The National Ballet of Japan’s first live performance in 2021 was Wayne Eagling’s Sleeping Beauty. Their 2020/21 season became a turbulent one because of the pandemic, with first the opening programme having to be changed, then its New Year Ballet had to be performed without an audience. Newly appointed Artistic Director Miyako Yoshida’s curated modern programme was then switched to The Sleeping Beauty because it was impossible to invite répétiteurs from overseas. Amid a state of emergency situation, performances had to be with 50% seating restrictions, but nonetheless a classical grand ballet with splendour appeared on the stage with full orchestra and corps de ballet.

Ayako Ono (Aurora)
© Takashi Shikama

Eagling’s Sleeping Beauty was created and premiered in 2014 as the inaugural performance for former director Noriko Ohara’s directorial debut. Moreover, the ballet (in a different production) marked the company's debut (1997) as well as the first ballet danced at the New National Theatre, so it is a work that holds a special place in the National Ballet of Japan's repertoire. Although its framework follows the Petipa classic, Eagling adds some modern touches. 

The evil fairy Carabosse is featured as a larger role, with a female dancer en pointe and in a tutu, and with much exaggerated dancing, to enhance the contrast between good and evil. Another characteristic is the Awakening pas de deux after the Prince kisses Aurora. Here, Aurora dances a romantic and passionate duet accompanied by the lavish violin solo Entr'acte, slowly falling in love with the Prince. The duet consists of some tricky partnering which has a slight resemblance to MacMillan’s Romeo and Juliet. Although this pas de deux has a different flavour from the classical elegance of Petipa, with Aurora in a nightdress, it does explain the story of the two lovers gradually falling in love. 

Because this performance was a replacement of a modern triple bill, four performances were crammed into four days which must have been physically demanding for the dancers. Some of the supporting roles were danced by single casts, and soloists had to dance corps de ballet roles as well as their solos. But in spite of this, the corps de ballet in the Prologue and Panorama were well trained and unified, creating a beautiful spellbinding atmosphere.

Ayako Ono (Aurora) and Yudai Fukuoka (Désiré) in the Act 3 pas de deux
© Takashi Shikama

Princess Aurora on the opening performance was Ayako Ono. A petite and dramatic “Princess” ballerina with excellent musicality and crystalline technique, Ono has always given stable performances, but this time the audience could feel that her expression and dancing has matured and she broke new boundaries, with a stronger stage presence. She showed spontaneous emotions and there was more attack and eloquence. She was at ease at the difficult Rose adagio, her leaps were as light as a feather to show Aurora’s youthfulness. Yudai Fukuoka, as Prince Désiré, displayed excellent partnering and his virtuoso solos, with clean, soft landing, wowed the audience. Their third act pas de deux was radiant and proved that they are both at the top of the game. 

The wicked Carabosse was Miwa Motojima, the dance actress of the company. A gorgeous lady with a strong gaze, her dramatic and powerful movements, effective epaulements were showstopping and gave a vivid and lasting impression, stealing the spotlight. Her counterpart, the Lilac Fairy, was danced by young Yuri Kimura. Although the Lilac Fairy is supposed to be the good one, Kimura possesses a rather stubborn character that never gives way to evil in spite of her lyrical, soft movements delivered by her long limbs. 

The Sleeping Beauty features many soloists and they gave good impressions. Special mentions should be go to Kosuke Okumura as the Bluebird with his crisp brisés volés and high ballon, Risako Ikeda’s lovely and musical Princess Florine, and the prodigious Shogo Hayami dazzling in the Gold variation. In spite of the ongoing pandemic, Japan has been one of the few places that full length classical ballet could be performed in front of an audience, and the fulfilment and joy of being able to dance was apparent in the whole company. 

The Sleeping Beauty
© Takashi Shikama

Eaglings’s production has been controversial, especially in the costume design (Toer van Schayk) where the colours of the Vision Scene fairies are in vivid green, the male dancer’s chests are too open, that seems lacking in elegance, and the Prologue fairies' tutus are almost identical. But Naoji Kawaguchi’s set designs are splendorous and regal, depicting the magnificence of the French court, and the result was a glorious Apothéose

The Tokyo Symphony Orchestra, under the baton of Misato Tomita, delivered Tchaikovsky's elaborate score brilliantly and Gleb Nikitin’s violin solo in the Entr'acte pas de deux was breathtaking. The company was able to continue with three further excellent performances with different casts, and it was certain to the audience's eyes that the "Miyako Yoshida Effect" has raised the level and expression of the whole company.