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

 

Laura Morera: Being "The Best Possible Version of Myself"

Frankenstein, Federico Bonelli as Victor, Laura Morera as Elizabeth (c) ROH 2016 Bill Cooper

Royal Ballet Principal Dancer Laura Morera talks to Ballet Position about the ups and downs of her life in ballet 

You can tell when Laura Morera really cares about something (or someone) because her speech, normally soft and thoughtful, gains a certain urgency.

Her dancing. Even as a small child “every breath I took was ballet.”

Her late father: “My Dad loved me dancing so much (…) I think he gave me that pride in myself.”

Her husband, former Royal Ballet dancer Justin Meissner: “He’s the love of my life”

Her favourite choreographers: “Ashton, MacMillan, Scarlett.” No hesitation.

There is palpable passion in Laura Morera. Not a loud, histrionic, tempestuous sort of passion; rather an un-showy, slow-burning, internalised passion that brings an intense charge to all her dramatic roles.

Mayerling, Laura Morera as Maria Vetsera (c) ROH 2017 Alice Pennefather

LAURA MORERA: FROM MADRID TO LONDON

Laura Morera joined the Royal Ballet in 1995 straight out of the Royal Ballet School, and has been with the company ever since.

Born in Madrid, she fell in love with ballet very early on: “I remember I was really sick one week and wrote my Mum a little letter to say, I know I’m really sick and you’re not going to let me go to ballet, but please, please, if you just let me go to a class!”

Her parents’ support was important: “My Dad was super supportive and he would take me [to class] on his bike, and then my Mum and Dad would wait and we’d walk back.”

Her talent earned her an invitation to apply for the Royal Ballet School aged 11; and she has lived the best part of her life in the UK, as witnessed by her barely-accented spoken English.

In her first year at the RBS, while suffering from almost unbearable home sickness, she was picked by the then Royal Ballet Director Anthony Dowell for a small part in Swan Lake. That was an important moment in her development as a dancer:

‘I’d never seen the Royal Ballet (…) and I just remember arriving in this theatre, and the smell of the theatre, sometimes even now it takes me right back to that moment…

“And then in Act I just watching the dancing (…) and they were such amazing dancers at the time, and there were these beautiful costumes – I’d never seen anything like it! And watching their footwork, it was so beautiful (…) I was mesmerised, and I just remember thinking, ‘OK I want to be part of this!’”

And a part of it she became, her rare and exquisite musicality, intelligence, versatility and unstinting professionalism making her an asset for the company.

LAURA MORERA: LIFE IN THE ROYAL BALLET

For a while her progress was smooth: promoted to First Artist three years after joining the company, Soloist the year after, and First Soloist in 2002.

And then her career stalled.

The brief Ross Stretton directorship of the Royal Ballet (2001-2002) was traumatic for the company as a whole and for Laura, too, even though she felt he appreciated her talent. His successor, Monica Mason, did eventually promote her to Principal in 2007.

The seed of doubt, though, had been sown.

“I will always be grateful to Monica, she didn’t have to do it (…) but I felt like what sometimes was being said of the type of dancer that I was wasn’t quite reflected in the casting, and one thing I never wanted was to be a Principal that people don’t understand why they’re Principals because they’re not doing any roles.”

The frustration and uncertainly, the sense that the powers that be at the company felt the way she looked was a hindrance, led to a catastrophic loss of self-worth.

“I just felt inadequate and small, I felt like I didn’t belong in this ballet world, but I knew I had something in me that went beyond how you’re meant to look as a ballet dancer (…)

“I made myself quite ill from feeling so sad and frustrated and miserable, and I went to a healing retreat in Thailand. I went there for 10 days, then I came back, and then went there for 10 days again. They helped me give myself back [self] worth.

“One of the people there said, ‘when you first arrived, you looked dead in the eyes.’

“And then I came back and suddenly I didn’t hate myself, I didn’t feel inadequate, I knew my value, and all I could be was the best version of myself.”

That switch inside her head made a difference; as did the arrival of Kevin O’Hare as company director:

“He gave me Mayerling, and Giselle, [Midsummer Night’s] Dream, roles that I wanted to tackle but never had the chance. And he gave me a few first nights, I did Fille with Vadim [Muntagirov] in a first night.”

La Fille Mal Gardée, Laura Morera as Lise, Vadim Muntagirov as Colas (c) ROH 2015 Tristram Kenton

Her interpretation of the sassy Lise in Ashton’s La Fille Mal Gardée earned her Outstanding Female Performance (Classical) in the 2015 Critics’ Circle National Dance Awards.

Some roles never came her way, though: she regrets not having been given Juliet; and still hopes against all hope to be cast as Natalia Petrovna in Ashton’s A Month In The Country, a complex, passionate role in which I strongly feel she would excel.

On the plus side, Laura Morera became first choice interpreter for the choreographer Liam Scarlett, Royal Ballet Artist in Residence, creating roles for him in, for example, Sweet Violets, and Hansel and Gretel and the central female character in The Age of Anxiety.

The Age of Anxiety, Laura Morera and Steven McRae (c) ROH 2014 Bill Cooper

She talks of Scarlett with fierce admiration.

“We [dancers] definitely have input [in his work] and I love that about Liam, his trust; and you just keep growing in those roles (…) Age of Anxiety was such a difficult piece for him because [WH Auden’s poem] is not a perfect piece of literature (…).

“I think he opens himself up sometimes to extreme criticism, but you’ve got to admire the fact that he doesn’t take the easy route. For me, I’ve never had an experience that I haven’t been proud to be part of with him.”

LAURA MORERA: BEYOND THE ROYAL BALLET

Laura Morera’s next project is a little left-field and she’s excited about it: she’ll be the dancing Anna, alongside the irrepressible cabaret artist Meow Meow as the singing Anna, in a revival of Kenneth MacMillan’s long forgotten Seven Deadly Sins, the choreographer’s take on the Brecht/Weill ballet chanté (ballet with songs).

It will be performed at Wilton’s Music Hall:

“I love the venue, it’s one of my favourite venues in London, I think it suits the piece really well. So, I’m excited about that; and then the content, the fact that it hasn’t been done much; and also working with Meow Meow.”

Away from The Royal Ballet, Laura Morera and her husband run Dance Tours, providing workshops and short training courses to aspiring dancers in Britain and abroad, ‘because I find as an art form ballet has so much that it can give you.”

I was curious to find out more about how Laura and Justin came together at The Royal Ballet – was it love as first sight? She laughs:

“Well, no, because I was in a squirrel outfit for Tales of Beatrix Potter and he was also a squirrel!”

The squirrels didn’t talk to each other, because she was new to the company, and he was a Soloist and at that time “it was very hierarchical”; but from unpromising beginnings love grew:

“He’s just amazing. We’ve been together for 23 years now and the love definitely grows each day… Justin is the love of my life.”

Laura Morera appears to inspire younger colleagues in the company: the young Principal Matthew Ball recently quoted her by name in an interview with The Times. Another young colleague, William Bracewell, told Ballet Position one of the attractions of joining the Royal Ballet was the opportunity to share the stage with dancers he deeply admired, like Laura Morera.

At 41-years-old she is enjoying her life and her dancing to the full. “I feel I’m having a second wind.”

Long may it last.

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by Teresa Guerreiro

William Bracewell: First Year Report Card

William Bracewell, photo Dani Bower

Approaching the end of his first Royal Ballet season, William Bracewell helps Ballet Position write his First Year Report Card

Modesty is a profoundly endearing quality, and Royal Ballet soloist William Bracewell possesses it in spades.

A beautiful dancer, technically assured, supremely elegant with a fine classical line, he is widely predicted ‘to go far’; but as he approaches the end of his first year at Covent Garden, he still has the slightly dazed look of someone who can’t quite believe his luck.

Like a kid in a toy shop.

“On a professional level, the level of commitment that goes on every single day just blows me away, and it’s massively inspiring.”

William spoke to Ballet Position in a small meeting room somewhere in the vast warren that is the Royal Opera House, where he admits to still losing his way sometimes.

“I had a general expectation of what I might find in the building, but in all honesty what goes on has totally surpassed what I’d hoped for (…) I have felt so welcome! The other day I had somebody say, ‘I can’t believe you’ve been here for just a season; it feels like you’ve been here for so long!'” 

Looking much younger than his 27-years, William smiles easily, his clear brown eyes widening as he describes his enjoyment of his new life, his speech punctuated by pauses where he takes a deep breath and searches for the precise words to convey his meaning.

William Bracewell: The Road to London

William Bracewell joined the Royal Ballet as a soloist at the beginning of the 2017/18 season, after seven years with Birmingham Royal Ballet. His work at BRB had attracted critical attention, with one dance writer describing his portrayal of the young Louis XIV in David Bintley’s Sun King as,

‘…stepping high on his arched feet like Rudolf Nureyev, and turning slowly in classical arabesque as if to summon up that paragon of British classicism Anthony Dowell.’

Praise doesn’t come much fuller than that; and is backed up by distinctions such as Young British Dancer of the Year in 2007, Youth America Grand Prix in 2010, and Outstanding Male Performer (Classical) in the 2015 Critics Circle National Dance Awards.

William Bracewell as Dancing Gentleman in Manon (c) ROH 2018 photo Bill Cooper

He found a huge difference in the demands posed by the Royal Ballet when compared with what he was used to at BRB, particularly in the scheduling of the repertoire.

“In Birmingham you’d have a rehearsal period and then tour a production of a full-length [ballet] and a triple bill for maybe six weeks, or four weeks. So, you had the low times where you could rehearse and really push your body, and then you’d have the more stamina [demanding periods] when you’d be on tour performing.

“Here you’ll do an opening night for a triple bill, the next day you might be rehearsing a full- length ballet, the coming triple bill and creating a new work at the same time. There’s a lot of overlap, so I think mentally that was kind of different to get my head around.”

He’s had to get his head around a lot of work, as he has been in almost every production in the Royal Ballet’s current season ranging from that staple of the Christmas repertoire, The Nutcracker, to Christopher Wheeldon’s The Winter’s Tale, where he took on one of the principal roles, that of Polixenes, King of Bohemia.

William Bracewell as Polixenes in The Winter’s Tale (c) ROH 2018, photo Tristram Kenton

William relishes the variety. He loves acting roles – “it’s when I felt most free on stage, when I’ve been able to completely live someone else’s life” – but loves, too, the specific technical demands of different choreographers.

“It was amazing to do Hofesh [Shechter]’s Untouchables – that was incredible! And then working with Wayne [McGregor] for the first time was amazing! I absolutely loved it and Chris [Wheeldon] as well, at the same time, that was fantastic!”

He created roles in McGregor’s and Wheeldon’s new works this season, respectively Yugen and Corybantic Games.

William Bracewell with Matthew Ball in Corybantic Games (c) ROH 2018 photo Andrej Uspenski

When we spoke, William was preparing to dance in another Wayne McGregor work: his 2016 Obsidian Tear, part of the current season’s final Triple Bill. But whereas Christopher Wheeldon’s choreographic language is firmly rooted in the classical ballet vocabulary, McGregor’s is quite something else, with its hyper-extensions and jerky, contemporary inflections.

Did he find it easy to adapt to the specific demands of Wayne McGregor’s works?

“What I loved about working with Wayne was the amount of freedom he gave you. You train all the time to get things really perfect in a very classical sense and then for someone to just give you a phrase and say, ‘make of that what you will’ … it’s really liberating, to just completely launch yourself in something.”

Another reason for William Bracewell’s pleasure in his current job is that he gets to share the stage with people whom he’s idolised ever since he entered the Royal Ballet School as a shy 10-year-old from Swansea.

Dancers like Laura Morera and Federico Bonelli in The Nutcracker, “who I’ve looked up to since I was tiny.”

Laura Morera and Federico Bonelli in The Nutcracker (c) ROH 2013 photo Tristram Kenton

“I think Federico is one of the most stunning dancers I’ve ever ever seen! and Laura, who I’ve known since I was at school is just such a beautiful dancer, and such a wonderful woman…. being on stage with people that you’ve looked up to has brought a new life to productions that I’ve worked on before.”

William Bracewell: Beyond the Stage

Another reason why William Bracewell loves his London life is being able to explore all that the capital has to offer, even if he’s had to forego some of perks of smaller Birmingham.

“I had a house in Birmingham with a garden, which I suppose is possible here, but it’s difficult… but there’s just so much going on, so many more pieces of live theatre, and art. You know, you finish work at 6.30 and it’s not too late to go to the theatre or go to a gallery before it shuts.

“I love art, I love music and all different types of theatre!”

William Bracewell is a long way from his Swansea home, where we suspect he may be a bit of a local celebrity but is too modest to admit it, saying only he “supposes” his Mum’s friends know about his success…

And so we come to the point where we fill in the First Year Report Card. On a range of 1 – 5, he hits a 5* on Attendance, Proficiency, Work-Rate, Artistry and sheer Likability.

As for future prospects, why, Glowing, of course!

by Teresa Guerreiro

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William Bracewell is dancing in the Royal Ballet’s Obsidian Tear Triple Bill in rep until 11th May 2018.

He’ll dance the Principal Role of Prince Siegfried in Swan Lake on 19th, 31st May and 15th, 21st June.  Swan Lake is in rep 17th May – 21st June 2018