The National Ballet of Japan was expecting three performances of its annual New Year Ballet gala, but a few days prior to the opening, these were cancelled after someone tested positive for Covid-19. All the dancers subsequently tested negative and, after a couple of days in quarantine, the theatre decided to offer a free live stream performed without audience.

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Yui Yonezawa in Paquita
© Kiyonori Hasegawa

The programme displayed the company's versatility: a 19th-century Petipa classic, three short pieces by Japanese choreographers, and a 20th-century ballet by former director David Bintley. “Still Life” at the Penguin Café created a buzz, viewing figures reaching 156,338 total views.

Paquita is the perfect piece to showcase the dancers' ability in classic repertoire. No other ballerina in the company fits the title role more than Yui Yonezawa. Her academic, flawless technique, musicality and queenly elegance shone in every moment. Her long clean lines and airy, creamy port de bras dazzled in the Etoile variation. For the coda, Yonezawa executed her 32 fouettés with multiple triple turns and even a quadruple turn with ease, perfectly in rhythm with the music, finishing with fast and precise chaîné turns. Takafumi Watanabe partnered her well and threw in impressive bravura leaps, but young dancer Shogo Hayami was brilliant in the pas de trois; his elevation and clean fifth position landings were breathtaking. His partners, Saho Shibayama and Risako Ikeda, are both superb classical ballerinas and this pas de trois was another highlight. The corps de ballet and soloists were in good form.

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Yoshito Kinoshita and Ayako Ono in Contact
© Kiyonori Hasegawa

The second part began with Contact, a pas de deux choreographed by Yoshito Kinoshita, a soloist with the company, and danced by himself and Ayako Ono. Set to lyrical music by Ólafur Arnalds, a couple tries to reach each other, but although it involves a lot of partnering they keep on passing by each other, never looking into their partner’s eyes until the ending, when they part. The movement of the hands trying to reach out and touch, and forming round shapes with arms, gives a sorrowful touch. Ono’s delicate expression gave drama to this piece. The theme is especially moving in the Covid era when physical touch is much missed. 

Soirée de Ballet is a pas de deux created by Hideo Fukagawa, an internationally renowned dancer who passed away last September. Under a starry sky, a couple dances to Glazunov’s The Seasons. There are no flashy movements, but it requires technique to make a difficult movement look light and delightful, with off-balances and fouettés in arabesques. Risako Ikeda was lovely in this ballet, fresh like a debutante at her first ball, effortlessly floating in the air with flowing movement. Masahiro Nakaya supported her well, creating a dreamy and romantic atmosphere.

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Yudai Fukuoka in Campanella
© Kiyonori Hasegawa

Campanella is a plotless male solo created by First Soloist Tetsuo Kaikawa. Clad in a black long skirt, Yudai Fukuoka shows his charismatic and sometimes fierce movements in a swift response to the music; almost as if he was battling with the piano. His sharp arm movements left a trace of light and virtuoso leaps and turns crescendoed to the end. Both works by company dancers were born from the National Ballet of Japan’s choreography workshop, inaugurated by former director David Bintley.

Set to music by Simon Jeffes, Bintley’s “Still Life” at the Penguin Café concluded the performance. It is a delightfully cheerful ballet at the beginning where the charming penguin waiters circle the stage, but it gradually becomes an epic tragedy of endangered species and global warming. Yui Yonezawa glamorously glides on the floor in Utah Longhorn Lamb’s head, escorted by Shun Izawa stylishly dressed in tuxedo as in a '50s MGM musical. Kosuke Okumura was magnificent as the South Cape Zebra shaking his hip spontaneously with his tails in his arms but earns an unfortunate fate, ignored by the Zebra dressed women striking chic poses on the runway applying lipstick with zebra skulls adorning their heads. 

The Aboriginal Rainforest Family episode is especially tragic; the mutual affection between the three dancers gives them such dignity as though they are a holy family, so heartbreaking to imagine their fate, Miwa Motojima and Tetsuo Kaikawa lifting and caressing their little child Karin Iwai. The stage brightens with the Brazilian Woolly Monkey (a dazzling Yudai Fukuoka) turning the stage into a jolly bouncy carnival with all the characters joining in and non-appearing dancers cheering from the audience seats. But they are only to be hit by a storm and rush into Noah’s Ark, except for the (extinct) Great Auk (the charming Aoi Hirose), hopelessly left behind. Although many dancers were under masks and thick makeups, they each showed their individual characteristics. 

The Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra under the baton of Misato Tomita played with great liveliness, especially in Penguin Café. Spectators cannot wait to see the company back on stage soon.

This performance was reviewed from the New National Theatre Tokyo live video stream