After nine years away, the Tokyo Ballet returned to Milan as part of its Italian tour. The four-day stay saw two programmes with some of the company's ‘greatest hits'. A triple bill consisted of Balanchine's Serenade, Kylián's Dreamtime, and Béjart's Le Sacre du printemps; the second programme was Béjart's The Kabuki.
Serenade was beautiful to behold from the mystic, ‘Casta diva' moment of the initial tableau, to the sequences with the dancers coming together as one with delicacy and fluidity, and the softest of port de bras. The 17 women in the geometric group of the opening is typical of Balanchine's approach to form throughout: pictures rapidly arrive and disappear as groups form and reform in constant flux. The smallest movement when applied to many dancers amplifies the effect – the women's strong, flexed hands softly melting; the opening of the feet from sixth to first-position – making the minuscule both fascinating and powerful.
It was a privilege to see Mizuka Ueno still dancing magnificently, and she was fearless as the Angel. Mamiko Kawashima and the promising second soloist Miyuki Nakagawa were both impressive in the other main female roles, and Kawashima was magical in her waltz with Yasuomi Akimoto, a dancer who has great charm. Balanchine's final picture of the dancers, holding the Angel aloft, following a diagonal shaft of light from the back of the stage, is guaranteed, even if expected, to send chills down one's spine.
Tchaikovsky's half-an-hour of joy that is Serenade for Strings had conductor Paul Murphy and La Scala's Academy Orchestra producing a tighter, more nuanced and a more pleasing sound than the very slack playing by the theatre's main orchestra throughout the run of The Sleeping Beauty performances earlier this month.
Jiří Kylián created Dreamtime in 1983 for the Nederlands Dans Theater based on Japanese composer Toru Takemitsu's orchestral work. Takemitsu was inspired by Australian indigenous dancers, singers and storytellers that he witnessed after being invited to Australia by Kylián. John Macfarlane's set still feels modern with its simple tribal lines scored into the backcloth. The three women and two men perform the many demanding moves in trios, duets and solos, and the Japanese dancers were remarkable. Although there are undeniable moments of love, it is the profound darkness of death that lingers.
It was exhilarating to see Maurice Béjart's Le Sacre du printemps again, and the Tokyo Ballet has the stamina and prowess to do it proud. Béjart said, “Let this ballet, stripped of all artifices of the picturesque, be the hymn of this union of man and woman deep within their flesh, the union of sky and earth, the dance of life or death, as eternal as spring!”
The work is as eternal as its subject, which I don't believe is true of all of Béjart's works. The animal-like posing — deer headbutting, meerkats on the lookout, jumping up and down on all fours like cats on hot tin roofs – give way to dance moves, and the men's exhausting jumping exit into a diagonal light oddly mirrors the end of Serenade. Yuki Higuchi was splendid as the chosen one. Mao Morikawa was one of the two chiefs, but it was Mexican dancer Braulio Alvarez whose personality really shone out as the other ‘chef' (he was very fine in Serenade too).
Akimi Denda was majestic as the chosen one for the following female section, and the dancers here were marvellous to watch with their harmonious movements highly synchronised but exquisitely executed. The climactic moment with the stage awash with dancers takes one's breath away.
Confession: I'm not a fan of The Kabuki. Not the real kabuki which is enthralling, if long, but Béjart's mix of kabuki tradition and dance. It seems to be not much of one thing or another. Now, most people seem to love it, and the applause at La Scala was certainly enthusiastic, but after having seen it in Milan in 2010, my feelings remain unaltered. The piece is, of course, full of interest – and the Tokyo dancers are convincing and talented – but this spectator is unable to bond with it, and after the magnificent three works of the previous evening, The Kabuki had me leaving the theatre with a shrug of the shoulders.
Graham Spicer is a writer, director and photographer in Milan, blogging (under the name ‘Gramilano') about dance, opera, music and photography for people “who are a bit like me and like some of the things I like”. He was a regular columnist for Opera Now magazine and wrote for the BBC until transferring to Italy.
His scribblings have appeared in various publications from Woman's Weekly to Gay Times, and he wrote the ‘Danza in Italia' column for Dancing Times magazine.