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Fumi Kaneko

Soloist, The Royal Ballet

interviewed by David Bain
Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church, London, 22 April 2016


JAPANESE DANCER, FUMI KANEKO, is a Soloist of The Royal Ballet. She joined the Company in April 2011 during the 2010/11 Season and was promoted to First Artist in 2012 and Soloist in 2013. Fumi trained at the Jinushi Kaoru Ballet School, Osaka.

After being welcomed by David, Fumi explained that she started ballet at the early age of three, mainly because her mother enjoyed it and encouraged her, though her grandmother didn’t – preferring instead traditional Japanese dance – so that there was no family history of classical ballet to inspire her. Her older sister also took ballet classes as a hobby but did not pursue it as a career. At first Fumi didn’t enjoy it very much, admitting to having photographs of some pretty ‘unsmiling’ childhood performances. She attended ordinary school during the day before taking ballet classes in the evening. When she was 11 she found herself becoming more ambitious and started going to what she described as ‘proper’ ballet classes four times a week. There were around 100 students at the Ballet School in Osaka.

Asked whether ballet was popular in Japan she agreed it had now become more popular but that when she was at school she was the only one doing ballet. As a sign of her growing commitment, at around the age of 12 she began to enter competitions in Japan, though juggling her daytime school work and dancing involved some very long evening classes running from 5pm to 11pm – with dinner after midnight – and the prospect of a normal school start at 8.30am, for which she was often late because she was so tired.

The practice for competitions was rigorous, with a very strict and demanding teacher, and she would practice a solo every day for three months in order to prepare. Another important factor driving her to want to enter competitions was the lack of opportunities to perform, which were as little as only one performance a year. Nevertheless, she was able to choose the ballets from which to showcase her solos, including Don Quixote and Sylvia .

 Her first international competition was in Varna, Bulgaria, which while very famous she said was also one of the hardest of her life…

Her first international competition was in Varna, Bulgaria, which while very famous she said was also one of the hardest of her life, not least because it was extremely hot. Moreover, they couldn’t practice with lighting during the daytime and had to resort to rehearsing after midnight and were frequently on stage until 3 o’clock in the morning being trained and corrected by one of her school’s teachers. She and her partner were the only Japanese competitors. Nevertheless in 2008 she won the junior gold medal at the age of 16. A little hazy on exactly what she danced she thought it was Nutcracker, Don Quixote and two modern pieces.

After Varna she also entered competitions in Moscow and in Jackson, USA. Moscow proved a very different experience as it was the first time she had danced on a raked stage. She nevertheless won a silver medal there in 2009. Happily, Jackson was a more comfortable and ‘fun’ experience, which didn’t feel so much like a competition and where she was able to catch up with an old friend who was living in America. With several international medals under her belt, after Varna she was invited by The Hungarian National Ballet to dance Clara in Nutcracker.

Having joined the Jinushi Kaoru Ballet Company in Japan in 2010, which she didn’t think was a company as we would understand it, she was still confronted with the frustration of too few performances. It was therefore a significant turning point that after the competition in Jackson she was asked to send a video to the Royal Ballet, it being a matter of regret that she cannot now remember who it was who made the request. The result was that four months later she came to London for classes, as David pointed out, by herself and not knowing if there was going to be a job at the end of it. Happily, after only a couple of days, Monica Mason offered her a job. The next hurdle was acquiring a visa, which took six months to secure and which required her to learn English.

She arrived in London in April 2011 with practically no English, which posed its own difficulties, not being able to count in English as a member of the corps in Rite of Spring being a particular case in point. Other new experiences included playing a beggar in Manon and being astonished at seeing Principal dancers on the floor, quite unlike in Japan where even in Sleeping Beauty Principals remained in a sitting position.

Asked how different she found the Royal Ballet compared with Japan, Fumi admitted that as well as finding the language difficult she was also extremely homesick, though her mother did come over to help her find somewhere to live. She said she had learned a great deal from her colleagues at The Royal Ballet. Classes here she thought easier than in Japan, not least because there was more individual coaching here.

In her first year here in 2011 the Company went on a two week tour to Taipei. Her first solo was as Fairy of the Woodland Glade, in Sleeping Beauty in which she was coached by Lesley Collier. David noted that she had been in the Company for five years now and had risen from being in the corps to soloist very quickly in that time. For example, when Lauren Cuthbertson was injured she stepped into Nutcracker, and while delighted for the opportunity regretted it arose because of someone else’s misfortune. News that she had been cast to play Kitri in Don Quixote arrived by email, which she failed to get and had to be told be a friend, much to her delight but shock. She described working with Carlos Acosta as really fun and that he taught her a lot about strengthening her upper body. Apparently Acosta is quite an impish chatterbox. She clearly enjoyed working closely with her partner Thiago Soares in Don Quixote, characterising him as a very experienced partner as well as very natural actor.

In spite of this big setback, Fumi nevertheless described her first performance in Don Quixote as one of the best experiences of her life…

Unfortunately, in only the second performance of Don Quixote, during the first act, she suffered a very serious knee injury which required surgery to repair. Two muscles were taken from her hamstring to repair the ligaments. The process of rehabilitation took the better part of a year which she found boring and frustrating, not to mention depressing. An important part of her recovery included yoga and pilates and after two months she was able to start classes again with the help of physio and, rather to her surprise, weight training which she had never done before. In spite of this big setback, Fumi nevertheless described her first performance in Don Quixote as one of the best experiences of her life and had given her the will to want to recover and get back to performing. She reminded us all that many of her Royal Ballet colleagues experience similar setbacks.

Her injury was in November 2013 and her return to performing occurred in November the following year when she danced in The Four Temperaments, coached by Patricia Neary. Asked what it was like being coached by Pat Neary, she said that she had a very ripe vocabulary though this didn’t stop her being a kind and considerate coach, who gave Fumi a bottle of champagne in recognition of her performance. Her first time dancing Balanchine, whose choreography she liked very much, was in The Four Temperaments and she had also been in the corps in Diamonds.

Fumi obviously relished the opportunity here to dance a wide range of roles by equally wide-ranging choreographers. In particular, she cited recently playing the Gypsy in The Two Pigeons which she felt had required her to act for the first time on stage, which she had enjoyed enormously, and the experience had left her with a keen sense that she wanted to do more acting roles. Unlike in Japan, she thinks The Royal Ballet offers a lot more scope for these roles. She also said that dancing Ashton for the first time may look simple but in reality is very difficult to master.

Working with Christopher Carr, she described as ‘really good’ but was ‘scary’ if you were bad. However, in pushing as hard as he does, especially if a cinema transmission is involved, and paying such close attention to the corps, meant he brings out the best in the dancers. In Japan she had learned her parts from video whereas here dancers learn direct from the choreographers which she found a novel and occasionally unsettling experience. In the case of Wayne McGregor she thought the other dancers were much more used to his style but that she was never entirely sure if she was delivering what he wanted. But the process with him involved more free-flowing collaboration with the dancers, who created many of the steps themselves, and that was something you had to get used to. David noted that he should send the tape of her observations on working with Wayne to him!

On other choreographers, Liam Scarlett she thought choreographed very good parts for women as it was natural for their bodies and confirmed that she had a role as a Doctor’s Assistant in his forthcoming work, Frankenstein. It was a pity, she said, that she had been injured when Christopher Wheeldon was casting for The Winter’s Tale. Beyond Frankenstein, she agreed she was not in much else this season and that it was too early to speculate on next season. Casting for The Invitation, for instance, had not yet been announced though they had been rehearsing. Meanwhile, she is hoping to go on tour this year to Japan, but that sadly, unlike in the UK, there are no cinema transmissions there so that her parents and fellow-countrymen would not necessarily be able to see her.

Asked which roles she coveted she said Manon and Tatiana in Onegin were parts she would love to play as they were so emotional. Tactfully side-stepping a question about which partner she preferred dancing with, the meeting concluded with Fumi confirming that outside of ballet she enjoyed cooking and baking despite, like her mother, often managing to burn the cakes.

David concluded by affirming how good it was to see her back on stage after her injury and that everyone looked forward to following the next stages of her career.

Report written by Ann Dawson, corrected by Fumi Kaneko and David Bain ©The Ballet Association 2016

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