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Federico Bonelli & Hikaru Kobayashi

Principal Dancer & First Soloist, The Royal Ballet

interviewed by David Bain

Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church London
27 August 2009.


DAVID BAIN WELCOMED MR AND MRS BONELLI and said they’d mostly be concentrating on their time with the Royal Ballet but suggested they began by telling us briefly about their early dancing experiences and then move on to more recent events.

 …he loved the experience as the Cuban people were great and the atmosphere fantastic, such as he’d never met before.

Federico trained in Italy where, besides his Italian teachers, he was also taught by guest Cuban teachers from the Cuban Ballet School who were employed on contract for a year or more. It was very lucky for him because the teachers were excellent. This led to him being entered into the international competition in Havana in 1996 at the age of 17. There’s a very strong tradition of ballet in Cuba but it’s very different from Italy and UK. Conditions at that time were worse than now because of the then recent break-up of the Soviet Union and withdrawal of Russian support. He recalled the bus which took them from their accommodation had a hole in the floor so you could see the road! But he loved the experience as the Cuban people were great and the atmosphere fantastic such as he’d never met before. The level of competition was very high but it was instructive and he learned a lot. He’d never forget how there was a lot of chatting, coaching and giving corrections from the wings!

The Royal has recently returned from performing in Havana. The tickets for the ballet were cheap and had sold out within two days and the audience responded with great enthusiasm, applauding and screaming when you did something well which was very nice. When Federico was out and about people on the street would ask if he was a dancer from the Royal Ballet and could he get tickets for the performances. He’d no idea how they knew he was a dancer but they just seem to sense it. For Hikaru it was her first experience of Cuba which she found so very hot, even more so than Japan where she was for 10 days until a couple of days before this talk. It was very hard to work under those conditions. They worked at the Cuban ballet school, which was housed in a beautiful old colonial building, formerly a merchant exchange, but which had no water for showers or toilets etc. Because of the heat you just had to dress like everyone else so shorts and sleeveless shirts became the norm. One bonus was it meant they were always hot so didn’t need to warm up as much! Hikaru wanted to see something of the city so they moved for a day from their accommodation to a hotel near the theatre where at least there was water! Some parts of the theatre where they performed were air-conditioned and some dressing rooms were air-conditioned but others were in a type of marquee which had none. It was all very different from the Royal Opera House which has the best facilities of anywhere in the world but there was a real buzz and energy and the visit was a big event as they were probably one of the first large ballet companies to visit Cuba. There was a big screen in front of the Capitol building and after one performance some of the Principals went out to take a bow. Carlos Acosta, who’d been instrumental in arranging the visit, stood and addressed the crowds like a leader, shouting that this was the first time the Royal had been to Cuba, an historic event, and which incited everyone to pump fists and scream in agreement! Michael Nunn and Billy Trevitt were filming the visit and a programme about it will be shown on TV later in the year.

Federico danced the adagio from Theme and Variations with Annette Delgado, one of the Cuban premier dancers, at a gala in honour of Alicia Alonso. He already knew Annette when she’d been part of a group of young Cubans, who had joined his school in Italy for a summer course of three months. Carlos had also been there some years before. They’d danced Fille together in one performance. This time there was only a short time for rehearsal but they did it once in the theatre before the performance which worked well and it was good to dance with an old friend.

As for Hikaru, at the age of 15 she went to train in Paris which had always been her dream. It came about through sheer determination…

As for Hikaru, at the age of 15 she went to train in Paris which had always been her dream. It came about through sheer determination since she had been told that it wouldn’t be possible to go to France as the company didn’t take many foreigners, particularly Asians. So when she was 14 she half gave up the idea but luckily didn’t do so and decided to go to the French Embassy in Tokyo to see if it were true and whether they could give her a number to contact the Opéra Ballet school. The Embassy suggested she wrote a letter which they translated and the reply came back that she should send a video so her aunt made a 15 minute home video which they sent off. A month later she was told she could go, which was thrilling, and it all seemed so easy in the end! Asked if it lived up to her dream, Hikaru said that it was very difficult and the training hard but it was a very good school. Here Federico interjected that although he appreciated they had to be strict, judging by what he heard from Hikaru and other dancers he thought they could go over the top and push too hard sometimes.

Federico and Hikaru met at Zurich Ballet which they joined at the same time. He had been in Lausanne for a competition and tried unsuccessfully for a scholarship in Paris and as he couldn’t afford to pay, but went to Zurich instead. At that time Hikaru was leaving Paris also to go to Zurich so it was destiny at work! It was a small company with a good director/choreographer but although the repertoire was a bit limited it was good experience especially for Federico. They’d got together within 18 months of meeting and by this time both wanted to try the classics so they auditioned and were accepted into the Dutch National Ballet where they stayed for four years during Wayne Eagling’s directorship. They had very good memories of their time in Amsterdam and still remain friends with several people there. It’s such a small city compared with London but pleasant. It was very different from Zurich – as Wayne had come from the Royal they had some Ashton ballets and did Cinderella and Symphonic Variations as well as works from other different choreographers such as Forsythe and Hans van Manen.

It was Wayne’s departure from Holland that in part made them decide to leave. Once again they were looking for a more varied repertoire and wondered about the Royal but thought it might not be possible. Hikaru had worked with Peter Wright in Japan on his production of Nutcracker and thought it would be good for them to try for the Royal although they appreciated they might have to join at a lower rank, something for which they possibly weren’t quite prepared. Federico commented that when you decide to change companies it’s not because you’ve learned everything you can or because the place itself isn’t good but because you want to expand horizons and experience other things. The Royal Ballet was a dream for Federico who used to watch videos of Miyako Yoshida in Nutcracker so when later he actually partnered her it was amazing. They called and asked if they could audition without speaking to Wayne first as they felt it would put him in an awkward position. He was going to leave the company also and wasn’t too happy about that. It was quite a funny situation as they knew that Monica Mason had had some contact with Wayne and was coming over to see a matinée performance. Wayne came in for class beforehand bringing Monica and Jeanetta Lawrence, whom not many people recognised, but then the new director of Dutch National Ballet arrived and with some surprise greeted the visitors and everyone wondered what was going on! Afterwards Monica contacted Wayne, they were both offered contracts and once the contracts arrived there was no question of refusing!

 …it was hard to be on stage just standing at the back doing nothing but watching others do the same solo roles she’d actually danced in her previous company.

Federico and Slava (Samodurov) were Monica’s first Principal appointments when she took over as Director. The first few weeks were quite nerve-wracking as you feel you have to justify your position. After a couple of months Federico did his first performance of Romeo and Juliet which was quite a responsibility. Hikaru came as First Artist and initially didn’t feel accepted by her colleagues. Her head was bursting with the effort of learning everything new, the stress of changing her style and trying to catch up with the others who all knew the choreography. The second year was much better but the first year was very hard. Here Federico told a story about Martin Harvey (now a very good friend who was witness at their wedding) who always prepared in class in a very concentrated and macho way for about 16 counts before the jumps. When you’re new to the company you don’t want to go on your own the first time or otherwise you feel all the attention is on you so he waited for Martin and then realised he wasn’t moving. He asked Martin why he did that thinking it was deliberate but Martin said no, he totally believed that was the way to go. Federico thinks that sometimes when you’re new your colleagues can be more intimidating than the teachers! Hikaru found Martin scary and at first he didn’t talk when she wanted to say hello but he was so busy concentrating that he ignored her which was very disconcerting! It’s great that they are now such friends.

David commented that it was possibly harder for Hikaru than Federico as it was unusual for girls, who normally came in at corps or at a more senior level, to come in as first artists. Federico followed other new men who’d joined the previous season under Ross Stretton following the loss of several of the leading men during the latter part of Anthony Dowell’s directorship. Hikaru said although she knew she’d have to start from the beginning it was hard to be on stage just standing at the back doing nothing but watching others do the same solo roles she’d actually danced in her previous company. Her first performance was in Bayadère as one of the Shades and in the valse. Federico’s first role was Romeo which he danced with Mara Galeazzi. It was useful to put two Italians together so Mara could translate if necessary! Donald MacLeary was taking them and nothing seemed to work on the first day so they had to keep repeating it over again. He recalled Donald giving corrections for the men which Johnny Cope now does in exactly the same way which seems specific to the Royal. Donald was not a young man but once when he wanted to demonstrate the Sleeping Beauty fish dives with Hikaru he actually did them himself. She wasn’t surprised as Wayne with his Royal background had done them in just the same way.

The repertoire of Dutch National didn’t include any MacMillan works where a lot of the corps roles are more about acting than steps. Although it was something she wasn’t used to, Hikaru felt happy to be playing a character and enjoyed the acting. Her first MacMillan work was Romeo and Juliet which is a bit more classical than say Manon or Mayerling. It was hard but interesting as at first she didn’t know how to act the courtesan or a whore in Manon – she had no first-hand experience – so had to watch a video! Monica pays a lot of attention to the corps. A lot of the corrections are for people standing on the sides – it’s a characteristic of the Royal that even people standing around are characters and have to act a part. While they were in Havana, Federico’s old Cuban teacher came to a performance and afterwards told him she was very happy as she thought the Principals were good (naturally!) but even the people doing nothing on the sides were fantastic as they were still acting.

They try to watch each others’ performances and Federico appreciates Hikaru’s corrections and advice and vice versa…

With Federico’s help Hikaru recalled her first solo role being the Swan Lake pas de trois with Laura Morera, who was very experienced, and Kenta Kura. She was surprised to be offered it as she was only told a week beforehand. An announcement came over the tannoy would Hikaru Kobayashi please go to Monica Mason’s office immediately which was worrying as Hikaru thought she must have done something wrong! Federico was in the audience and got very nervous for her as usual! It’s more difficult than dancing yourself, he said, as you have no control but he has to sit in the wings so she can’t see him, otherwise he gets kicked later! They try to watch each others’ performances and Federico appreciates Hikaru’s corrections and advice and vice versa which is what you do with people in whom you have confidence. It’s a real partnership and they trust each other’s judgement. They have done some guesting, dancing together, and the first occasion a few years ago when Hikaru replaced Miyako at short notice in the third act pas de deux of Sleeping Beauty in one of Roberto Bolle’s galas in Italy. He organises some performances to which he invites his friends from other companies and they have done a few things for him which is fun as it’s also about what you do before and after the shows. It’s tough as you only have Saturday to Monday but it gave Hikaru the chance to do some solo work when she was worried about losing her technique after having done so much in her last couple of years in Amsterdam. It is harder from the Company’s viewpoint to let a member of the corps go guesting than a Principal although even for the latter if you’re not actually performing you often have a busy rehearsal period before the stage call.

Talking about highlights of his time at the Royal, Federico said Marguerite and Armand was definitely one of them. Johnny Cope’s retirement gave him his big chance to do this, Manon and other roles perhaps earlier than he’d hoped. It was great too that was Johnny coaching the roles. It was very tough as he’d work daily from 10.30 to about 6.30 which is a lot when you’re working on Principal roles although he wouldn’t have given up any of it. Hikaru would prepare an English breakfast to sustain him and when he returned home completely exhausted would say he should watch a video to see how Nureyev performed the role of Armand! It was a wonderful period when he learned a lot, luckily without suffering any injury, very rewarding but scary to be maybe the third person to dance Armand after Nureyev and Cope.

For Hikaru her highlight was Gamzatti in La Bayadère last season. Monica called her into her office to tell her and she could hardly believe it as she’d not imagined herself doing such a role. But the thought of acting was very exciting because she knew she needed to change her own personality for Gamzatti which was a challenge. She had a day with Natasha Makarova in the studio learning steps. Hikaru had learnt the first act solo, but when she arrived Natasha wanted her to do the third act. After 90 minutes during which she taught Hikaru the Act III solo, Natasha said OK you can dance the role which was a great relief. Monica opened the door and saw everyone smiling which was a relief for her too! This time the three leading parts were taken by dancers totally new to the roles so it was a gamble which paid off for Monica. Natasha gave corrections saying she used to do it in a certain way but if they weren’t happy doing it exactly like that they could make little alterations. However what she did was fantastic so they followed her example! She was very kind and nice to work with, though sometimes could be very tough and mean but it was a great experience which kept you on your toes. Hikaru would love to do something else with Makarova. This season she’s also danced Myrtha in Giselle so up till now she’s become typecast as a mean woman! Hikaru said she wasn’t originally cast in that role but because Monica liked her Gamzatti she thought she would be good in Giselle. Federico said he thinks it’s good to be able to act as well as dance and although Hikaru has a beautiful smile she can turn it around from an ‘I love you’ sort of smile to an ‘I’m going to hurt you’ smile! That’s what makes it so interesting to play roles which are opposite to your own personality.

Conversely Federico always seems to get nice roles! Des Grieux is a nice guy but Federico definitely isn’t a Des Grieux for real so has to get into the right frame of mind. You wouldn’t normally want to commit murder but if you have to kill someone on stage you have to learn to express your feelings for that role. He’d love to do Rudolf and Onegin and as he still has a few years to dance hopes that they will come along some time. He enjoyed doing Pierrot which is a very different type of role. There is a story which is based on poems which he didn’t understand but it’s a more introverted way than is normal for him with different movements so it’s a journey of discovery which is very interesting. Giselle is the same with development of character but Cinderella though beautiful isn’t as interesting as the character remains the same throughout.

Audio clip - Hikaru's first Aurora with Tulsa Ballet:

This season will see Hikaru’s Opera House debut as Aurora, partnering Sergei Polunin. Monica had spoken to her after her second Bayadère performance, said she was very happy with her Gamzatti and she’d seen something in Hikaru which made her feel she should have the opportunity to do the big role. Federico saw her crying after the performance and was trying to console her by telling her it was a good show but she said, no, she was just so happy to be offered the part of Aurora! They’ve not started rehearsing yet though they did dance a bit together in Italy in the summer so have had a little practice together. In fact Hikaru has already danced the role once before four years ago in Amarillo, Texas. It happened that Viviana Durante was supposed to join Tulsa Ballet for one performance but had a problem with her partner and was obliged to cancel at short notice, so a week before they phoned Monica to ask if anyone would be available to cover. It was the mid-season break when few people were around – the Principals were either guesting or on vacation and no one else was available – so Monica suggested Hikaru should go. Hikaru was very surprised and said she thought she couldn’t learn it in so short a time. Monica said ‘if I were you, I’d do it.’ So she learned the steps in three days, flew out, had one full call with all the company and the next day was off to Amarillo and on stage. Unfortunately she’d picked up a bug on the plane over and was very sick with a fever but was determined to go ahead, so tried to forget about it which seemed to work! Federico was of course watching her performance and felt she was a bit nervous at the start but as often happens on stage you gain confidence throughout the performance and Hikaru surprised even herself.

 He’ll do 30 seconds of choreography in ABC form, then you do the same thing in ACB, then CBA, switching and turning all the time. So it’s a very different but interesting way of creating.

For Federico this season means Sleeping Beauty, Wayne McGregor’s new ballet which he hopes to be in, Nutcracker and Romeo. He’d done a few new works, and the first time he worked with Wayne was in the Linbury, an experience so totally different from anything he’d known before. Some people talk a lot but Wayne rapidly creates lots of difficult steps which, although he’s normally quite quick at picking it up, Federico found hard. So he had to repeat things over and over and thought he must just do his best and it seemed to work in the end as if Wayne sees you’re trying he moulds you into what he wants. He’ll do 30 seconds of choreography in ABC form, then you do the same thing in ACB, then CBA, switching and turning all the time. So it’s a very different but interesting way of creating. By the time he made Chroma Federico found his style easier. He’s also worked with Chris Wheeldon whose choreographic language is more akin to what they know but when you put all the moves together it’s very tough. Although Federico feels the repertoire is great he’d love more new narrative ballets created on him and the company. When you watch something like Mayerling and know the person whom it was created on, you feel it would be good to have something created on you too. He’s done some new modern works but would like to do some more acting roles. Chris Wheeldon’s Alice in Wonderland is coming up but it may not have quite the same opportunities but they don’t really know much about it yet.

Hikaru missed the opportunity to do the new works last season as, as well as suffering an injury, they coincided with her learning Gamzatti, but she’s hoping this season there’ll be something for her. She did some Forsythe in Amsterdam which was weird and unusual with people talking on stage but very enjoyable in the end. It’s a challenge and pushes you forward. We seem to have lost Forsythe from the Royal recently.

Federico has had a strange couple of seasons because of an injury which wouldn’t go away. It’s a stress reaction in the shin bone, the same as Brian Maloney suffered on and off for four years. Federico felt he probably worked too hard for too long at one point when he should have taken more than two weeks off. It was a period when he was doing Armand amongst other things but he also wanted to do guesting so would dance a Nutcracker, rush to Heathrow after the performance, fly to Japan, perform and fly back to dance here again immediately after. He was perhaps lucky to have gone on so long without an accident but such injuries are hard to get rid of. It’s a strain both physically and mentally when you’re forced to stop for a long time but they have a wonderful sports psychologist who helps them with different strategies to cope with the stress. Federico still isn’t 100 percent and feels it a bit, but is trying to cope with it. He didn’t follow Brian Maloney’s example of spending three months in Havana though did have two months in a boot. There’s a wonderful man in Havana, Capote, who’s something between a doctor and a physiotherapist who knows about those sort of injuries and Federico did see him for a week while they were in Cuba this summer. There was talk of bringing him over to England for a spell but though very good he’s also very expensive. Apparently he’d begun by working with people from the Tropicana night club as well as the ballet company and helps to prevent injury as well as cure it. Hikaru would love the opportunity to spend time with him also.

In thanking our guests for a wonderful and fascinating evening David said we were very much looking to their forthcoming season. They might like to know that the photo from this year’s dinner which was most requested by members was one of them together. Janet Radenkovic, our photographer, had taken one and said ‘Lovely.’ Federico had misheard her and thought she said ‘More lovingly,’ so they had obliged. Time had gone so quickly there was no opportunity for questions from the audience, but Federico and Hikaru said they’d be happy to stay on afterwards and chat.

Report written by Liz Bouttell, corrected by Federico Bonelli, Hikaru Kobayashi and David Bain ©The Ballet Association 2009.


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