error as we can see every angle of her body. She is effortless in her dancing. This elegant passage ends as suddenly as it began, cut off by the Wizard of Oz-style entrance of the Emperor. He floats in on a stage-wide gold curtain, which he then uses to wrap Kaguyahime in. I like the idea of ghost hands manipulating a dancer through material, but this execution is more than a little shaky.

By the end I’m thankful for the relatively short length of the show (85 minutes). The rather flat moments of choreography for the ensemble were made only slightly more interesting by the addition of Japanese Kodo drummers, but I could have done without the gimmicky, symbol-ridden sets. Kaguyahime clearly has its fans, and the piece has been picked up by several companies since its première in 1988 by the Nederlands Dans Theater, but it just didn't hit the mark tonight. The applause was slow to start and uncharacteristically soft. I for one applauded the dancers who were as excellent as ever in their technique and character, but unfortunately Kaguyahime isn’t a show I’d recommend.