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    Fumi Kaneko 2021

    Fumi Kaneko

    Principal, The Royal Ballet

    Interviewed by David Bain
    Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church, Mon 25th October, 2021


    Following David’s welcome Fumi began by telling us about her busy last few weeks which included preparation for her debut as Juliet. She said she’d not expected it as she couldn’t imagine herself as Juliet, who she sees as so cute and unlike herself, but of course was very happy to be offered this role in a MacMillan ballet. She watched everything she could and read the book given her by Lesley Collier. Shakespeare’s English is difficult so she listened to the audio book as well, loved getting to know Juliet and loved all the rehearsals with William Bracewell who was a perfect Romeo – ‘he just stands there and is Romeo’, she said. The whole process was like a dream. Gradually she wasn’t copying anyone and a lot of her own Juliet came through as she found more of an image of how she wanted to portray the character. She’s been with the Company ten years and has seen so many wonderful ballerinas dancing this role, has loved watching them all and thought how amazing they were, but what they did was not always working for her. She lived Juliet’s life on stage which was so special and after her debut she felt she’d never experienced a ballet like it but just enjoyed it all. David commented on how emotional she had been at the end of the dress rehearsal. She said she had only two shows which, after the whole rehearsal process, seemed very little and wished for more. When she and Will found they were doing the General, they decided to take it as a real performance and do it as if it were their last show. Fumi just wanted to enjoy the moment and live that wonderful experience. In her cast there were other debuts – including Lukas Bjørneboe Brændsrød as Paris and Mica Bradbury as the Nurse - so everyone was learning together.  Will had done it before in Birmingham and on film but not on the main stage. Everyone was trying to learn it and normally the old pros guide you but Fumi felt it was really fresh as they were building everything together. Lukas made a gorgeous Paris and she was able to be Juliet without thinking too much about it. She discussed a lot with Mica how they would play it together and others helped Mica too. It was a bit difficult for her as she is younger than Fumi but Fumi felt so glad to have her there. Lesley and Ed Watson were coaching and Kevin O’Hare was also involved so they had three coaches. Laura Morera watched the full call and general rehearsal and gave Fumi several tips which helped a lot. Fumi loves MacMillan ballets and has done ever since she arrived here.

    They’ve also been working on The Dante Project. What were her thoughts when the casting for Inferno came out for Los Angeles and Fumi saw she was Satan? She said that when they started rehearsing no-one knew who their characters were. Wayne asked you things which you expressed with your body but she didn’t really know she was creating Satan though somehow Wayne made it make sense. It was her first time creating with Wayne, although she’d been involved in his ballets before but as second cast or in a revival. It is more than two years since the LA tour and she was dancing with Ed which she loved, and it was an honour to create something with him especially as now they are involved in his final shows. Wayne often changes his mind about the steps and you don’t really know what he’s thinking. Fumi feels he has so many drawers in his brain and they just pop open! Sometimes it’s hard to picture what he is creating but if you watch you find it’s all there.  The boys dance crazily as thieves and have chalk on their hands. Some people have a half body, some a whole body of chalk and, as Satan, Fumi was completely chalked. She’s in the girls dance beforehand and then has to get chalked up which is quite unusual. It has to be sprayed on so it’s not the best experience and you have to wear masks etc. In Federico Bonelli’s cast she was Beatrice, a very different character, and she feels so lucky to dance two completely different roles in one ballet. They are the second cast so she copies what the first cast does while making it her own and agreeing details with Federico. She loves working with various partners and finds something different with each of them. Fumi said she hadn’t read any Dante but thought Gary Avis (Virgil) probably had. Wayne had an amazing team when creating the ballet, who know it really well and who tell them why they are doing something which is very helpful as it then makes sense on stage. Asked why there are three Beatrices, Fumi said she didn’t know but Dante is looking back and reliving his childhood and earlier memories. Later this season she will do Nutcracker and there will finally be her Swan Lake debut. She’s been waiting nearly two years for that since she did the stage call before everything was cancelled by lock-down.

    Asked when Kevin told her she would become a Principal, Fumi said it was more than a year ago (she recalled the exact date of 2 October 2020!) but it wasn’t announced until seven months later. He called her in for a meeting which should have been at the end of the previous season but because of lock-down it was delayed. Once they began class and rehearsing he told her it would be announced in February or March but that wasn’t good timing so it was delayed to May before the opening of Within the Golden Hour triple bill. During the summer she danced the second pas de deux in Golden Hour, one of the muses in Apollo and Blue and Green girls in Dances at a Gathering and After the Rain. Apollo, Balanchine’s masterpiece, is very challenging. Pat Neary was here and she’s an incredible woman, tells funny stories and talks a lot about Balanchine, but is really strict about how it should look. You’re not allowed to make it your own and Pat focusses on very tiny details. To achieve that, Fumi practised a lot, but once on stage it was so lovely with the beautiful music and she loved every show. After the Rain is beautiful and she’s danced it outdoors in a gala but this was the first time on the main stage with Federico. The music makes it feel almost like meditation and it was very special dancing with Federico. Fumi and Reece Clarke did the Golden Hour for a live stream during the winter. There was a lot of live streaming during lock-down which put extra pressure on them. From the start she thought she had to be perfect which was difficult though on stage every show felt different but she enjoyed them all. Is there difficulty with Chris Wheeldon’s choreography, David asked? When she did The Winter’s Tale,a dramatic ballet, Fumi wanted to be emotional and think about the story but suddenly you have to perform really difficult technique on stage and do some tricky steps. She may feel differently next time. She loves his choices of music, dancing on the music makes her feel good, and she also loves watching others perform his works.

    Fumi was also in an opera – Berenice in La Clemenza di Tito. Kevin said the director, Richard Jones, had seen and liked her as the Blue girl and wanted her to be in his opera. She said yes of course she’d love to without realising it was an acting part rather than dancing!. It was an unusual experience and her first involvement in an opera but she loved every rehearsal because their approach is completely different from ballet (they are also paid more) and felt inspired every time. Luckily, she didn’t have to sing!

    Fumi started dancing in Osaka when she was three years old and her mum took her and her older sister to ballet school. Fumi didn’t ask to go but her mum had wanted to dance though her parents hadn’t allowed her to go so she always dreamt about taking her kids to ballet school. At first Fumi didn’t really love it as it was during her nap time and she was so sleepy and cried while holding the barre but when she was about nine she wanted to do more ballet during the week. At the age of 12 she went to a ballet competition for the first time where there were so many ballerinas of her age, very beautiful and hard-working, and they inspired her to be better. She started to go to class almost every day after normal school and loved it so knew she wanted to keep dancing. Each year she became more and more keen and now it’s still exactly the same – she feels so lucky to have a dream job which she loves. Formerly, female dancers in Japan were not paid. Fumi said it is still difficult to be fully paid though it’s improving, thanks mainly to Miyako Yoshida who is the Artistic Consultant of the National Ballet of Japan and is trying to change the ballet world but it won’t happen overnight. At school in Japan, Fumi went to competitions in order to work hard and better herself and when she got a gold medal her teacher encouraged her to do more. But the Varna was her first big competition and was the hardest of all.  They were on an outside stage so it’s cancelled if it’s raining. Competitions were from 9pm to midnight and then they rehearsed, coming back to the hotel at 3am when her teacher showed Fumi a video she’d made of her dancing and was giving Fumi corrections while she fell asleep which made the teacher very angry!  Next day at 1pm there was time to rehearse on stage but it was 40 degrees, her eyes hurt as the sun was so strong and she was very dehydrated.  The Moscow competition was an amazing experience when they went to the Bolshoi. They took class in a side theatre as the main stage was closed but the stage was raked and she struggled with the floor. Even so it was quite fun once you got used to it. She danced the Russian version of Nutcracker, Don Q, Tchaikovsky pas de deux,and Coppelia. The following year she went to the States for the International Ballet Competition at Jackson which didn’t offer any scholarships but was good practice with the chance of more performances. Monica Mason’s contact was there watching and she gave Fumi her card and said to send a video and when she looked and saw ‘Royal Ballet’ on the card she couldn’t believe it. She finished high school at 18 but wasn’t thinking of anything but dancing. Her teacher had a ballet school and a small company so she went there in order to dance more and was so happy to do ballet class in the morning and just keep dancing all day. Previously after normal school she’d done ballet class from 5.30 to 11.30, finally eating dinner at midnight! High school started at 7.30am so she was always tired and slept quite a lot at school but still passed her exams!  After the Jackson competition she sent a video to Monica and was invited to come to take class for a week. In the October she had to do one performance of Don Q at home and then came to London to take a week’s class and afterwards Monica offered her a contract. She went home to go through the hoops of getting a visa and finally joined the company in the following April.  When she came to London she spoke no English but Yuriko who was an apprentice helped her a lot and took her to nice cafes.  Her Mum came with her to help settle her in a flat but her first memory quite soon after joining the Company was being on stage in Manon, when she was one of the five beggar women in Act III. She thought she had to do everything properly for the general rehearsal and put on full ballet make-up and red lipstick but didn’t realise that as a beggar you have to be dirty! It was her first performance and that was when she fell in love with Kenneth MacMillan’s ballets. She used to watch every show from the wings and would cry every time, she loved the drama on stage, living someone’s life, and the music and choreography were perfect for her.

    Highlights of Fumi’s many roles. She’d danced Kitri in Japan and then came here and was cast in Carlos Acosta’s production. When someone told her she was doing Kitri she couldn’t believe it but the whole process was so much fun with Carlos who knows what he wants from Kitri and Fumi enjoyed getting to know his vision for her. She’d just been promoted to soloist and was performing everything from corps de ballet to soloist roles and then she was rehearsing Kitri at the end of the day between 5.30 and 6.30 and was so tired but kept pushing so although it was very hard she loved it. In Japan the teacher made her own version by mixing together various productions and Fumi rehearsed so much for just one show a year. Here, there wasn’t a lot of time to prepare so she was a bit anxious but knowing she had done it already in Japan gave her confidence.  Thiago Soares was her Basilio and his partnering is perfect. As a character he is already Basilio so she was lucky to have him for her first performance of Kitri with the Company. She also did Mitzi in Mayerling. It was her first main role in a MacMillan ballet and was a really fresh experience for her as Fumi had never done anything like it before but it was great fun to learn who she is, how she shows herself to others but also it was really hard stamina-wise.

    Of the classics, Fumi has done Sugar Plum, Aurora and Giselle. She’d also done the Nutcracker in Japan which is completely different because in the Royal’s version you just do the pas de deux but it is one of the hardest pas de deux to perform. You don’t have the opportunity to get used to being on stage during the first act and you just have to get up and do it so it’s always challenging. Every time she finds something new and although last time the shows were cancelled, she did the General Rehearsal and found something new so is looking forward to doing it again. During the first act she warms up in the studio, hydrates and eats bananas! Aurora was another role she couldn’t imagine herself doing as again it’s cute. Everyone said it is one of the hardest and most demanding roles for a ballerina so she was a little scared, and recalled working on the Rose Adage balance all day, every day, but she had Darcey Bussell as coach who made the whole process so happy and enjoyable. She doesn’t stress you which is good as once you’re stressed you start to have negative thoughts. She always said it’s a happy medium - you have to be able to do certain things but don’t forget to enjoy yourself and if something doesn’t work it’s not the end of the world so Fumi really appreciated having Darcey there. What did she see herself as if not Aurora or Juliet?  Odette/Odile,said Fumi, and she’d love to do Bayadere, Onegin and Manon.  Of the Ashton ballets, she’s done the gypsy girl in Two Pigeons. The stamina required is very hard and Christopher Carr would shout at her but otherwise she felt she couldn’t keep going! It was another new character for her and she enjoyed the competition between herself and the Girl so it was a really fun ballet to do. She was also in the corps in Scenes de Ballet.That was very difficult as she’d not been trained at the Royal Ballet School and wasn’t used to bending the upper body but she’s learned a lot from the Ashton ballets – with Christopher shouting ‘Kaneko’ at her!  She also had a small solo in Prince of the Pagodas which was very difficult. She didn’t know the ballet so everything was new but now she doesn’t remember much about it.

    Fumi was part of the creative process of Wayne McGregor’s Wolf Works. The way he works is unique so it’s a really different experience. You make lots of material by yourself or with someone else, or you share with others or learn their pieces. It is physically and mentally hard as you have to use your brain so much, and what he wants is quite difficult especially as Fumi doesn’t always understand the words.

    At the beginning of this season Fumi went to the World Gala in Japan. It’s a ballet festival held every three years to which Japanese dancers aren’t normally invited but she’d always wanted to go because so many ballet stars gather there. This time some dancers couldn’t make it so Vadim Muntagirov asked her to go to dance with him – and of course she said yes. She wasn’t able to do all eight shows as she had to begin the season here but managed to do four of the Manon bedroom pas de deux. It was so inspiring being on the same stage with all the stars and taking class with them. For Fumi it was an honour to be there – a dream come true.  She’d also done the pas de deux at other galas and learned it by herself but wished she’d had someone to coach her though that doesn’t often happen for summer galas. Now she’d love to try Manonas it was the first ballet she watched from the wings so it holds a special place in her heart.

    Lock-down. They did a stage call for Swan Lake, managed two shows and then they were told not to come back after the weekend. No-one knew how long it would last and they didn’t know if Swan Lakewould still go on and as there were two weeks till her shows Fumi didn’t want to lose stamina. Then things became clearer, and they started Zoom classes. She was very sad to miss Swan Lake as she felt she needed to do it to have a chance of being promoted. They started class at home and she began to focus on her body and especially those small muscles you don’t often use. Rehearsing every day you’re really tired so need recovery time. In rehearsal you often use bigger muscles and she wanted to build small muscles which you can do at home as space isn’t necessary so she did Pilates and special exercises to use the time in a positive way. The season ended without a return to the Opera House and Kevin held a Zoom meeting, said see you next season, relax and have pizza (not really!), and enjoy your time off. Then he asked her and Reece to do the streaming gala on the main stage, and of course they said yes straight away. They only had a week to prepare the Concertosecond movement pas de deux, which was very hard as she hadn’t danced in a big space for ages and they had little notice so she was a bit anxious but it was really special. She loved having the live piano music and being on stage again but looking out into an empty auditorium was so sad. At the first rehearsal on stage she almost cried because the Opera House is so beautiful but it was very different without an audience which they love.

    Roles: Fumi’s looking forward in the future to doing Bayadere. She would love to try both roles but really wants to do Nikiya, the dramatic rather than the technical role.

    About the audience reaction to her Satan in Dante in Los Angeles, Fumi said it was crazy, the US audience just loved it and Inferno was a huge success. They found the reaction here was also amazing which surprised them as they’d not expected such success in London.

    David thanked Fumi very much for being with us this evening and thanks also for her Juliet. He felt she and Will made one of the best couples we’ve seen for years.

    Report written by Liz Bouttell and edited by Fumi Kaneko and David Bain.

    © The Ballet Association 2021