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“The Kabuki” by Maurice Béjart, Still a Hit in the World

Despite being the ‘calling card’ of the Tokyo Ballet, it has not yet ever been performed in New York. When will its ‘real debut’ occur?

Scene V in The Kabuki by Maurice Béjart. In the palatial house of Enya Hagan, ladies in waiting entertain themselves, unaware of the command handed down to their lord to commit seppuku. Tokyo Ballet. (Photo Kiyonori Hasegawa).

It is called The Kabuki, but its only reference point to the great bourgeois Japanese classical theater is that it deals with a group of suicidal samurai. More than thirty years after its first performances, it has still ignited the public of Teatro alla Scala, relying on the skill of impeccable interpreters.

Mizuka Ueno, principal dancer of the Tokyo Ballet in The Kabuki by Maurice Béjart. Photo_K. Hasega

We see a modern disco in Tokyo, where on a big screen a television program is being projected, and around forty boys with dull eyes bob to the shrill notes of some heavy metal music. One of them, decked out in a black jacket, somehow comes up with an ancient Japanese saber, then to be shocked by this mysterious object.  The sound of dry wooden clappers, hyoshigi, beaten on the ground punctuates a hoarse, unknown song. Suddenly, the bored young people are swallowed up by their own pasts, transformed into courageous ronin, samurai without a master. They are those who are celebrated in that ancient tradition of December 14th, where sticks of incense are burned on their tomb in the garden now belonging to the Italian embassy in Tokyo.

To discover the reasons for this ronin cult that dates back to 1703, and how it become a theatrical legend, it is enough to attend a performance of The Kabuki, now on tour throughout Italy and Europe. It has returned to Teatro alla Scala in this hot July for the fifth time, and some of us may recall their fourth appearance here, in July of 2010, in celebration of its 700 performances. The ballet is set to music by the late composer Toshiro Mayazumi, with sets and costumes by the Portuguese artist Nuño Corte-Real. The exceptional choreography was created for the Tokyo Ballet by Maurice Béjart from Marseilles, one of the all-time popular choreographers of modernity, who died at the age of 80 in 2007.

Therefore, The Kabuki is not, as one might imagine, a real piece of kabuki, the second oldest Japanese theater (the first being the Nō). The Kabuki  is surprisingly a Western work and, at the same time, it is the first ever kabuki-ballet in the history of dance. It was not the first time, however, that Maurice Béjart wrestled with Japanese theater; in 1985, being the most famous European choreographer of his time, he chose a cast of only actors to create the Five Modern Nō taken from Yukio Mishima, translated into French by Marguerite Yourcenar. For ‘his’ own Kabuki, Béjart only wanted dancers. The choice may seem irrelevant for those who know Japanese theater well. Both the Nō and the kabuki are, in fact, forms  of ‘total’ art: the interpreters are called upon to sing, dance, and act – ka (song), bu (dance), ki (theater).

Prologue. In today’s Tokyo. A young man, interpreted by Dan Tsukamoto, leader of a youth group, accidentally finds an antique Japanese sword. The Kabuki , Tokyo Ballet. photo Kiyonori Hasegawa

For a vast public, however (one that has made the performances of The Kabuki rise to almost 740) Japanese theater is not enclosed in an algebraic formula. It resembles, rather, a historical film by Akira Kurosawa where we find paunchy samurai, scowling warriors, and emperors with high foreheads and facial features disfigured into a grimace of disdain. But how to transform these always serious figures into filament-like classical dancers, and then back again? In place of the usual l tights used in the Western ballet of the 1980s, Maurice Béjart chose, among the designs resulting from the fantasy of Nuño Corte-Real, the costume designer of the Five Modern Nō, the most beautiful and traditional kimonos, those that better recall the splendor of the classical theater. Thus, at the premiere of The Kabuki, which took place in Tokyo at the Bunka Kaikan Theater on April 16, 1986, but also in its innumerable national and international repeat performances, the public did not lament the portly heirs of the original kabuki, nor their acrobatic, geometric dancing,  made up of  interior, compressed and restrained energy; the exact opposite of unfolding energy, almost exuding from the body, as is still an essential quality in Western ballet, the very same energy that Béjart also used in his choreographies, The Kabuki included.

It is not a contradiction. The goal of Béjart’s creations was never to harness the formula of ‘total theater’ (though he had adopted it many times before). Or worse: to emulate the schemes of the first bourgeois theater (on the contrary, the Nō is a noble, stately artistic expression). “It is not needed to prepare a mise en scène of the kabuki,” confirmed Béjart, who admitted: “As a genre, this theater is enough for itself.” For what reason, then, did he wish to perturb that art form? To reestablish, he told us, the suggestions, poetry and morality of Kanadehon Chushingura (The Revenge of The Forty-seven Ronin). This epic masterpiece in eleven acts, written by three different authors over a yet unspecified time span, but surely at the beginning of the 1700s, contains a plot full of unpredictable happenings, teeming with characters (over a hundred) with names that cannot be remembered, and, of course, battles, passions, intrigues, ceremonies, suicides and murders. Imagine a sort of ‘Complete Works of Shakespeare’, expressed in an elegant, poetic language, vigorous and inimitable, as was that of the Bard of Stratford-on-Avon. It is unfortunate that so much splendor appears as impossible in theatrical practice. Even today, not even the best kabuki company in Tokyo would be able to easily stage Kanadehon Chushingura. It would take weeks, maybe months; a long time, indeed, in which Béjart managed to synthesize everything in the usual length of the Western shows: two hours, divided into nine scenes.

How did he manage? It seems that he carefully examined all the meanings and symbols hidden in the folds of the drama, aiming, by exclusion, at the moral of the text, nestled within the last few lines. A dazzling epilogue, which tells of a true episode: at dawn of December 14, 1703, forty-seven ronin decided to kill themselves to reunite with their betrayed and avenged lord. Their destinies are sealed through a most noble aspiration, sealed by the gruesome act of seppuku. The same ritual – often referred to as harakiri when spoken of – with which one of the most moving novels by Yukio Mishima, Runaway Horses ends, and which also represents his own bold death in 1970.

Scene IX. Yuranosuke (Dan Tsukamoto) and the other 46 loyals, unite to initiate the rite of seppuku.

Could it be that Maurice Béjart, a choreographer with a bottomless culture, read The Revenge of The Forty-seven Ronin through the eyes of Mishima? Even if it had been so, Tadatsugu Sasaki, who founded the Tokyo Ballet in 1964, would certainly have preferred to believe otherwise. With Japanese meticulousness, the sagacious Sasaki (who died three years ago), is today rightly remembered by his company as ‘the Japanese Diaghilev’ in a curious little manga comic book which tells of how and when Maurice Béjart told him of the project for The Kabuki. It was eleven o’clock on the evening of November 29, 1983, precisely two years before the debut of the Five Modern Nō. However, the new show would only materialize three years later: uncertainties, fears, bureaucratic slowness on both sides being the causes of the delay.  While waiting for the ‘agreement of May 12, 1985’, the infallible Sasaki recalled the choreographer offering the company his most famous ballets to the still blooming repertoire of The Tokyo Ballet: first his famous Bolero, then Don Giovanni and, in the end, even Romeo and Juliet, with the music of Berlioz. Meanwhile, the Japanese dancers refined their arms – that is, their technique – the impeccable academic preparation of the Russian school, now totally passed into the hands of Japanese teaching guides, expressiveness and, above all, formidable precision. And yet, those who had the opportunity to see these prodigious and quick-moving dancers perform in their first Italian tours (1975 in Venice, and seven years later, in Turin) tell of their impressions, doubting that those Japanese could ever be the most suitable to interpret the great repertoire of Western ballet.

Maurice Béjart in Tokyo, in 1986, during the creation of The Kabuki, at the Tokyo Theater, Bunka Kaika.

Short-limbed, with large feet and slightly-bowed legs, the Japanese dancers were liked by Béjart because of their diversity. The choreographer alwayshad a weakness for oriental dancers; he maintained that they knew how to interpret his ballets with greater sensuality, especially those inspired by exotic subjects such as, among many others, the Ramayana, the ancient Indian text (and thus Bakhti was born), or the dreams of Islamic Sufi mysticism in Golestan. He manipulated Arab, Korean, Thai and Balinese dances from all eras, and with their very different flavors, contaminated Western ballet. However, for the main male role of The Kabuki, Béjart wanted Eric Vu An, then étoile of the Paris Opera, to play the boy Yuranosuke, who sinks into his past, bringing his disco friends with him. Vu An also appeared at La Scala in the same year as his debut in Tokyo, but then, in 1999, for the second run of The Kabuki  at La Scala, the chosen dancer was Naoki Tagagishi, a house star with a slender body, with almond-shaped eyes on a fascinating, excavated face.

Scene I. A close-up of the fascinating Lady Kaoyo (Mika Yoshioka), wife of Enya Hangan, surrounded by her maidens. Tokyo Ballet at Teatro alla Scala, July 2004.

A little over ten years after the show’s debut, the physicality of the new generations of Japanese dancers was changing, approaching the Western one. Today, the company led by Yukari Saito, a kind ex-dancer with a sweet face and a caressing voice, is made up of super-dancers, mostly tall, slender and beautiful; the thin female dancers no longer have almond-shaped eyes, but surgically retouched Occidental eye-lids, such as the magnificent Mizuka Ueno, already a ‘Guest Artist’ at La Scala, an international star appearing in ballets of the academic repertoire such as Don Quixote. In the now very rich carnet of the Tokyo Ballet, choreographed works of all genres, romantic, late-romantic, neoclassical, and modern stand out, authoritatively signed by illustrious choreographers such as George Balanchine, JiříKylián, John Neumeier and, of course, Béjart, who for a not so short period decided to entrust his ballets only to them and a few other companies in the world, withdrawing them, instead, from many that already owned them.

This is the case of his always exciting The Rite of Spring, donated to the Tokyo Ballet in 1993, but created in 1959 when Béjart did not have a fixed theater or a real company. And yet, thanks to that subversive success praising love–and no longer death for the rebirth of spring–as is instead prescribed in the mythological libretto of the composer Igor Stravinski, Béjart conquered both: a residence at the Théâtre Royal de la Monnaie in Brussels and the Ballet du XXe Siècle (he moved to Lausanne in 1987 with the new name, Béjart Ballet Lausanne). As for The Kabuki, there is no doubt that it won immediate and never-ending esteem for Béjart of Tadatsugu Sasaki, the ‘Japanese Diaghilev’, who was at first convinced that “mixing kabuki and Western ballet was like mixing oil and water,” only then to be totally captured by the ‘Japanese-French’ magician from Marseille with piercing blue eyes.

Tokyo Ballet at Teatro alla Scala, July 2004.

Even as he was able to cook up the impossible story of Kanadehon Chushingura.

Indeed, the synthesis of the ancient Japanese story does not come across hastily. We need various scenes, four of the nine cut and sewn by Béjart, before the main character – now Dan Tsukamoto (the hero Yuranosuke who avenges Enya Hagan) next to Mizuka Ueno (Ms. Kaoyo, wife of Hagan), decides to exchange today’s shirt, tie and trousers for symbolic white tights: representing revenge and sacrifice. But the time that separates us from his transformation from a spectator into an actor of tragedy – thanks to an extraordinary solo that is illuminated by blood-red lights – coincides with the passing of  water-color curtains, long fabric backdrops, false walls with Japanese ideograms, or with the appearance of precious scenes from the kabuki theater. Here we are not interested in following the complicated and very ancient story, but rather to slip into the ballet of emphatic poses, minimal gestures, kabuki bent knees. Béjart wanted to keep them, for example, for the comic character of Bannai, who feeds, surprisingly, the brutality of the samurai and softens the female figures, all on pointe shoes.

In the “room of the pines” at the palace. This is the title of a scene in which Kampei, a follower of Enya Hangan, is arrested by other nobles. Tokyo Ballet.

There are no onnegata roles in The Kabuki, occurring when a male actor appears before us en travesti, as a woman; but here porcelain lovers with a face covered in white makeup, and weeping brides with broad red and purple cloaks. Fans, umbrellas, tree-men and costumed boars seem to be taken out of a kabuki comic book for children. But Béjart, a great lover of the Land of The Rising Sun, knew well that Kanadehon Chushingurawas originally a Bunraku drama, a play for puppets, and returned to La Scala now with his show for the highly applauded 55th birthday of the Tokyo Ballet. He kept a double stylistic figure: courtly and popular, without betraying himself. So much so that he brought together the struggle of a samurai as in his usual highly spectacular male rites, in which the unison breaks to make room for the virtuosity of the individual, and then recomposes itself triumphantly. On the scene, white as snow, a breath-taking red sun rises on the final seppuku. The Kabuki continues to be a special calling-card of the Tokyo Ballet. It’s scandalous to think that they, with the exception of small groups, have never performed in New York, nor America for that matter.  When will the real debut occur?

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