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The Royal Ballet's 'Heavenly' Ryoichi Hirano

Ryoichi Hirano and Marianela Nuñez in rehearsal for Onegin, photo Gavin Smart

Ryoichi Hirano talks to Ballet Position about his life as a Royal Ballet Principal and how he became ‘Heavenly Hirano’

Royal Ballet Principal Ryochi Hirano’s first year with the company was not exactly encouraging. He joined as an apprentice in 2002, fresh from winning the Gold Medal at the Prix de Lausanne; but the transition from ballet school in his native Osaka, Japan, to London and the UK’s most prestigious ballet company, was far from smooth.

“Mentally it was very difficult, because I didn’t have friends, I spoke no English, it was hard to communicate, so I was a little bit isolated, in a way.

“I was the first apprentice dancer in the Royal Ballet, perhaps they didn’t know how to deal with me, how to use me, so I was only doing class, maybe one rehearsal standing at the back…”

Many others would have been discouraged; but not Ryoichi Hirano.

“I said to myself, ‘this could be just one year; I need to take everything that I can by watching, listening, learning.’ So, I tried to do everything, I tried to be able to speak English, I studied a lot, and I watched so many shows, rehearsals… I didn’t just sit there going, ‘why am I not doing this and that?’”

His commitment and application paid off, and eventually he did set foot on the Royal Opera House stage in the ensemble of John Cranko’s dramatic ballet, Onegin.

“I was general cover for all those 12 men in the [Act III] ballroom scene, and one day in rehearsal one guy got sick. Christopher Carr, former rehearsal director, picked me to go on.

“Of course, I had tried to do everything, I learned everything, and he was actually amazed I did it perfectly, and since then he calls me ‘Heavenly Hirano’’’.

He laughs, his obvious amusement at the moniker tinged with not a little pride.

Hirano and Onegin

Justified pride, in fact: spool forward to the present, and not only is Hirano one of the Royal Ballet’s most interesting Principals, he has just made an impressive debut in the title role of Onegin (21/01/2020).

Onegin, the arrogant anti-hero of Pushkin’s verse-novel, who breaks a young girl’s heart and leaves it too late to see sense and repent, is a difficult character to inhabit. It’s tempting to make him rather bi-dimensional – a bad guy who gets his just desserts – but that is not Heavenly Hirano’s way.

‘I always say ballet is… of course, it’s dancing! you have to be technically good; but at the same time I think the most important thing is the story-telling. Acting is the key.’

Hirano puts a lot of thought and observation into building his characters.

“I watch so many people doing so many different roles, I see what works, and then I can use that as ‘a weapon.’  So, I really love acting, it’s not easy without words, but it’s amazing how much you can tell with just body language, how much you can express.”

Hirano’s Onegin is a complex, well-defined and extremely nuanced character; an arrogant city man, prey to deep ennui, who, though dismissive of country-life, is, nevertheless, a courteous and unfailingly polite guest in Tatiana’s household.

His spurning of young Tatiana’s love comes not out of pointless cruelty, but rather impatience, a sort of ‘oh, just leave me alone, little girl!’

His performance is full of realistic touches: when his friend Lensky challenges him to a duel by slapping his face with his gloves, he staggers back, not from the strength of the blow, but from sheer surprise: he never thought his open flirting with Tatiana’s sister, his friend Lensky’s fiancée, could break up the all-important male bond.

Onegin’s restlessness in the Act III ballroom scene, when he recognises in the elegant aristocratic married woman the girl he spurned, feels real: he frenziedly paces the stage, alternately wanting to show himself to her and hiding, shock, anguish and desire flowing backwards and forwards across his face.

And his central pas de deux with Marianela Nuñez’s sublime Tatiana, the perfect lover of her dream in Act I turning at the end of the ballet into the supplicant suitor she must refuse, truly touch the heart.

In his progress towards the plum lead role of Onegin, Hirano danced Prince Gremin, Tatiana’s dignified and doting much older husband.

Marianela Nuñez as Tatiana, Ryoichi Hirano as Prince Gremin (c) ROH 2013 Bill Cooper

“It’s always nice that I can play Prince Gremin and then Onegin, because I know what the Prince feels (…) I always find it easier to know other characters.”

Hirano’s Versatile Career

Ryiochi Hirano is a versatile dancer, and despite his preference for narrative ballets finds himself equally at ease in abstract works, his solid technique and powerful presence suiting Balanchine, as much as Wayne McGregor.

He’s danced many of the main classical roles, always bringing something very much his own to all his characters, be it a depth of understanding to his portrayal of the brain-addled, drug addicted, suicidal Prince Rudolf in Kenneth MacMillan’s masterpiece Mayerling

Royishi Hirano as Prince Rudolf in Mayerling, (c) ROH 2018 Helen Maybanks

… deep corruption and venality (despite his naturally noble demeanour) when dancing the character of Manon’s brother and pimp, Lescaux; or a thrilling sensuality to the bullfighter Espada in Don Quixote.

However, the lead role of Onegin eluded Hirano for many years; not something he regrets.

“Onegin is such a demanding part! You need a maturity, a mature aura on stage; you can’t just be a good partner, tall… I think the person that is acting Onegin needs to have experience as a person, as well, in life.

“If you don’t know what happiness is, you can’t express happiness on stage. The more you’ve been through in your life, the more understanding you have of what those feelings are like, [the better] you understand Onegin’s feelings. It takes a long time to get to do those roles.”

From Osaka to London and Back Again

Despite having spent more than half his life in London, Ryoichi Hirano is a major star in his native Japan, with a loyal and enthusiastic following among Japanese balletomanes. He regularly performs in Japan, either when the Royal Ballet tour there, or in special galas.

So, where is ‘home’ for him?

“I would like to say here, because when I was in Japan I was a minor, a student, I didn’t know anything about adult life: I went to high school, did ballet after school, and that was my life.

“When I came here, this is my adult life. When I go to Japan I feel a bit weird, because I only know what I knew when I was at school. People ask me, where is a good place to have a party…  He looks helpless, shrugs his shoulders and laughs: “I don’t know! I know more about life in London.

“So, every time I go back home…” he stops himself, and then repeats “home,” making the inverted commas sign with his fingers, “when I get back [to Britain], I feel I am really home.”

Ryoichi Hirano gives the impression of a very centred person, an artist happy with his life and his career so far. He’s done it all, or most of it, anyway; although asked whether there is still one role missing from his extensive repertoire he says, diffidently, “Des Grieux.”

Who knows? Perhaps the poet lover of MacMillan’s Manon will come his way before too long.

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by Teresa Guerreiro

Onegin is in repertoire at the ROH until 29th February.

Ryoichi Hirano dances Onegin on 8th and 27th February.

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