A ballerina in the spotlight

Miyako Yoshida’s journey away from the Royal Ballet

A ballerina in the spotlight

Photo by Johan Persson

While the phrase ‘leading Japanese artist’ is often used, it’s less common to hear a Japanese person described as a ‘leading international artist’. However, prima ballerina Miyako Yoshida could certainly be described as a leading international artist. On June 29 – here in Tokyo – she gave the final performance of a career that spanned fifteen years with England’s Royal Ballet.

Though, Yoshida will continue to dance, her Tokyo performance saw the final curtain fall of a career with that most storied and traditional institute, the Royal Ballet – the first name in classical ballet. And yet, Yoshida made the decision herself to leave the company at the peak of her career. Yoshida, who is widely known as a principal ballerina, became more adept in her artistry and expression as she matured, all the while maintaining her technique and physical ability. Despite all this, she is leaving the company. Perhaps she felt as the first principal dancer of Japanese heritage at the Royal Ballet, a company considered to be at dance’s pinnacle and as a leading ballerina in the era, that she had achieved her own artistic style.

Her final program was ‘Romeo and Juliet’, which even among Yoshida’s repertoire stands out for its dramatic emotion. The program was produced by the father of British ballet, Sir Frederick Ashton, and choreographer Sir Kenneth MacMillan, who brought new life to ballet performances vividly portraying the depth of human psychology through the traditional form of classical ballet. The ballet was produced with much fanfare in the UK for the 400th anniversary of the birth of William Shakespeare, and the leading roles of the original cast were played by two legends of the ballet world, Margot Fonteyn and Rudolf Nureyev.

There is certainly a reason why Yoshida choose one of the most famous ballets of the Royal Ballet as her final performance. We asked Monica Mason the director of the Royal Ballet who has known Yoshida since entering the Royal Ballet school about what that reason is. According to Kevin O’Hare, Administrative Director of the company, ‘Yoshida has become, because she is Japanese, the epitome of an “English Ballerina”.’ It is exactly for this that Monica Mason elaborates, ‘She is not only a national treasure, but also an “international” treasure. We really do consider her a product of the Royal Ballet, and of all it stands for. That is about not only everything she does on stage, though you see her work, technique, her motion, also her warmth, her sense of humour, but also how she is, on the other side – which is a true professional – which is really an example to all the young dancers here. You see them applauding her because they look up to her as somebody very, very special. In that sense – which is more of a company sense – we are very sad to be losing her.’

Yoshida started ballet at the tender age of nine, and at age seventeen won the Prix de Lausanne, an international contest that serves as the gateway to the ballet world. From there, she entered the Royal Ballet School and has been performing internationally for the past twenty-five years.

O’Hare describes Yoshida’s special quality as a dancer as such: ‘What she has achieved in becoming, I can almost definitely say that she’s not only one of the first Japanese dancers to join the Royal Ballet, but also definitely the very first principal ballerina of the Royal Ballet as a Japanese dancer. What she had brought to the world, was something that nobody else could bring – she had a presence on stage that, again, was second to none. There’s a reserve that Japanese people have, and Miyako definitely has that warmth her, British like people to not to show-off, they like people to be unassuming and modest, of course that’s what Miyako has in abundance, but she is also brilliant in what she does. So people in England very much love that – the understated…If you think of anything British, British people tend to be understated, and Miyako has that. You know Miyako not only danced in London, but also toured around England, London, Birmingham as well, and she was really loved by the audiences in all cities in England, as well as all the international touring and guesting she did around the world. It’s that.’

Yoshida is a ballerina loved by both the company and the audience.
It’s not just about Yoshida’s personality or her unrivalled ability; it would be no exaggeration to say that she has also been blessed with a god-given talent of musicality.

On Yoshida’s musicality, O’Hare comments, ‘As a dancer, she is so musical. Her body completely reacts with the music. Without the audiences actually knowing, it really makes the difference. Some dancers can be very musical, but there’s “being musical,” and actually “living the music”. That’s what makes her stand out from the usual dancer. Her living within the music, really. I think she would not be able to explain how she dances with the music, but she is so with the music at all time; as a ballet dancer, it’s a very special thing to have that. People don’t really understand it, but when they see it they realize it’s something special. She’s born with it. It’s a really natural gift, and it can’t be underestimated. Because I was at school with her, she was the very first person who had the technical proficiency that she has – amazing at that time – nobody could do the technical feats that she could, but that’s sort of second to the way she dances with the music. You can turn as many times, and yes that’s good, but it actually has to be more than that. That’s what Miyako can do. ‘There are a lot of technical dancers now, but you want “artistry”, and artistry is through music, really.’

It is said that language is what makes humans ‘human’, but ballet doesn’t have that sort of language. Everything is conveyed through a performance of music and the body. Because there are no words, we could say that ballet is a performing art that has a sensitivity that appeals to the depth of the human soul. Therefore, dancers that have the rare ability to resonate the music are indispensable to the growth of ballet.

We also asked O’Hare about the value of this ballerina that has leapt out from Japan. He explains, ‘She’s the dancer that would appear once in a generation. Her particular style – you only get one of those just once in a generation. I would put in the line-up of great ballerinas in the world who will be put in the dance history books. She was a shy young girl who spoke no English; she has grown into an artist with a diverse expressive ability in her repertoire, which ranges from comical roles to more dramatic roles such as Juliet. A very nice review after her last performance in London it said, “she may be gone but she won’t be forgotten”, that is how people feel. She is very much part of the history of Royal Ballet now. People will remember that. There’s younger generation of royal dancers who will look up to her and be remembered, that’s really important.

Probably most importantly I’ll miss her as a wonderful friend, but I will miss the special qualities and aura that she brings on our performance. If Miyako is on stage, that’s what you will see. That’s something that I will miss. But I send her lots of love and I know what ever she will touch, she will do it so well and so professionally, and so exact, and it will be of highest quality whatever she does.’

Although she is Japanese, Yoshida is a dancer who has been cherished by the British. While the curtain may have fallen on the ‘Royal Ballet’s Yoshida’, it also means that audiences here in Japan will have more opportunities to see her dance up close. In fact, tickets for her future performances here in Tokyo are selling like crazy. On Thursday July 8, 2010 she danced ‘Raymonda’ at ‘Bare no Shinzui’, a performance with the leading dancers from the Russian Ballet; on Saturday, July 31 and Sunday, August 1 she will perform ‘Paquita’ with the Star Dancers Ballet Company.

To a backdrop of the words ‘sayonara’ (goodbye), the ringing applause that wanted her to continue dancing forever was filled with a love from the audience and other performers towards Yoshida. We expect that Yoshida will give out much love from the stage in the future.

Star Dancers Ballet Charity Performance 2010

Date: Sat July 31-Sun Aug 1
Time: July 31 5pm, Aug 1 2pm
Location: U-Port Hall
Cast: Miyako Yoshida, Steven McRae (Principal/The Royal Ballet, Britain), Hikaru Kobayashi (First Soloist/The Royal Ballet, Britian), Sergei Polunin (First Soloist/ The Royal Ballet, Britain) Hideo Sugano (Soloist/The Ukrainian National Ballet, Kiev) and others
Admission: SS ¥12,000; S ¥10,000; A ¥8,000; B ¥5,000; C ¥3,000
Ticket inquiries: (03)3401 2293 (Star Dancers Ballet)

By Aika Nanao
Translated by E. Kavanagh
Please note: All information is correct at the time of writing but is subject to change without notice.


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