The National Ballet of Japan’s new production of Sir Peter Wright’s Swan Lake was originally planned to premiere in the autumn of 2020 to mark the start of director Miyako Yoshida’s tenure, but due to the pandemic, the production was postponed for a year. The delayed premiere was also a day of sadness, as the passing of Asami Maki, former artistic director and the head of the New National Theatre Ballet School, was reported on the same day. One of the most important figures in the Japanese ballet world, Maki had been director for 11 years and expanded the repertoire, created works and built the foundation of the company. Before the Wright version was introduced, Maki’s Swan Lake had been performed in this theatre. In other words, the Wright Swan Lake marks the beginning of a new era for the company. 

Yudai Fukuoka (Siegfried) and Yui Yonezawa (Odette)
© Takashi Shikama

With the approval of Sir Peter, Yoshida added some changes to the production, increasing the swan corps to 30 which is appropriate for the large stage of New National Theatre. Maki’s version was inspired by the Mariinsky production, but Yoshida’s idea was to bring her British ballet roots for the dancers to adapt, a conversion to a more dramatic style. Wright’s Swan Lake was the first leading role Yoshida danced when she was at Birmingham Royal Ballet.

Wright’s version is dark but logical in its storytelling. It starts with the funeral of the king, explaining why Prince Siegfried is melancholic and why he has to choose a bride. This prologue gives a touch of Hamlet-like tragedy. Siegfried’s friend Benno (Yoshito Kinoshita) has a larger role, acting as storyteller and finally finding Siegfried’s body at the lake. The usual pas de trois in Act 1 is danced by Benno and two courtesans, charmingly danced by Risako Ikeda and Moeko Iino. Yudai Fukuoka was an excellent actor as Siegfried, as well as a virtuoso dancer, sympathetic but with the dignity of a king, and he was a firm partner, forming a strong bond with his Odette. 

Yudai Fukuoka (Siegfried) and Yui Yonezawa (Odile)
© Takashi Shikama

This opening performance was memorable due to the flawless interpretation of Odette/Odile by Yui Yonezawa. Praised for her magnificent technique and polished long lines, this time we could see this prima ballerina evolving to a new dimension. Her Odette was sublime, fluid and ethereal, caught in a tragic destiny and eternally alone. Every move was natural, clean and her arms were like airy wings, while in the Act 2 coda, her passés were fast and powerful. As the Black Swan Odile, Yonezawa dazzled with seductive, irresistible charm and threw multiple triple turns in her triumphant fouettés. In the final act, she offered a sense of forgiveness to Siegfried but surrendered to her fatal destiny. 

The NBJ corps de ballet
© Takashi Shikama

The NBJ has been known for its unified corps de ballet, and the 30 swans lived up to expectations. When the swans appeared in the deep mist in the darkness of the final act, the audience was spellbound with their breathtaking beauty, its formations changing into multiple patterns, everything done neatly. Yoshida’s explanation was that in this production each swan is a princess and has her own story, so the dancers had to challenge this task of unification and individuality at the same time. They were especially impressive where Rothbart is defeated, as the swans fast bourrées represented the will of Odette and looked as though they had lured him to his death.

Another characteristic of this production is that in Act 3, where the prince has to choose his bride, each of the three princesses dance a solo to appeal their charms, all very full of rivalry, The music is quite unusual, the Polish Princess dances to music often used for Rothbart’s variation and the Italian Princess to Tchaikovsky pas de deux Allegro, and each solo’s choreography is fast and challenging. A lot of psychological warfare was going on, which was entertaining, and here we could see that the dancers developing their acting qualities. 

Act 3
© Takashi Shikama

The magnificence of this production is thanks to the elaborate, ornate costumes and the gothic, dark stage sets, designed by Phillip Prowse, which were newly made for this production. Particularly, the dresses for the Queen, the nobility and the character dancers were splendid and added dramatic effects to this dark drama. The Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra under the baton of conductor Paul Murphy also contributed largely to this epic performance.

Bringing a new production of Swan Lake while the performing arts world is still deeply wounded is surely a challenge for the company, but Yoshida and the NBJ have been successful, almost selling out the eight performances.