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    Ryoichi Hirano 2023

    Ryoichi Hirano

    Principal, The Royal Ballet

    Interviewed by David Bain
    American International Church, Mon 30th October, 2023


    Ryoichi began by telling us what he’d been doing outside of the Royal Ballet. He said he’d spent some of September at the Lantern Studio Theatre in productions called Ballet Nights organised by Jamiel Devernay-Laurence, a former soloist with Scottish Ballet. Jamiel’s mum owns the theatre so he had good access to a venue and his idea was to organise gala programmes, so he found a big donor and incorporated experienced dancers with up and coming artists. Ryo danced Concerto second movement with Melissa Hamilton.  He was there again last weekend which should have been Steven McRae’s performance but unfortunately Steven sustained a bad injury in Don Q so Ryo stepped in and danced the Elite Syncopations pas de deux with Constance Devernay-Laurence, wife of Jamiel and former principal from Scottish Ballet whom he’d previously danced with in Mayerling so there was a connection. Ryo had done the pas de deux with Yasmine Naghdi during the summer in Japan so it was still in his body but he and Constance hadn’t performed together since April 2022 so it was really nice to dance together again.  They only had two weeks to rehearse and he didn’t have much time with her as he was preparing the Dante Project and she was also rehearsing another piece. Constance came to the Opera House when they both had time. They had three rehearsals in all but it’s a fun number and he really loved playing the role. The next Ballet Night is in November when Ryo isn’t involved but he may do two shows a month during the spring season February/March/April.

    The summer tour to Japan was really fun. The whole company goes and it was the first since Covid so it was really nice to be on tour with everyone and show what we can do.  Ryo did Diamondswith Sarah Lamb, Romeo and Tybalt in Romeo and Juliet, and the Sleeping Beauty pas de deux. It was a busy tour, Diamonds is quite hard and long, Romeo is really hard too and he also had to rehearse Sleeping Beautywhile other performances were going on. The Japan tour is always fun - nice food, nice people, nice place and everyone is familiar with Tokyo. During the tour he injured a tendon causing problems with his ankle, so came back for five days to have steroid injections. Ryo then returned to Japan where the first two weeks he was on holiday, fishing, spending time with his family and catching up with old friends. Then he went to dance with the NBA company based south of Tokyo. He did Michael Pink’s Dracula, which was performed by Northern Ballet a long time ago. He’d also done that ballet with the same company two summers ago dancing with BRB principal, Momoko Hirata. This time he danced with a Japanese company member. He only had two weeks of rehearsal, but she was amazing and had learnt the role so knew what she had to do. There was a double cast with Yasuo Atsuji, who had been a BRB principal. They are both quite tall and similar dancers. It was really fun spending time with him, talking about the character and working together for the first time. After that Ryo did Yuhui Choe and Nehemiah Kish’s gala in Akita, performing one show with Yasmine of Elite, and Swan Lake second act pas de deux. He’s also done lots of interviews including with dance magazines, and NHK, the national TV broadcaster, had lots of meetings with parliamentary people and the Arts Council so it was a busy summer. Then he came back and turned 40!

    Ryo danced Espada in the recent run of Don Quixote, a role he’s done for 10 years since its premier. It’s always fun, and nice that there are a lot of first timers dancing this season and they asked him about the choreography and tricks he could teach them, including the cape action which is always a struggle. This time he didn’t do Gamache. Although he has fond memories of it, the wig is so hot so he doesn’t miss it but maybe he can revisit it in future.

    David commented that Ryo has an enormous CV and has danced everything, He said he’s been a company member for 23 years and Monica Mason’s and Kevin O’Hare’s choice of productions are different. He was a long time in the corps and has done every role from the bottom ranks upwards. The first time his name was on the programme was as St Nicholas in Nutcracker in 2001 and he feels lucky to have done all these roles. He really appreciates them as artists because principals are show cases but they don’t set the scene while the corps set the scene and the atmosphere.  While in the lower ranks he always tried to do his best to be creative and have fun at the back.

    Now it’s Dante. They started rehearsing about seven weeks ago. There is a lot to learn, the steps are difficult and it takes time to make sure everything is there technically and emotionally. Ryo’s just finished rehearsing the second part. Last time he did the second and third parts but has never done the first, Inferno. He didn’t know the music so had to watch the video and YouTube and talk to people in order to learn everything about the project. It is a very interesting story. He’d never read the whole thing until now so he’s learned a lot and is still learning. Jenny Tattersall is setting parts two and three and is giving him lots of information and ideas for characterisation and it’s really interesting trying to understand how to put everything in every moment. But the journey is the main thing throughout the whole work, from hell to purgatory and into paradise. In Inferno there are so many steps and you have to be able to show your feelings through the whole journey so you need to understand it clearly and fully and that’s the key to the ballet and one of the hardest things. Also, it’s a very dark stage so it’s hard to see but he has to show clearly every movement of fingers and arms. In the studio it is very different from being on stage. Now he’s looking forward to being on stage and travelling the journey from A to C in one go.

    Last season, Ryo danced The Great Gatsbywith Northern Ballet during Federico Bonelli’s first year as Director.  He really enjoyed his time there working with Federico who’s a good friend as well as his wife Hikaru and it was great to see them. Now Ryo doesn’t do many new roles so it’s mostly repetition but David Nixon’s Gatsby was new to him and he’d never seen it before. Dancing new steps, learning new counts to new music, and working with a new company was really fresh and reminded him that he could still learn new roles. He was there a month, doing class and it was really inspiring to see new dancers and young artists, some are amazingly beautiful dancers and artists. Of course, he is inspired by the amazing dancers in the Royal Ballet but he is used to seeing them every day so this was different and it expanded his circle of ballet friends.  He enjoyed working with a new choreographer, David Nixon, and it gave him so much power and he wanted to give a lot to the dancers as well. He has learned so much in the Royal Ballet and wanted to give something back so tried to inspire them which was a nice feeling of give and take. When he came back Kevin said he looked younger and danced much younger! He’d really enjoyed playing Jay Gatsby. He did lots of research, watched both films, spoke to David Nixon, the ballet masters and dancers who had done it before and the exchange of information about Jay helped him to create his own vision of what David wanted to show. He also really loved the costume – no tights. He had two new partners, the first was injured so he danced with another who moved to ENB this season so there were two different girls which was really nice. He would like to go back and work with them again on different ballets and get inspired and inspire them. Federico was very busy so there wasn’t much time to chat. Northern Ballet and the orchestra are struggling financially so he’s trying to find new sponsors and always has plenty of admin to do but he really enjoys that side of it, working for the dancers but Hikaru said she never sees him. Whatever his schedule, he always watches the last 15 minutes of class every day, he took rehearsals of Gatsby which is new for him, he’s an amazingly hard worker and he learned the ballet, working alongside David and constantly asking him questions.

    The season before, Ryo went to do Scottish Ballet’s Mayerling condensed into two acts. Some scenes are cut which probably worked with the smaller company but at the beginning of last season he performed Mayerling again with the Royal and realised those scenes were crucial. It was a journey for him from the wedding to the end but that journey was cut, and the beginning of the third act was cut, and for Ryo that was the beginning of the massive decline in Rudolf’s life so he had to find somewhere else to put that big event and to find those moments was very difficult for him in that production. But it was beneficial when he came back as he thought about every moment and within the pas de deux he had a small journey within that section which was helpful. He was unsure if anyone saw how he felt but for him it made sense and if that were the case it should be easier for everyone to understand. It was a really good experience working with Scottish Ballet. It was set by Gary Harris who is great fun. Because Ryo understood the ballet he allowed him input by asking about all the other roles which he has done within the ballet. The cuts included the characters of Bay Middleton and the singer. Ryo has done Rudolf a lot with the Royal and every time he finds something new in the role which is how it should be. You have to find something new, otherwise it’s just repetition. At the stage call they did back-up filming and opening night was the cinema relay which was very nerve-wracking. It’s such a hard role, stamina-wise in the first act it’s really tough. When the curtain goes up he thinks he’s going to die as three hours of hard work awaits!  The performance didn’t work as well as it did in the stage call. Natalia Osipova and he had the nerves with filming live cinema all over the world. Also, it was filmed for the ROH streaming programme and they clashed a bit on the first night, then climbed to the top of their game in the next performances. Asked if he had different make-up for filming, Ryo said they are asked to tone it down because of close camera work. Ross McGibbon doesn’t like too much to be shown on screen. The Winter’s Tale is coming later in the season. Initially he danced Polyxenes who’s the subject of Leontes’ jealousy. He did that for two seasons but on tour in Brisbane Thiago injured his shoulder and he stepped in when he’d only covered Leontes before. When they rehearsed for the tour there wasn’t time for the covers to learn everything and he could only go rehearsals when he was free and didn’t know too much about the role but he was told the performance was in three days’ time. He had nine hours rehearsing, three hours with Claire Calvert and three hours with other characters and three hours on stage for the run and that was it. He made mistakes but it went smoothly, nothing terrible happened and he didn’t drop her! He didn’t forget the choreography but musically it was a bit off. It’s been a while since they did it so it’ll be nice to revisit it. He doesn’t yet know who his partner will be but he likes the ballet and the character has a good journey.

    Ryo looked back to his early years in Japan and then the Prix de Lausanne. His mum had and still has a ballet school and taught in a church hall though now there is a custom-built studio next to their house. She took him to ballet class where he used to run around trying to copy everyone and join in hanging on the barre. With this distraction his mum couldn’t teach properly so asked him if he wanted to do ballet and he said yes. It was easy to agree as he was already in the ballet world and his older brother started a year before and Ryo wondered why he wasn’t doing it too. His brother stopped ballet as being a male dancer was unusual and his friends made funny comments but Ryo told his mum he was going to take over the school! He knew he could make a life out of it as he loved ballet and with the lack of male dancers in Japan there were opportunities. He thought if he was to do it professionally, he wanted to do it very well and to learn how it was done in a real ballet company. His brother returned to the ballet after he came to watch Ryo’s little Nutcracker performance and thought he was really cool doing ballet. Then they were in competition with each other but friends and brothers inspiring each other and Ryo looked up to him. If that hadn’t been the case, Ryo wouldn’t be with us tonight. His brother wanted to go to the Prix which was the quickest way into a company and Ryo followed his brother’s path, wanting to do proper ballet. His brother went to National Ballet of Canada and became a First Soloist. Ryo did the Prix where you make a choice of three companies, for him the Royal was first, Boston second and the third Monte Carlo as he also wanted to do something contemporary. But the Royal took him on as their first ever apprentice. He joined the company alone in September as the graduates all joined in March/April so Ernst Meisner, Laura McCulloch, Gemma Bond were already there, next to join were Lauren Cutherbertson, Kristen McNally, Emma Maguire, Jamie Bond, James Wilkie. He was alone as a new member of the company, speaking almost no English so it was hard to communicate. Groups had already got together so he was lonely. He hurt his back quite quickly so was off for a long time, but Monica was coaching him to come back and looked after him. At Christmas time his parents wondered if he would be able to stay here. They came to London and Monica Mason took him into the studio for a chat, said she’d spoken to Ross Stretton who was then Director and we’ve decided to give him a contract next season which was the best Christmas present ever for him and his parents.

    As an apprentice the company didn’t know what to do with him so for a long time he did nothing – from one day to the next it would just be class and nothing else happened. Then they began to put him in as general cover rather than a spot so he tried to learn every person’s role in the third act of Onegin. Every line is different but there is a pattern, and it’s almost mathematical. He remembered almost every place. One day someone was off sick in the front line on the left and Christopher Carr was taking rehearsals and he said ‘you, in’.  His partner was Vanessa Palmer who was a soloist. He did everything right without stopping and Christopher gave him the title of Heavenly Hirano! He had to learn how to learn quickly what everyone does. He spent a long time watching and learning. Monica didn’t let him dance a lot as he was one of the tallest dancers, Monica said you are tall and you can’t be taller than the principal so he was always right at the back, court gent or holding a spear. He watched Johnny Cope, Johan Kobborg and Carlos Acosta. From there he watched all the amazing dancers, how they expressed themselves, telling the story and how they used their bodies and their breath. It’s not just dancing, it’s telling the story which is the heart of the ballet. You have to be able to dance beautifully and gracefully but if the emotion doesn’t reach the audience it is just movement. He really wanted to study the character and express what he’s feeling. Watch and learn. This generation has perhaps stopped doing a lot of that. They want to do it and do get the chance, there are so many casts now, they are doing it rather than thinking and taking everything you can glean from another person. He spent a long time in the corps and as soloist but has no regrets and thanks Monica for giving him that time to have that treasure which some people might never get or understand. He had the one year of apprenticeship watching and learning his artistry and Monica really made him as an artist.

    His first principal role as a soloist was in Prince of the Pagodas. Rupert Pennefather was the Prince with Lauren but he went off so Monica gave Ryo the chance as he was a similar height. He was rehearsing with Lauren but she went off so he then rehearsed with Melissa Hamilton and then Beatriz Stix-Brunel. Then Monica ‘auditioned’ them and in the end Bea did the show with him and it was also her biggest role to date.

    Asked if there was any particular role he enjoyed, Ryo said Rudolf is the most challenging, physically and emotionally, but he enjoys being a character. Being a dancer or an actor you can be someone else or try to on stage, and that not everyone gets the chance to do. Every character he enjoys thinking about it and playing it. Romeo’s journey within the ballet is incredible but he also loves Tybalt who has a different journey. That’s why he enjoys different roles and another reason why he enjoyed The Great Gatsby.Scottish Ballet invited him back last season to play Stanley in A Streetcar named Desire. Rehearsing that was a journey. He didn’t have that experience with Mayerling, as David Wall had a traumatising period creating that role but Ryo didn’t have that. It was easier to get in the character and he was good at putting a mask on and off in Mayerling. With Stanley it was very, very difficult, being that character, not in his safe place, working with people he doesn’t know so well. He was outside his comfort zone, not at home with usual friends to talk to. He fell into a really dark place and had professional help from a psychologist in the end. He said he needed to go home for a bit to watch the people in the play at the Phoenix Theatre.  He took off an extra day to see the show and it made him realise his Stanley was not the Stanley he saw in the Phoenix and his characterisation of Stanley wasn’t as he should be. He struggled to make that character within himself and it was quite traumatising. Playing a new character is always challenging but also fun as you have the journey with yourself and that traumatising event was a scary thing and hard but he learned so much from it and it’s like learning a different language so he has more vocabulary acting on stage, learning how to express the feelings which are limitless and projecting it is difficult when you aren’t talking and only conveying through body language. So, the different vocabulary is what Ryo learned from playing all those roles.

    In giving big thanks to Ryo for being our guest, David said it was always a pleasure to talk to him. We could have talked about so many more of his roles but it was interesting to hear his current perspective on his slow progress earlier in his career. Last time he was with us he expressed his frustration at the length of time which it had taken but that view has obviously changed. We’ve all enjoyed watching him in a variety of roles and at 40 he’s now the oldest male dancer in the company but we hope to see him for many years to come.

    Report written by Liz Bouttell and edited by Ryoichi Hirano and David Bain.

    © The Ballet Association 2023