The Royal Ballet's long run of Mayerling proceeds with many debuts, including that of Fumi Kaneko who will be dancing Countess Larisch for the first time on 21 October. There are many other debuts that evening when Vadim Muntagirov will be tackling Crown Prince Rudolf for the first time, Yasmine Naghdi will debut as Mary Vetseva when she replaces a pregnant Lauren Cuthbertson, and Isabella Gasparini will dance Princess Stephanie for the first time, stepping in for Meaghan Grace Hinkis. Backstage nerves for that performance will run high.
Fumi Kaneko will be dancing Mitzi Caspar in another cast, but I asked her about dancing Marie Larisch.
Fumi Kaneko: I didn't expect to be cast as Larisch, in fact it's a character I never imagined myself doing, so I was quite surprised. However she's such an important character in the ballet, and also very complex. She kind of leads the story and I am enjoying this role so much more than I expected.
Larisch knows Rudolf more than anyone else. She knows all the pain he's been through because she's known him since he was very young.
The first dancer in this role was Merle Park – are you working on the part with her during rehearsals?
No, unfortunately, but I have my main coach, Alexander Agadzhanov, who is our senior teacher and répétiteur, and two very good coaches for this role: Zenaida Yanowsky and Laura Morera, who is actually dancing Larisch and Mary Vetsera during these performances.
You've mentioned two of The Royal Ballet's finest actresses. What is your approach to interpreting a character instead of just executing steps?
I love acting on stage. When I grew up in Japan, I never knew that ballet could bring so much story or emotion. But when I came to The Royal Ballet as a company member, I was shocked that every single dancer on stage acted just like speaking – you can almost hear what they're saying by just watching their acting. I have been with this company for more than ten years now and have seen so many ballets on stage and cried so much. I admire all these amazing ballet dancers; I'm inspired by them and want to be like them: to be a ballet dancer but also an actress.
What are the challenges in Mayerling?
The biggest is for Rudolf's character because he has five, six women, and he has to do all the pas de deux with them. For Larisch, my dancing is not that much, so I don't have a big pas de deux, but there is some quite tricky partnering and lifts we've had to work on quite a lot. And it needs to be together with telling the story. I was told that Kenneth MacMillan used the feet for speaking, so I'm trying to achieve that as well to tell the story.
So how does Larisch use her feet?
Her way of dancing is quite sexual. She wants to get Rudolf back with her. He is over her, but she's not over him. She wants him to remember how they loved each other – though maybe she loved him more than he loved her. She's trying to seduce him, so there's a contrast in using the pointe work – faster and slower, and a lot of stretching the feet and legs. I use softer shoes than I would for a ballet with 32-fouettés because I need to feel the floor.
You don't often dance with Vadim.
No, we don't really dance together at The Royal Ballet, but we have done a few galas recently, especially in Italy, as you know. We've danced some classic ballet, and recently we did Romeo and Juliet in Cape Town, so I feel like I'm now getting to know him more and I am very comfortable working with him. Because we are both new to the ballet, we are trying to find our own way to make connections.
When you danced in Rome in January you danced the Swan Lake pas de deux coping with some very challenging costumes. In The Dante Project, wearing a unitard, there is nothing to get in the way of your dancing, but do Nicholas Georgiadis' sumptuous costumes give you any problems?
Yes. We have to get used to dancing in the costume. Even if we can do everything in rehearsal without costumes, when you are on stage it's hard with quick changes, hats and wigs, lights… it's so much more than dancing. When I wore the costume for the first time we got caught up in the skirt, and I stepped on the skirt, so it's very important to rehearse in the costume.
You were striking in The Dante project, and your Sugar Plum fairy is beautiful: both on pointe, but so different. Maybe Mayerling is somewhere in between. When are you happiest?
I grew up with classic ballet and love classical ballet. I always want to work on technique and want to find my own way to express using my whole body. These acting roles and different styles are very challenging. It was something I didn't know I could do. I never imagined myself being Satan! [in The Dante Project] I am surprised that I can also be like that… so, yes, it's exciting!
Fumi Kaneko will dance the role of Countess Marie Larisch on 21 October and 11 November 2023 at the Royal Opera House
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.