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

Laurretta Summerscales: becoming Juliet…

Laurretta Summerscales in English National Ballet's Romeo and Juliet, photo Laurent Liotardo

ENB Principal Laurretta Summerscales talks to Ballet Position about her favourite roles and the current  phase in the company’s history.

Juliet is one of Lauretta Summerscales’ favourite roles. Juliet, that is, in the Rudolf Nureyev production of the tragic love story of Romeo and Juliet. Nureyev’s 1977 ballet on Prokofiev’s complete score is the version danced by Laurretta’s home company, English National Ballet, for whose predecessor, London Festival Ballet, Nureyev created the work.

“Oh, I love Juliet!” she exclaims, and her face, already animated throughout our lengthy conversation, lights up further. “This is the only version of Romeo and Juliet I absolutely love.”

Nureyev himself described his Juliet as “passionate, willing and more mature than [Romeo] is.”

Lauretta: “You can see the transition as she turns into a woman – she realises what she wants and then she’s put into a situation where she has to choose between two sides, but she loves them both, doesn’t understand it. She’s, like, caught in a trap.

“I see her as a very strong character, so that’s why I can act her quite easily because she’s strong, even though she’s not toughened, harsh; but she knows what she wants and she’s very strong against everybody.”

Judged by many to be the balletic version of Romeo and Juliet closest to Shakespeare’s original, Nureyev’s ballet doesn’t stint on the bawdiness and violence that characterised Renaissance Verona. And he introduces some changes that intensify the dramatic effect.

“This is the only version (…) where she actually sees Tybalt dead. In all the other versions that I have seen you never have the chance to show the audience your emotions, what you go through!

“You have seen Tybalt dead and you have love for him and you have love for [Romeo] different types of love… this complete torture of two sides… and also you have a go at him saying, “how dare you do this?” and at the same time you love him.”

Throughout, though, and this seems to be the clincher for Lauretta Summerscales, “she’s quite calculating, thinking about things, thinking about “should I, shouldn’t I?” she’s scared, but you can see that she hasn’t lost control.”

Laurretta Summerscales
Laurretta Summerscales

As she gestures to signify her enthusiasm for this role, the tell-tale sparkle of diamonds flashes from the ring finger of her left hand. She is engaged to fellow Principal Yonah Acosta, with the wedding booked for the very first day of their summer holiday, post Romeo and Juliet.

The natural question, then, is, would she like to establish a regular stage partnership with her life partner?

“It would be great to do Swanilda and Franz [in Coppelia] because there’s a bit of feistiness, and we’re like that naturally, so I would love something like that because I would just have so much fun with him on stage.”

‘Feisty’ is definitely one word you would associate with Laurretta. It’s also a word that applies very much to ENB’s Director since 2012, Tamara Rojo. Does that create problems?

“I find we’re both quite feisty. I think it’s more because I’m pushy and I think I annoy her sometimes, which is understandable.

“It’s difficult, because as a dancer you don’t want to be seen that you’re laid back or that you’re super confident and you expect everything. I always want to show that I am always wanting more, I don’t want anybody to see me as big-headed (…)

“So, I never want her to think badly of me, so sometimes I’m like, ‘Im here, just to let you know.’  I’ll bet she’s gonna say, ‘go away, leave me alone.’  I don’t know that for sure, but that’s the impression.”

Big-headed is definitely not the impression Laurretta Summerscales gives. On the contrary, with her open smile and willingness to engage, she comes across as disarmingly unpretentious. Strong-willed, though; and intent on widening the range of her roles.

Brought into the company after only two years in the English National Ballet School, her progress up the ranks has been fairly swift, and promotion to Principal came, aged 25, in January 2016.

A strong dancer with a powerful jump, and appearing taller on stage than she is in real life (at 5ft 4 or 1.62 m she’s well within a female dancer’s average), she has tended to be typecast as, say, Medora in Le Corsaire, Odille rather than Odette, Myrtha rather than Giselle.

And yet, she gave a good account of Giselle in her debut in the role last Winter.

Laurretta Summerscales as Giselle, photo Laurent Liotardo
Laurretta Summerscales as Giselle, photo Laurent Liotardo

“I want to be able to be versatile and feel I can bring a bit of this, a bit of that, I’m not in a box. I don’t like to be in a box, I have this thing, ‘no! no box!’” (Laughs)

Versatility has to be the name of the game under Tamara Rojo’s ambitious plans for English National Ballet. The company’s repertoire now includes work by contemporary choreographers such as Akram Khan, Russel Maliphant, Annabelle Lopez Ochoa and China’s Yabin Wang, in whose complex reading of the Medea myth, M-Dao, Laurretta starred.

Laurretta Summerscales in M-Dao by Yabin Wang, photo Laurent Liotardo
Laurretta Summerscales in M-Dao by Yabin Wang, photo Laurent Liotardo

Another coup for Rojo was the acquisition of MacMillan’s seminal work, Song of the Earth, choreographed on Mahler’s haunting Das Lied von der Erde, where Laurretta would be eager to dance the central role of The Woman – though she has no idea yet whether that’ll come to pass.

There is actually a lot ENB dancers don’t know about Rojo’s overall plan for the company.

“I understand she wants to push the company up there, to be different, to grab people’s attention, but what her plans are for the future, like what ballets and stuff, no. We may have an idea, rumours, there’s always rumours, but you never know because things do change like this” – she clicks her fingers – “so until you see it in black and white… but that won’t be shown to you until literally a month before.”

Laurretta is understandably reluctant to be drawn on internal company politics; but pushed about the Director’s accessibility to ideas or even suggestion from below, she will say this:

“When she’s a dancer, in dancer mode, you can talk very freely, but when she’s a director it’s a very different dynamic.”

She is much happier talking about her ambitions for the future, the roles she’s got her eye on beside that of The Woman in Song of the Earth:

“Definitely La Bayadère, I’d love to do both Nikiya and Gamzatti, but I absolutely love Gamzatti, especially the last solo – it’s really difficult in the red dress, it’s beautiful!

Don Q, for sure – I feel like I can really just explode on stage. Elite Syncopations I’ve always liked because of Darcey Bussell.

“And the last one that I’d like to do is Sleeping Beauty. The Act II solo – I like the challenge, it’s such a long solo, it needs so much control…”

More immediately, Laurretta Summerscales is reprising the role of Juliet during ENB’s forthcoming stint at London’s Royal Festival Hall; and then, of course, there is the small matter of her own love story to attend to come the first day of the summer holiday and her wedding to Yonah Acosta.

by Teresa Guerreiro

E N D

ENB dance Romeo and Juliet at the RFH, 1 – 5 August 2017. Laurretta Summerscales dances Juliet with Paris Opera’s Josua Hoffalt as Romeo on 4 August at 19:30

Solomon Golding: Talent, Desire and Ambition

Solomon Golding at the Royal Opera House pic balletposition.com

The Royal Ballet’s Solomon Golding discusses his abiding passion for ballet and his determination to inspire audiences with his art.

Solomon Golding is an extremely personable young man: polite, intelligent and bursting with self-belief. Extremely articulate, words pour out of him with contagious enthusiasm.

When he smiles – which is often – his eyes shine, be it with amusement, wonder, or the sheer pleasure of talking about ballet.

Oh, and he is also a very talented dancer, at 24 years-old in his fourth season with the Royal Ballet – the first British male mixed-race dancer to break into Britain’s premier ballet company.

“If I’m not doing ballet I don’t know whatever else I’d be doing,” he says, and the mere thought casts a brief cloud over his open countenance.

Solomon Golding in Connectome photo ROH 2015 Bill Cooper
Solomon Golding in Connectome photo ROH 2015 Bill Cooper

As a child he was “the little performer: since I could walk I was always dancing around, and I loved music and pop culture.”

Not ballet, though, despite the passion his Scottish Mother’s family had for the performing arts.

“My Grandma really enjoyed opera, had been to the Opera House; and my Mum was in love with Rudolf Nureyev! (…) but we were never interested, we were like ‘oh yeah, whatever, Mum…’”

Then came what he describes as his “eureka moment.”

He was about seven-years-old and his family was living in Ghana, West Africa, at the time.

“There wasn’t much in the way of television, entertainment in the sense that we know it in the West, so if you weren’t outside, there wasn’t really much for us to do (…)

“My grandma [in Britain] used to send over VHS [tapes] that she recorded, like Christmas specials. So, I think it was a Christmas Wallace and Gromit and she left the tape to record the whole way through, and the next thing on was Romeo and Juliet with the Royal Ballet, a Christmas broadcast.

“And I sat and watched the ballet and was like, ‘what is this amazing art form?’

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