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

 

Yasmine Naghdi – "Striving for Perfection"

Yasmine Naghdi, photo c/o The Royal Ballet

Ballerina Yasmine Naghdi talks to Ballet Position about her life as a blossoming Principal Dancer with Britain’s premier ballet company

Once upon a time there was a very busy little girl. So busy, in fact, they said she was hyperactive. She couldn’t sit still for a moment except… but let Yasmine Naghdi take up the story. It is, after all, her story.

“The one thing my parents saw that I could sit still for was when they put a ballet on TV, and then I was absolutely fixated on the screen. All these creatures that were doing these amazing things, like gravity defying jumps and these amazing turns… and I just thought, that’s really what I want to do.”

Spool forward a couple of decades and she is indeed doing it: Yasmine Naghdi is now a Principal Dancer with The Royal Ballet, attracting glowing reviews, as well as public adulation, for her dancing in most of the key repertoire roles. Her affecting Juliet opposite fellow Principal Matthew Ball’s Romeo was relayed live to cinemas the world over last summer.

Yasmine Naghdi is reaching the pinnacle of her career, and yet there were no airs and graces about her when we met in a small Royal Opera House office. She was gracious and smiley and ready tell the story of how she made it to the top along a road with its fair share of bumps.

“No-one had done ballet in my family before, and my father was saying, ‘no, absolutely not, you can’t have a good career in ballet, and she needs to go the university!’ and the mother figure then comes in and says, ‘but this is her dream, let her follow her dream and if it doesn’t work out, it doesn’t work out.’

“So I auditioned at the age of 10 for the Royal Ballet School, and I didn’t get in.”

YASMINE NAGHDI – SECOND CHANCES

However, she was in the Royal Ballet’s Junior Associates programme, and through that she was given a private audition with the then director of the Royal Ballet School, Gailene Stock, the following year. The offer of a place at White Lodge followed.

That offer gave her confidence, but then,

“as soon as I joined the Royal Ballet School in my head I thought, my gosh, I’m a year behind these girls, I need to work extra hard, and I think that drove me into pushing myself beyond my limits.”

Yasmine joined the Royal Ballet upon graduating in 2010 and progressed steadily up the ranks, becoming a Principal Dancer seven years later, at the age of 25.

Her range is wide. She was an ethereal Giselle…

Yasmine Naghdi as Giselle (c) ROH 2018 Helen Maybanks

… a fierce Gamzatti, the Sultan’s daughter promised to the warrior Solor in La Bayadère; and an impressively skittish and feral Firebird.

Yasmine Naghdi and Edward Watson in The Firebird (c) ROH 2019 Tristram Kenton

YASMINE NAGHDI – STRIVING FOR PERFECTION

Being a Principal Dancer, however, doesn’t mean you’ve arrived. On the contrary: Yasmine Naghdi says she constantly works to develop her roles. Take Aurora in The Sleeping Beauty, a role she danced in current run’s opening night:

“Ballet is always striving for perfection. If anyone would say, I’ve reached the finished product, you’re not demanding the best of yourself. There’s always something you can do better, always something you can change.

“I never ever want to deliver the same performance twice.

“I recently stepped in for another dancer half-way through a performance [of The Sleeping Beauty]. I was called in and picked up in Act III (…) It was with Alexander Campbell, we haven’t danced together that much, so we just spoke in the wings about what we were going to do. Things like that add layers to your experience.

“My approach is, demand something different of yourself. Your Aurora, whether she’s just a little more timid when she comes on, or maybe she is very exuberant… I always want to find different ways of playing my characters and that keeps it interesting.”

Yasmine Naghdi as Aurora, Matthew Ball as Prince Florimund (c) ROH 2017 Bill Cooper

Once rehearsals are finished, Yasmine’s physical and mental preparation for a performance starts the night before.

“I prepare my body with as much fuel as possible. I always have a steak the night before because of the high iron content and load up with carbohydrates for energy. And then throughout the day of the performance as well, I have a lot of carbohydrates and electrolytes.

“In terms of getting into character that would start probably around midday, I plug in the music and I lie down and go over the ballet in my head (…) visualising the performance, going through the steps in my head. And then, of course, you get the hair and the make up and you do your warm up.

“I like to keep as calm as possible. As a young dancer, when you’re getting an opportunity, until the last minute it’s practise, practise, practise… but I’ve learnt that can tire you out for the performance and you want to be at your fittest.

“So, I’ve had to learn to hold back a little bit and trust myself, which is hard for dancers to do.”

In the first night of The Sleeping Beauty, enthusiastic applause started well before the end of the highly demanding Rose Adagio, with its slow turns and exacting balances. I wanted to know how aware she was of the audience throughout her performance.

“It’s hard to explain but I almost feel the energy of the audience. You feel whether the audience is with you, supporting you, or whether they’re a bit more judgemental and cold; and it gives you so much when you feel the audience is warm and supportive (…)

“You’re giving everyone a performance, you’re putting the energy out there, but you’re getting an energy back as well.”

YASMIN NAGHDI AND MATTHEW BALL PARTNERSHIP

At the moment Yasmine Nagdhi is rehearsing for her debut in the lead role of Swanilda in Coppélia, The Royal Ballet’s Christmas offering, a work she describes as “so fun.” Once again her partner will be Matthew Ball, in what appears to be developing as a dream partnership.

Yasmine Naghdi and Matthew Ball in rehearsal for Coppélia photo Gavin Stuart

For one thing, they are very beautiful together, her delicately exotic looks (she was born in Britain of an Iranian father and a Belgian mother) perfectly matched to his golden boy features. What makes the partnership work?

‘Matthew and I have had a lot of lovely opportunities. We first danced together in Onegin as Olga and Lensky, and Kevin [O’Hare], our director, said, ‘when I saw you as Olga and Lensky together, that’s what made me think of you as Romeo and Juliet together.’

“Matthew and I are very good friends outside of work, and very supportive of each other’s careers. I think it’s lovely to have that as a foundation (…)

“I think it’s very reassuring that we get to dance quite a lot together because you build that bond – I feel very safe in his arms.”

She does, however, welcome the opportunity of working with other partners: looking ahead to The Royal Ballet’s winter period, she is rehearsing for her debut in one of her dream roles, Tatiana in Onegin, where her partner will be the company stalwart Federico Bonelli.

Yasmine Naghdi is a good role-model for young girls dreaming the ballet dream; and this is her advice to them:

“Having a passion is one of the most important things in life, so to keep that passion alive is so important.  One has to remain kind to oneself: if you have a bad day, just let it go. 

“Know that it’s not a complete upwards journey – you hit bumps along the way, but those bumps will make you stronger.”

And with that she picked up her rehearsal tutu and off she went to work on becoming Swanilda.

by Teresa Guerreiro

Coppélia is in repertoire at the ROH 28 Nov – 7 Jan.  Full details here

Susan Robinson: For the “Pure Love of Dance”

ENB principal Laurretta Summerscales, Alumna of the Susan Robinson School, photo Laurent Liotard

Susan Robinson, ballet teacher extraordinaire, on how she transmits her “pure passion for the art” to successive generations of dancers.

On the last night of English National Ballet’s London Christmas season, Laurretta Summerscales received a rapturous ovation for her sparkling portrayal of the slave girl Medora, a lead role, in Le Corsaire.

Better was to yet come, when the ENB’s Artistic Director strode onto the stage, microphone in hand, to make a very special announcement: Laurretta Summerscales was being promoted to company principal with immediate effect.

The news was received with jubilation in the London Coliseum and beyond, perhaps nowhere more so than in a quiet corner of leafy Surrey, in the home of Laurretta’s first ballet teacher, Susan Robinson.

“She was driven,” Susan recalls of the young Laurretta, who started coming to her school as a six-year-old.

“We used to have an exercise, eight sautés, and it had to be in canon in fours. She was not a jumper, and she got her knickers in a twist about this. But later her mother told me at three in the morning she went into her parents’ bedroom and said, ‘I can do it now.’

This “passion for the art” is what Susan looks for when children first come to her. That and, of course, musicality, “being at ease with the music.” 

Lauretta again: “In her first class one of my pianists said, ‘oh, she’s very musical this little girl.’

We talked in her cosy living room in Byfleet early one Friday afternoon, before she started a full schedule of classes in the Methodist Hall, the biggest of her three studios, just a stone’s throw away.

Small CloughieWe did so under the watchful eye of Cloughie, her splendid ginger tom, named after the quasi-mythical manager of Nottingham Forest football club, Brian Clough.

Susan is a die-hard Forest fan and proudly points to the club shirt she’s wearing.

With Susan Robinson,  an irrepressible and extraordinarily vital character, surprise follows surprise follows surprise…

 

Teaching came to her almost by accident, when her dancing career in Germany was cut short for family reasons.  Back in Britain, a tentative start as a freelance teacher awakened a semi-hidden vocation.

“I received quite a few compliments and I thought, “well, I think I can do this.”

Just to make sure, she consulted Barbara Fewster, whom she describes as “an amazing teacher,” whose opinion she absolutely respected.

“She said to me, ‘go and find a place where there isn’t any recognised ballet school, and maybe you’ll find some stars for us.’  But she said, ‘I doubt it, because talent is very very rare.’

So Susan Robinson found a niche in Byfleet, where just over 40 years ago she started her school with two students and now has around 280 in what’s widely acknowledged as one of the top non-vocational schools in the UK.

That she is a natural teacher became absolutely clear as I watched her first class of the day for six and seven-year-olds.

teaching small

“There’s a right way of doing it and there’s a wrong way. Just the small things: making sure their hair is in a bun, making sure that they’re not scruffy…There’s a rule and we’ll have fun, but you don’t step over that because otherwise what’s the point?”

She feels it’s important, too, that beyond learning the technique children are able to express themselves and acquire a feel for the stage.

“My idea is that they come off the streets, we try to give them a sense of performance – we have a biennial show, and I do take a small performing group and we do lots of charity work; and so the children have the opportunity of me putting up a cameo role that suits their personality, brings out their best and gives them the confidence.

Class was a mixture of fun and discipline, and her 14 little pupils were engrossed throughout.

Montage Monday

She teaches the standard syllabus; but beyond that, “when they are eight or nine I yank them out for another class which is non-syllabus and it’s my idea of what training a classical dancer needs to be”

It works. Nowadays, when visiting companies need children for productions in London they come to the Susan Robinson School.

It’s been like that since the time, many years ago now, when Moscow’s Bolshoi first came calling:

“They wanted an open audition for children to be in The Sleeping Beauty, and we went up to the old Studio Centre and the Russian Ballet Mistress was there. Our school uniform is navy blue with a pink belt, and I think it was my proudest moment when she said, ‘if you do not have navy blue leotard with a pink belt, please leave.’

She laughs with pure pleasure. And adds: “so, we had 12 dancers in and of those four went on to become professional dancers.”

Natalie Dodd, photo c/o Mark Bruce Company
Natalie Dodd, photo c/o Mark Bruce Company.

Students leave the Susan Robinson school at 16, and if they want to pursue a dancing career must then enrol in a vocational establishment.

The roll call of her alumni dancing professionally is impressive indeed.

With the school offering jazz, tap and contemporary dance classes as well as classical ballet, the students’ options  are quite open.

Susan Robinson alumna Natalie Dodd – “she’s a very tall girl, beautiful!” – has just joined the Mark Bruce Company as an apprentice and is dancing in its high octane The Odyssey, currently touring the UK.

 

 

Hannah Bateman, another “old girl,” is a Leading Soloist with Northern Ballet – but only because she had the grit and determination Susan so admires.

Hannah Bateman as La Fèe Luminaire in Beauty and the Beast, photo Bill Cooper
Hannah Bateman as La Fée Luminaire in Beauty and the Beast, photo Bill Cooper

“Hannah was in a state school and they interviewed her for a future career and she said, ‘I want to be a ballet dancer.’ And they said, ‘oh don’t be ridiculous, Hannah, we think you’re quite handy with your hands, perhaps you could be a plumber.’”

She still laughs heartily at the memory. In fact, Susan Robinson laughs often, be it for sheer joy or simple mischief.

Miss Hope

She keeps an iron grip on her school, her life’s work. She trains her own teachers: “they’re old girls.”

When I visited, Hope Roberts was going through the first stages of her training with “Miss Susan,” which she will complement with a recognised teacher’s training diploma.

Hope trod the boards with the Bolshoi as one of the child extras in the Russian company’s The Sleeping Beauty, but decided teaching was her calling.

Obviously, not all of Susan Robinson’s pupils go on to become dancers or teachers. Still,

“I always say, if you never dance a step, it’s not wasted, because you’ve been with like-minded girls and boys, you come through puberty in a very healthy way and just get on with life. And I think the camaraderie that the girls have, the friendship they’ve spawned, they’ve kept.

“I like that about them, because they’re nice human beings and it really matters not whether they danced or not. With us here they did dance, and they danced with joy.”

Susan Robinson personifies the joy of teaching. She has a second studio next to the Methodist Hall, and as well she had a smaller one build in her own back yard, in what was once a garage and subsequently a vegetable patch.

“When I’m in my 80s perhaps I’ll be able to take a private lesson or coaching here and dodder around on a stick.”

Perhaps; but at the end of an inspiring afternoon, the image of Susan Robinson doddering around on a stick is really quite impossible to conjure up…

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