National Ballet of Japan’s annual performances of their New Year Ballet were on thin ice. First the company's premiere of Ashton’s The Dream had to be replaced by David Bintley’s Still Life at the Penguin Café due to a travel ban on the repititeur, a male soloist who was expected to lead Theme and Variations got injured, then some members of the staff caught COVID-19. But as there were no further infections, the show could go on.

National Ballet of Japan in Theme and Variations
© Takashi Shikama

George Balanchine’s Theme and Variations has been part of the company’s repertoire since 2000. It was revived several times and even broadcast on TV a couple of years ago. Although the choreographer Ben Huys could not enter the country to rehearse the production, the company received the Balanchine Trust’s approval to do the rehearsals via zoom.

This ballet is a marvellous homage to Tchaikovsky and the Imperial Russian ballet with its splendor and musicality brought through precise movement. National Ballet of Japan’s interpretation could be quite different from New York City Ballet’s energetic performance, but the neat and uniform movements of the white tutu-clad female ensemble is a joy to the eye with its elegance and beauty. What was so triumphant was the leads performed by brilliant principals Yui Yonezawa and Kosuke Okumura.

Yui Yonezawa and Kosuke Okumura in Theme and Variations
© Takashi Shikama

Okumura was not cast as the lead in this ballet at first, but he had danced this role before and could easily jump in as a substitute. With his long classical lines and clean, light leaps always landing in fifth position, he dashingly nailed the killer variation consisting of eight double tours and pirouettes with ease. He was also a good partner supporting Yonezawa and having a warm partnership in their adagio.

It is always a pleasure to watch Yonezawa in any role, and this performance was no exception. She has a special quality of radiance and her crisp, fast turns and accurate footwork were perfectly in rhyme with the music. Her slow développés and adagios are smooth and lovely and she was definitely having a great time sharing the stage with Okumura. Of the four female soloists, Risako Ikeda stood out with excellent technique showing her potential as a lead for the next performances of this ballet. The male ensemble was fine, but perhaps some more firework energy could have been desirable in the finale. But it was a glorious, beautiful performance with excellent quality to be proud of.

National Ballet of Japan in “Still Life” at the Penguin Café
© Takashi Shikama

Former company director David Bintley’s “Still Life” at the Penguin Café was supposed to be performed last year, but the performance ended up to be streamed without an audience. It was quite popular when it was streamed live then and this time the full seated audience enjoyed this delightful but thought-provoking piece. Simon Jeffes’ world-music inspired score is such a pleasure to listen to, and this work’s message as an alert to global climate change and endangered animal species becomes more powerful these days as a volcano in Tonga erupted on the day of the performance.

National Ballet of Japan in “Still Life” at the Penguin Café
© Takashi Shikama

There was a time when animals and human beings lived side by side, as Great Auks (penguins) serve as waiters at a stylish café. But as posh models with zebra skull hats strike poses, a Southern Cape Zebra (glamorously performed by Okumura) is shot dead and an aboriginal family (referred as a holy family) is exiled and wanders in the rain forest. Yudai Fukuoka is a standout as the cheeky Brazilian Woolly Monkey with his dynamic leaps and excellent musicality. A jolly carnival feast by all the animals turns into a disaster with floods and acid rain falling, and they flee into an ark, except for the Great Auk – now an extinct species – that could not make it. Aoi Hirose charmingly danced this tragic role with such compassion and light footwork; even though she was wearing a penguin’s head we could feel her emotions, her sadness.

Yudai Fukuoka as Brazilian Woolly Monkey in “Still Life” at the Penguin Café
© Takashi Shikama

Although the programme was not what it was supposed to be when planned, it turned out to be with a good contrast and a successful kickoff to the new year, showing the company’s versatility and resilience during this difficult time. The Tokyo Symphony Orchestra, under the baton of company conductor Misato Tomita, played Tchaikovsky beautifully and with dynamism, following the dancers movements well. It would have been lovely to have a few more performances in the run as tickets were sold out and the dancers deserve more opportunities to be on stage.

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