The Royal Ballet in Japan #1: Rehearsals, relaxation and a troupe of hedgehogs
First Artist Nathalie Harrison on preparations for Alice's Adventures in Wonderland.
The Royal Ballet tours to Japan have always been legendary among the Company with lots of hard work and lots of adventure. This is my fourth tour to the land of the rising sun but it hits me every time I arrive in Tokyo that this is a city entirely different to home – weirdly wonderful with its pace, energy and spirit.
Following a short stint in Monaco, we arrived in Tokyo excited for the Company’s first staging of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland outside Covent Garden. Because of this we’ve run through the production a number of times at the Tokyo Ballet‘s studios. Though we battle the initial jet lag hurdle on long haul tours, we always want to deliver fantastic performances, such is the incredible reception from the ballet-mad Japanese audiences.
Bunka Kaikan is a quirky venue with an underground backstage that makes you feel like you are heading down into an air raid shelter. A lovely tradition at this theatre is every performer writes their name on the concrete pillars and walls underground. It’s a who’s who’s of the last 25 years in the dance world and everyone is distracted by reading and doodling on this wall of fame. Also by the stage, every company leaves a poster signed by every member. It’s Japanese to honour past performers and performances in this way.
We find all the Alice props strategically squeezed into the stage side dock area. This is a much smaller stage than Covent Garden and the ballet involves many major scenery changes. The afternoon rehearsal is quite slow, despite the Japanese extras and crew being amazingly efficient. It’s a big ballet to piece together and get looking slick. We don’t quite complete the first run through before we break, but the second one (with orchestra) goes amazingly smoothly. As the ballet saying goes, ‘never work with animals, props or children’ this production has two of those three!
One of the highlights of the first few days was the Japanese children playing the hedgehogs in Alice, and stealing everyone’s hearts. These adorable children are only six (we use ten-year-olds at home) and in the wings they impress us with their little ballet demonstrations.
Away from the rehearsal routine, it’s important to recover and refresh ourselves from the long flight – sleep is a hot topic of conversation but some of the girls (myself included) attempt to stay awake and jolt ourselves into a new time-zone. Many of the dancers seek out massages or treatments to aid this and we’re in the right place, as cheap, high-quality treatment is available all over the city, which has a wonderful combination of a strong work ethic and an understanding of the importance of relaxation.
Tokyo is a wonderful place to roam around and I’ve impressed myself with my memory of routes and places. On a break, a few of us went for a stroll in the tranquil gardens at the Nezu Institute of Fine Art. It’s a place that I’ve been to on a number of visits here and, such is its beauty, I always make a point of visiting. UenoPark is another one of my favourites. In between a matinee and evening performance the Company decamps down the hill to gorge on the delicious gyoza and sushi as well as to shop for market gifts and treats.
Though the city is very different from London, there are some similarities (with a slight twist). This is most noticeable when travelling on Tokyo’s bustling underground system – we spent a day travelling on the Chiyoda Line (which traverses a cross town District Line-esque route), and our commute to the theatre is on the Ginza Line (a loop that apes the Circle Line). We smile at these comparisons.