National Ballet of Japan’s 2022-23 Season draws to a close with the revival of Sir Peter Wright’s production of Swan Lake, which had successfully entered the company’s repertoire in 2021. Miyako Yoshida, the company's artistic director, made her debut as Odette/Odile in this production when she danced with Birmingham Royal Ballet. Bringing it into the repertoire has offered the dancers an opportunity grow into the British style, as the previous production was a Russian influenced one.

Risako Ikeda, Haruka Soutome, Mikuri Hirokawa, Saya Ikeda as Cygnets in Peter Wright's Swan Lake
© Kiyonori Hasegawa

The key to the success of this massive and dramatic production is in the telling of the story of Odette, the Swan Queen and Prince Siegfried, within the context of dance vocabulary. The ballet begins with the funeral of the late King, which explains why the Prince must choose a bride and face adulthood in a short space of time. The first act gathering is set at the Prince’s bachelor party with courtesans (who dance in the Pas de Trois) to entertain him, and introducing Benno, the Prince’s friend, who holds a special place in his heart, a bond closer than friendship. Benno is the first person to appear on the stage after the Prologue, and the last person on stage as the curtain comes down, carrying the body of the drowned Prince.

The relationship between Siegfried and Odette is told in great detail: how they fall in love and his betrayal, her forgiveness and their destiny. At the opening performance, Odette/Odile was danced by Yui Yonezawa and her Prince Siegfried was Yudai Fukuoka. They have not been regular partners until more recently when they debuted in the premiere of this production in 2021, but their experience then and in the recent premiere of Will Tuckett’s Macbeth has given them a greater understanding of each other and a chance to refine their acting abilities. Both Yonezawa and Fukuoka are the strongest classical dancers in the company and their growth as dance actors has increased since the arrival of Yoshida as their director. She has always been keen on improving the dramatic skills of the dancers.  

Yui Yonezawa (Odette), Yudai Fukuoka (Prince Siegfried), Masahiro Nakaya (Rothbart) in Swan Lake
© Kiyonori Hasegawa

Yonezawa was a tragic Swan Queen, trapped in a doomed destiny, desperate but quietly accepting of her fate, until Siegfried appeared. Each of her delicate movements, her épaulement, smooth port de bras and bourrées, revealed the depth of her emotions. The Act 2 pas de deux was stunningly lyrical, perfectly matching the violin solo and with Fukuoka’s passionate partnering, the audience was able to watch them slowly fall in love.

Philip Prowse's designs for the ballroom in Act 3 were magnificently lavish, with the princesses and the courtiers in luxuriously embroidered costumes, but the fireworks of Yonezawa’s Odile and Fukuoka were even more fascinating. Odile dazzled the court not only with her allure, but also with her extremely skilful turns, throwing in numerous triples during her series of fouettés. Fukuoka also delivered fast and precise pirouettes, so fast that he almost set the stage alight, along with his soaring leaps. This was what the audience had been eagerly awaiting, the highlight of the performance. The partnership seems to be growing more and more in artistry and expression and they undoubtedly deserve international recognition as the finest ballet dancers of this country.

Yui Yonezawa (Odile), Yudai Fukuoka (Prince Siegfried) in Act 3 Swan Lake
© Kiyonori Hasegawa

Wright’s Swan Lake has a devastatingly beautiful pas de deux in the final act, which clearly communicates that no matter how much they love each other, they can never be united in this life. Every time they held each other, they were torn apart by the evil Rothbart. Yet they were unable to resist their strong feelings, which ultimately led to their fate, drowning themselves in the lake. Yonezawa and Fukuoka were convincing in their declarations of love and seemed prepared to die without any hesitation.

National Ballet of Japan in Act 4 of Peter Wright's Swan Lake
© Kiyonori Hasegawa

The corps de ballet of swan maidens is also something that the company should be proud of. The uniformity, serenity, how they breathe together and resonate with the principals and the music whilst forming complicated patterns on stage, deserves the highest praise. The opening of the final act was especially breathtaking and mesmerising as the swans start moving amid the smoke and mist. The corps de ballet is as important as the lead dancers, and it was evident that they had been well rehearsed and disciplined. Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra under the baton of maestro Paul Murphy played the iconic Tchaikovsky score dramatically, and the Act 2 pas de deux violin solo was spellbinding. It was a fulfilling evening, rich in drama and the beauty of classical ballet.