Fumi Kaneko – A Deeply Affecting Juliet

Fumi Kaneko as Juliet in MacMillan's Romeo and Juliet © ROH 2021. Photo: Bill Cooper

Newly-minted Royal Ballet principal dancer Fumi Kaneko talks to Ballet Position in the aftermath of her stunning debut as Juliet

Kenneth MacMillan’s Romeo and Juliet is a narrative masterpiece, distilling in its structure and choreography all the passion and ultimate tragedy of Shakespeare’s doomed young lovers.

Add to that Prokofiev’s magnificent, eloquent score, and it’s easy to see why Romeo and Juliet is one of the best loved works in The Royal Ballet’s repertoire. Having seen it countless times, I didn’t expect to be surprised, much less blown away, when I took my seat at the Royal Opera House for a matinée towards the end of October.

The lovers were to be danced by William Bracewell, a stylish and very affecting Romeo, and in only her second performance as Juliet the Japanese dancer Fumi Kaneko, with whose work as a technically accomplished dancer in both classical and contemporary repertoire I was familiar.

Fumi Kaneko as Juliet, William Bracewell as Romeo © ROH 2021 Photo: Bill Cooper

Yet, by the end of the performance I was an emotional wreck, such was the intensity Kaneko brought to the role. Hers was an interpretation that blended careful characterisation with an instinctive freshness and small telling gestures that were hers alone. In the final scene, where Juliet is faced with Romeo’s dead body, Kaneko was the epitome of utter, profound desolation, a Juliet overwhelmed by the magnitude of a loss she couldn’t quite comprehend.

It reduced me to tears.

So, when I met Fumi Kaneko at the Royal Ballet’s Covent Garden home, I naturally wanted to hear more about her Juliet.

“When I was cast I was surprised, because I’ve turned 30 now and I didn’t think Kevin [O’Hare, the company’s director] would cast me.”

At this point it’s only fair to note that with her delicate features and inspired acting, she looked very much the 14-year-old Juliet.

“Then I saw my name on casting and I was like, wow, this is my dream role and it’s going to be a dream come true.”

FUMI KANEKO – CREATING JULIET

Fumi Kaneko’s preparation for the role was intensive.

“I think watching so many amazing ballerinas before helped me a lot to create my own Juliet. I started to read Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, which [repetiteur] Lesley Collier gave me in rehearsal, but it’s quite difficult to read… I also had an audiobook, so you can hear what they’re saying, as well.

“I also watched the original [Zeffirelli] movie from 1968; it’s not ballet, but I loved watching it.”

And then she was paired with William Bracewell, an experienced Romeo and an attentive and inspirational partner.

“The thing is, he IS Romeo!” She laughs, and goes on, “he IS Romeo, and that helped me act naturally.”

Fumi Kaneko as Juliet, William Bracewell as Romeo © ROH 2021 Photo: Bill Cooper

So, who was Fumi Kaneko’s Juliet?

“I think because she’s really young she always follows what her parents say; and suddenly she fell in love with this person and she couldn’t see anything else and that gave her all the strength to do what she wanted to do.

“I think she didn’t know what she had in herself – she grew so much in this ballet and I wanted to show that. I want to think that’s her life, but also my life, I’m not just doing this ballet, but I wanted to live that life, to live that moment on stage.”

Perhaps what made Fumi Kaneko’s Juliet so unique, so affecting, was the fact that in the same way as her character discovered in herself things she hadn’t known before falling in love with Romeo, so Fumi Kaneko discovered in herself things she didn’t know were there before she danced Juliet.

“After Romeo and Juliet I felt I didn’t know this side of ballet. I had a more technical side of ballet, but I lived Juliet’s life and had this feeling I never had before, so I want to experience something like that again.”

FUMI KANEKO – A LONG WAY FROM HOME

Born in Osaka, Japan, Fumi Kaneko started ballet class at the age of three.

“My mother took me, because when she was young she wanted to do ballet, but her mother only allowed her to do Japanese dance. So, when she was young she wanted to become a mother and she wanted to take her kids to ballet.”

Young Fumi soon fell in love with ballet, so much so that she was prepared to attend ballet class from 5 to 11 every evening at the end of her long school day, year after year.  After graduation,

‘I just wanted to dance all day. My teacher had a small company [Jinushi Kaoro] and I joined and I was able to dance from morning to night and that was my dream come true.’

When she joined the Royal Ballet in 2011 her CV already included gold at the Varna International Competition and silver at its Moscow and USA equivalents. The transition was not easy, though.

“It was hard to adjust to a new life without speaking English. In the beginning my Mum came with me and she helped me find a new home… go to supermarket to find something to eat…” She laughs. However,

“I loved this company straight away. Everyone was so helpful, and getting to know each other’s cultures as well, that’s how I learned English slowly.”

Her English is totally fluent now, if charmingly accented.  Her manner is gentle and unfailingly polite, and hides what you suspect is the iron will that saw her through those young years of hard, relentless training.

It also helped her through two devastating bouts of injury, that kept her off stage for the best part of one year each time.  Despite that, her career progression in The Royal Ballet has been steady, and she reached the highest rank of principal this season.

Fumi Kaneko’s has brought her strong technique and attractive stage presence to many of The Royal Ballet’s best loved roles, including Princess Aurora in the company’s signature ballet, The Sleeping Beauty.

FUMI KANEKO – THE FUTURE

Early next year Fumi Kaneko will debut as Odette/Odile in Swan Lake; and as a principal she’ll have access to some of the plum roles on which she’s longing to make her own mark: Giselle, Tatiana in Onegin and, above all, Manon.

“Manon is my dream role, maybe because it was the first ballet I was involved with after joining the company, and I was watching particularly the final pas de deux between Manon and Des Grieux, and I was crying, and I loved it, and I want to experience that.”

As one of a large number of Japanese dancers plying their trade abroad, she is well known and admired in her own country, where she tries to perform every summer.

She laughs modestly when I ask whether she’s a star in Japan, but says:

“When I became a principal I had so many messages from Japanese fans, and that was incredible, because I didn’t know I had so much support there.”

We’re only just beginning to discover the hidden depths of this wonderful dancer. I for one, can’t wait to see a lot more of Fumi Kaneko!

by Teresa Guerreiro

Fumi Kaneko dances the Sugar Plum Fairy with Nicol Edmonds as her Prince in The Nutcracker at the Royal Opera House

on Wednesday 22 December, matinee at 12:30pm,
and Wednesday 29 December at 7:30pm

 

Valentino Zucchetti Dancemaker

The Royal Ballet dancer and choreographer Valentino Zucchetti talks to Ballet Position about his present career and his future plans

Valentino Zucchetti is well launched into his second career, even while his first is still in full bloom. At just 33-years-old, he’s reached the Royal Ballet’s second highest rank for dancers, First Soloist; and he is fast developing a reputation as a choreographer of note.

Zucchetti’s latest work, Anemoi, opened The Royal Ballet’s final programme of the 2021 Spring season to general critical acclaim. Not even last minute changes imposed by COVID-19 strictures dimmed Anemoi’s engaging quality.

The Times described it as “his breezy, felicitous creation,” while The Arts Desk saw it as a “crafty, confident and polished piece of work’, with The Guardian highlighting its “elegant geometry.”

Dancers of the Royal Ballet in Anemoi © ROH 2021 Alice Pennefather

ANEMOI – THE GENESIS

The ballet’s title, Anemoi, refers to the four winds of Ancient Greece, a concept from which Zucchetti drew the inspiration to create a longer piece using Scherzo, a divertissement he’d created during lockdown for the company’s corps de ballet, as a starting point.

As he told Ballet Position, “I thought the piece should be about the fact that these people are young, they represent the future of the company, and they represent the future in general, they represent the wind of change. But I couldn’t use the phrase ‘the wind of change’ because it was a famous song, so I thought I’d conceptualise it.

“It’s always good to go back to Greek mythology, because the Greek gods personify everything, whether it’s the sun, the moon, wisdom, mischief… the ‘anemoi’ were the Greek gods of the four winds, and the ballet has four principal dancers that represent the four ‘anemoi’, and everybody is their afterwind.”

Anemoi is Valentino Zucchetti’s first work for the company on the Royal Opera House main stage; but he’s been honing his choreographic skills since his school days: in 2005 he won the Royal Ballet School’s Ursula Moreton choreographic award.

Since then he has choreographed regularly for the Royal Ballet School, as well as the ROH Draft Works programme.

Artists of the Royal Ballet in Summer Draft Works © ROH 2015 Andrei Uspenski

VALENTINO ZUCCHETTI – THE DANCER

Valentino Zucchetti combines his growing choreographic commitments with a busy career as a full time dancer, something he says he set his mind on aged three in his native northern Italian town of Calcinate.

“I think it was a bit of a calling, because none of my family had anything to do with ballet, nobody I knew, but I saw [Mikhail] Baryshnikov on TV when I was three and something just clicked.

“When I see kids today and I see a three-year-old, I realise they’re just incapable of making that kind of decision unless it comes from somewhere. I used to watch superheroes, I used to watch cartoons, firefighters, spacemen, whatever, but nothing clicked like that. So, in a way it’s probably a calling, or something that’s within us.”

So, at four-years-old he started ballet class locally. He progressed to the School of La Scala in Milan, from where at 16 he joined the Royal Ballet School on a scholarship. As a student he distinguished himself, winning the Genée International Ballet Competition in 2016 and the Royal Academy of Dance Solo Seal Award the following year.

After graduation, Zucchetti spent some time at Zürich Ballet and Norwegian National Ballet, before joining The Royal Ballet in London in 2010.

This made for an international outlook.

“If you work your whole life in one system, the longer you stay in that system, the more close-minded, the more rigid you become. It’s a globalised world, a globalised repertoire all over the world, so versatility is important.

“Usually this exploration of different styles transfers to your own way of dancing, so you’ll find that certain dancers, who excel in contemporary work, have a much freer way of moving in the classical, so they can bring something less rigid to classical ballet.”

Valentino himself is a versatile dancer, who has put his exacting technique to the service of very many demanding roles over the years.

Valentino Zucchetti in Scènes de Ballet © ROH 2014 Tristram Kenton

He’s been a thrilling, impeccably classic ‘Blue Bird’ in The Sleeping Beauty, a reckless, irrepressible Mercutio in MacMillan’s Romeo and Juliet, a mischievous Puck in Ashton’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, to mention but a few of his many notable roles; not forgetting a strong turn as the heroine’s dissolute, drunken brother and pimp, Lescaut, in MacMillan’s Manon.

Valentino Zucchetti as Lescaut in Kenneth MacMillan’s Manon ©ROH 2019 Alice Pennefather

All things being equal, Valentino Zucchetti has many years of dancing ahead of him; so I asked which roles he still aspired to dancing.

“There are so many that I would like to tackle! The decision isn’t just on me… You could say Romeo; or one of my absolute all time favourite roles is [Crown Prince Rudolf in MacMillan’s] Mayerling.  For any male dancer that’s a goal.

“I’ve been known to be a demi-character, happy dancer, I can say confidently that I’ve mastered that. I can be a buffoon, but there is a much deeper, darker side that I haven’t been able to express.”

VALENTINO ZUCCHETTI – COSMOPOLITAN ITALIAN

He’s been abroad a long time, but a question about his relationship with his native Italy reveals conflicted feelings: pride in seeing his achievements recognised by his country of birth, mixed with a refusal to be pigeonholed as “an Italian abroad” or “a local boy done good.”

“Every time a new milestone happens here, it makes news in Italy. For example, last summer I organised this festival of [open air] dancing on the Regent’s Canal – out of the blue it became a worldwide success and I was on the main [TV] channel in Italy.

“And this time, after I received this commission [for Anemoi] I realised I was the first Italian choreographer ever to choreograph for The Royal Ballet.

“But I find nationalism a form of tribalism. For me, I only belong where I feel that my personality can fit. That’s probably the reason why I try to sound English as much as possible” (and yes, there is but the merest trace of an accent in his speech), “ because it’s not about me coming to another country and trying to maintain what I used to be until the death, it’s about adapting.”

VALENTINO ZUCCHETTI – THE FUTURE

For the time being, Valentino Zucchetti remains a dancer and choreographer. In the medium term, as his dancing slows down, so choreography will take more of his time and talent; but what are his long-term ambitions?

“I’m aspiring potentially to becoming an artistic director, because on top of choreography, which is my greatest passion, I just love the idea of organising a season, so, taking an audience on a whole journey, through a season, or through two or three seasons; or to organise ballet festivals, where you can gather together great artists.

“I don’t necessarily want to have a whole career based entirely on myself; I also like the idea of using my expertise to develop dancers’ careers.”

Brainy, uncompromising, strong-willed and very talented, Valentino Zucchetti will doubtless achieve his aims.  After all, not even COVID-19 has been able to stop him in his tracks…

by Teresa Guerreiro

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.

E N D

by Teresa Guerreiro

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

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