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Sunday, June 6, 2010

Dancing for joy in Japan

Stuart Cassidy was a star at London's Royal Ballet until 1998, when he came to Tokyo to help colleague Tetsuya Kumakawa found K-Ballet. He's still here having 'a great ride' as K-Ballet has risen to world renown

Special to The Japan Times

As I sipped my vin rouge last week during an interval in "The Sleeping Beauty," K-Ballet's latest Tokyo production, a woman at the next table said to her companion: "I can't believe that evil fairy was a man! I just naturally thought it was a woman dancing that role."

News photo
Stepping out: Stuart Cassidy, aged 6, smilingly strikes a ballet pose in the garden at home in southern England.

Beyond disbelief, I am sure she would have been lost for words if she were to meet that "fairy," Stuart Cassidy, whose splendid dancing and cross-gender acting of the voluptuous, wicked Carabosse drew the first "Bravo!" of the whole show from somewhere high up in the massive five-story auditorium that is Tokyo Bunka Kaikan in Ueno.

That's because the 41-year-old English dancer is recognized across the ballet world as a sensitive but essentially male dancer, who is blessed with looks tailormade for the handsome prince in any dreamy landscape of classical ballet.

That face of a noble prince, though, is only one, professional, visage of Cassidy, as I can testify from my recent meeting with him for this interview.

When I opened the door of K-Ballet's studio in residential Koishikawa in Tokyo's leafy Bunkyo Ward, Cassidy crossed the room dressed in a polo shirt and jeans and welcomed me with a big, open smile. He was the opposite of any image of an airy-fairy male ballet dancer some people might have in their heads, and as he cheerfully and naturally greeted every passing dancer, student or staff member, making jokes all the while, he displayed nothing so much as an entirely ordinary Englishness.

But then, like a true professional, he instantly changed his relaxed expression to focus clearly on my questions and his responses when we began the interview.

Cassidy, who was a hugely popular star of the renowned London-based Royal Ballet in the 1990s, danced most of the art form's standout pas de deux with its prima ballerinas, including Viviana Durante, Darcey Bussell and Deborah Bull. Now, though, he says quite openly that he is really enjoying playing character roles with K-Ballet, with his acted character often key to explaining the story.

Since he cofounded K-Ballet in 1999 with former Royal Ballet colleagues Tetsuya Kumakawa, William Trevitt, Michael Nunn, Gary Avis and Matthew Dibble, Cassidy has remained an indispensable principal dancer [the highest rank in the ballet world] with the company. Indeed, his role there became all the more key as the other four Western dancers drifted away to pursue their own, more avant-garde tastes elsewhere.

So it was that I sat down with this leading light of Japanese and European ballet and we began to talk.

Why did you start to do ballet?

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Evil eye: Stuart Cassidy on stage recently in the role of the wicked fairy Carabosse in K-Ballet's production of "The Sleeping Beauty" at Tokyo Bunka Kaikan in Ueno. The ballet is currently touring Japan, but it returns to Bunkamura Orchard Hall in Tokyo's Shibuya district on June 26 and 27. COURTESY OF K-BALLET COMPANY/ © HIDEMI SETO

My father was an accountant and my mother met him at the firm where he worked, and neither of them were connected to dance or theater at all. I started ballet just after I turned 5 because I was bored just watching my sister in her ballet classes, so one day I asked if I could join in — and they let me. That's why I started to dance, but I also did karate, played football and was in a running team. So ballet wasn't the only thing I did, but I just loved being physical.

My dance teacher, Irene Kinsey, was in the Royal Ballet [RB] at the same sort of time as the great choreographer Sir Frederick Ashton (1904-88), and her daughter Rosalyn Eyre was also in the RB, so the connection was through her family and she said I should take an audition for the Royal Ballet School [RBS]. She said I had potential and I went for the audition to be a Junior Associate, which was just a once-a-week lesson. Well, I got into that, and there I was told I was good enough for the White Lodge, the RB's Lower School in Richmond Park, west London. So I took a further audition and I got into there.

As a result, all the way through people were telling me that I was good enough and I should try — so I did so, without it really being my idea.

But if you didn't want to be a ballet dancer, you could have taken a different direction, couldn't you?

Actually, I enjoyed doing ballet and I loved being the only boy with all the girls. I was showing off among the girls. Although I was good at lots of sports, the ladies in the RB told me I was good at ballet, so I took their advice.

What was it like being a boy learning ballet in those days? Was it like the film "Billy Elliot," with other boys making fun of you?

Well I had no problem, because I was in a football team and I did all the other things. If I was just doing ballet, I would have been in a big trouble and maybe they'd have called me a poof or a sissy or taken the mickey. But they knew I could run faster than anyone and I was more physical than they were, so they never bothered me.

When you entered the RBS, how was the life there?

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Good times: Stuart Cassidy stands before a picture of Tetsuya Kumakawa, K-Ballet's leader and artistic director, in Kumakawa's office at the company's base in Tokyo, where his recent JT interview took place. When we started the company in 1999," he said, "we didn't know how many years it would go on for. But we had a very strong following and good audiences from the start, and now we have so many loyal fans." YOSHIAKI MIURA PHOTO

When I was there, in the early '80s, there were very few boys in each year's class. It started at about 15 and went down to seven or something later, compared to about 30 girls. It was a very small group, so very quickly you could establish where you were in the pecking order of talents, and I knew I was one of the best in the class. So I had no problem with the competition or rivalries, though it's probably tough for girls. In fact the competition among us was so healthy, because we always wanted to do most turns or jump the highest or pick up the heaviest girls or whatever.

However, it took me a while to get used to being in a boarding school. I left my family at 10 probably, and I actually hated it. It's too young to be apart from the family, so I always cried on the phone saying to my mum I wanted to get back home. It was very difficult for them not to say, "OK, come home," but they said, "No, you've chosen to do this and you must try and get used to it. Boarding school is very different from the way we were living, but it's very important if you want to be a good dancer, because it's the best place to be." So I said, "OK, I will stick with it."

After you graduated from the RBS, you were selected to join the RB and instantly became actively involved in the so-called "bright male dancers period" along with other dancers including Jonathan Cope, Adam Cooper and Tetsuya Kumakawa.

I joined there at lucky time because there were a lot of male principals leaving the top end of the company, such Mark Silver, Derek Deane, Anthony Dowson, Stephen Jefferies, Jay Jolley and Wayne Eagling. So, we were so lucky as they needed to bring people along after them very quickly to fill their shoes.

Another reason I was so lucky was because Sir Kenneth MacMillan [the RB's artistic director from 1970-77] had spotted me in RBS performances before I joined the company, and most of the company people knew me from that time. Actually, I danced with the main RB one Christmas in "The Nutcracker" before I joined the company, and people also knew I'd done good support for Darcey Bussell at the RBS, so they knew I could work well in the company.

In other words, it wasn't like I joined the company at the beginning of my history. They knew what I was like.

But certainly it was a very good time for those of us coming through then, and the guys who did were very masculine dancers, whereas many before had been more effeminate or femalelike. We were very macho men. We all had girlfriends and got married, and a Russian star dancer, Irek Mukhamedov, joined us at that time and he was also very masculine and strong, so that time was good for male dancers — it was a sort of very male atmosphere period.


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