There’s something of a disconnect when you watch a live performance of ballet on YouTube knowing that it is taking place 20 minutes from your house. Due to the latest State of Emergency issued by the Tokyo Metropolitan Government, the Japanese capital has become a cultural and social wasteland. With news that many western nations are cracking on and making significant inroads with vaccination programs, it’s disappointing and frustrating to see the Japanese authorities bungle, with outstanding levels of incompetency, the pathway out of this pandemic shitshow with a paltry one percent of the country being vaccinated at the time of writing.
So with a heavy heart on a miserable early May afternoon I sat down at my Apple Mac and watched the National Ballet of Japan’s production of Roland Petit’s “Coppélia.” A few minutes prior to the opening scene I watched and heard the excellent Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra, under the sterling stewardship of Misato Tomita, tune up creating a beautiful cacophony of noise which can really only be appreciated when sitting in the performance space with goosebumps sprouting suddenly on your arms and neck, sensing the intimacy of the occasion. One of the most noticeable things from watching a live performance of ballet, with an empty auditorium and an orchestra playing, essentially, for the performers, was that ballet, much like sports such as soccer or rugby, needs a live audience. The performers feed off the applause and the sense of excitement and this in turn is reciprocated creating an atmosphere, a feeling unlike no other, something which lives inside you and never really leaves, etched into your psyche and memory.
Some of the only perks of watching ballet from home is the chance to check reference points, open a can of my favorite Fujiya Lemon Squash and a small packet of wasabi potato chips, behaving as if I was in a deserted cinema. During the interval I read a review, written by Luke Jennings for The Observer, which absolutely savages a performance of Petit’s “Coppélia” in London from Stanislavsky Ballet headed by superstar Sergei Polunin. And to be honest, although the National Ballet of Japan does a more than adequate job, Jennings is spot on regarding Petit’s butchering of Arthur St-Leon’s 1870 original.
“Coppélia,” from the outset is uncomfortable. It’s ostensibly a narrative which resembles The Adventures of Pinocchio, without the moral message which underlies it. With only three main characters, it’s an empty ballet and one which doesn’t really say anything about the world in which we live. The creepy Coppelius, local cad Frantz and the beautiful Swanilda make up this curious triumvirate and Petit’s comical and exaggerated choreography makes for odd viewing.
The NNTT production is all very festive and jolly, but serves to remind you that nothing is really happening and, in essence, Petit’s story is centered around the uncomfortable premise of a doctor with the sole desire of bringing a doll to life. Coppélia (played with dastardly creepiness) from Shunya Nakajima, Kosuke Okumura’s handsome dandy, Frantz and Risako Ikeda’s flighty and charming Swanilda are all performed well and with the correct amount of decorum and technical precision. It becomes apparent to the viewer that the underlying issue with this performance of “Coppélia” isn’t with the National Ballet of Japan, it’s with Petit’s choreography and adaptation which leaves me untouched and ever so slightly confused.
A really heartening aspect of watching on YouTube, was seeing the viewing numbers rise to over 45,000 at one point. That’s a staggering figure and one of which NNTT and the National Ballet of Japan should be particularly proud. Jennings uses Petit’s “Coppélia” as an example of how ballet, as an art form, is stuck in the dark ages and fails to update itself in order to appeal to a younger, more modern audience. “In any other form of theatre a redesign would be automatic, but the gatekeepers of balletic taste are rarely persuadable of the virtues of the new,” writes Jennings. “All too often, male dancers are stuck with floaty blouses, puffy sleeves and garishly Disneyesque ‘prince’ costumes. None of them, it goes without saying, even remotely cool.”
By live streaming the performance of “Coppélia,” the National Ballet of Japan, although they really didn’t have a choice due to the state of emergency, has brought ballet to the masses, a democratic act which appeals to young and old, poor and affluent. Perhaps, in tandem with live performances, the company should implement a live streaming service (even for a reasonable fee) and see what the results are, in terms of viewing figures and demographics. Perhaps Jennings is correct in his assertion that ballet needs to change with the times a little more than it has been doing. I’m genuinely excited to see if this will happen and to witness the results in a live, real performance space where audiences sit side by side, the orchestra tunes up and the curtains rise to a lit stage with an anticipatory silence.