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Q & A with Tetsuya Kumakawa

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(CNN) -- Interviewed for Revealed at a sport's injury clinic near Tokyo, Tetsuya Kumakawa talks frankly about his beginnings, the Royal Ballet, the K-Ballet and his hopes to continue as a performer in the years ahead.


Tetsuya Kumakawa only started dancing after going to watch his younger cousin at ballet school.

CNN: When did you start dancing?

Kumakawa: I started dancing when I was ten years old. Until then I was just playing baseball and football like the other kids. And of course where I grew up ballet wasn't so popular, but it happened to be that I was getting involved.

CNN: Were your parents interested in dance?

Kumakawa: They weren't interested in dance at all. In those days, my father would have told me not to dance. Why would you dance? Dance is just a girls thing to do. Why don't you do kendo, judo, stuff like that. But I convinced him that I found ballet very attractive. So then he said that I could do it. But he thought I would quit very soon and get bored of it because there were no other boys in the classes.

CNN: Why did you start dancing?

Kumakawa: My cousin. The reason I started dancing was my cousin. He was learning ballet. He was eight at the time and I often went to visit his ballet school to watch his ballet class. Then I thought why shouldn't I try it? In a way my cousin gave me a choice to choose dancing. I wasn't ambitious. I always wanted to try anything I hadn't done before. And also, what I loved about dance was no one else did it at school. So I could be a special boy who knows something that other people don't. So I was satisfied with that. So simply the reason I started is that reason. I wanted to be different.

CNN: When did you realize you wanted to do ballet as a profession?

Kumakawa: When I was about 13 years old I entered a competition in Tokyo. I started winning prizes and I realized I was talented. I spoke to my parents saying that this is something I really wanted to do and of course Sapporo is a small place so I didn't get to see much of ballet companies performing and we didn't have a proper ballet school for me to be educated, so that's when I focused my ballet career more seriously.

CNN: You felt as though you had to get out of Sapporo?

Kumakawa: I was glad to get out of Sapporo. I was trying not to miss any of the chances I had in front of me. So for instance, if a ballet teacher came to teach in Sapporo I always wanted to be involved in those classes -- so I might get a chance to be invited to the West or America, wherever outside Japan. So then a guy called Hans Meister - a Swiss choreographer -- came to Sapporo and taught me for two weeks. Then he discovered me and said why are you staying in Sapporo? You should be going to bigger school and learn properly. Then he introduced me to Canada National Ballet School first and then the Royal Ballet School. So he gave me a choice of two schools. But he strongly recommended for me to go to the Royal Ballet School.

CNN: What was it about the Royal Ballet School? Is it the best place to go?

Kumakawa: They're good schools all around the world, but what is special about the Royal Ballet Company is the world's leading and biggest company. Students have a lot of close relationships with the professional company -- the teachers, the stars -- so that was really attractive.

CNN: It must have been a complete culture shock to leave Japan?

Kumakawa: I grew up liking something because nobody else did -- so I was so curious what's happening around the world -- and I always wanted to be the best. I wanted the one who was focused.

CNN: What were your first impressions of London?

Kumakawa: My imaginations about London were 100 percent different because we, the Japanese people, grew up with American movies. So all my imagination about outside Japan was just like America. So I expected to have big hamburgers, big roads, big cars. But once I got to Heathrow there was something wrong with what I was imagining. The weather was dark, raining, the roads were small and right-hand drive - the same as Japan. I realized England is different to America. I was a little disappointed to be honest, but only for the first week. Then I really enjoyed it after that.

CNN: Who looked after you initially when you came to London?

Kumakawa: I had my guardian -- a Japanese lady married to English guy, who had four children and they looked after me. They came to pick me up from Heathrow and instantly they spoke Japanese to me, so I thought oh, I can survive in this place.

CNN: Did Sir Anthony Dowell and Monica Mason immediately take you under their wing?

Kumakawa: Anthony and Monica came later -- after about a year and a half. I knew who they were because they were important. Anthony was the director of the company and Monica was assistant director of the Royal Ballet. But of course, I was just a little 15 year old who had come from Asia. I didn't get a chance to speak to them or say hello. I didn't think they even knew me. So meeting Monica and Anthony was much later -- only after I joined the Royal Ballet Company really.

CNN: When did you hear you had a contract with the RBC?

Kumakawa: Anthony told me he'd like to exchange a contract. I was 16, but I had to wait for work permit to come through so I was 17 by the time I signed.

CNN: Can you remember the emotions you felt?

Kumakawa: Anthony called me to his office in Covent Garden -- I'd never been to his office -- and he said he'd like to offer me a job and instantly I thought the Royal Ballet wouldn't give a contract to an Asian or an eastern boy. I wasn't expecting him to give me a contract until that day. I think I was lucky that Anthony (Dowell) was leading the company at the time I went to London .

CNN: Why were you know as Teddy?

Kumakawa: Teddy - it's because I arrived in London when I was 15. When I was getting to know all my friends in the school. They tried to pronounce my name and they probably found it very hard to pronounce my name. So my friend Luke Hayden -- my very best friend at the ballet school -- said to me your name is Kumakawa. What does that mean in Japanese? Kuma means bear, kawa means river. So it's bear river. Then he asked what's Tetsuya mean? There's no sort of meaning to it, but it starts with T. So he said, why don't we call you teddy bear? So I became Teddy. I rather like it.

CNN: Were you one of the lads at school? Were you naughty?

Kumakawa: I was very naughty. I was 15 when I joined the Royal Ballet School upper school. All my school mates were 17-18 years old. Maybe I guessed I could be naughty. I thought to myself: I'm 15 I'm still young, I'm not grown up and also I don't speak English. So I was cheeky, very cheeky.

CNN: When was your first professional performance?

Kumakawa: My first professional performance with the Royal Ballet was in Bristol. They were touring and one of the guys hurt himself in Romeo and Juliet in the sword fight. He broke his arm. I was waiting for the Royal Ballet to return to London. I think Monica rang the Dame Merle Park - former director of RBS - and she told me to go to Bristol and perform.

CNN: What was you seminal performance, the performance when people started to recognize you?

Kumakawa: I entered a Prix de Lausanne competition and achieved the gold medal. All the young talented dancers come to Switzerland and compete with each other and of course all the major ballet school teachers and directors come to find a good talent. So they were all there. I danced and I achieved.

CNN: You also entered a competition in Paris.

Kumakawa: I entered the Paris competition [Eurovision Young Dancer] and Monica [Mason] came with me. That was after the Prix de Lausanne. The Royal Ballet School decided to take me to the Prix de Lausanne before I got the contract with the Royal Opera House. Anthony actually called me into his office before the Prix de Lausanne and offered me a job. So I knew I had the job. People normally go to the Prix to find themselves a job -- they have a good chance meeting other directors, but I didn't have that pressure, I already had a job after that competition.

CNN: Tell us about the role specially made with you in mind? (The Fool in the Prince and the Pagodas)

Kumakawa: Yes, that was the big role that Kenneth MacMillan chose me for straight after I joined the company. I was only 17 and it was the first time for me to be created on and also to work with such a big choreographer like Kenneth. We spent time in the studio, just me and him. Imagine how much pressure that was. But I enjoyed it because Kenneth was good guy. He was serious, but he was good guy too.

CNN: You obviously had a fantastic career with the RBC which spanned a decade, but you obviously began to get frustrated there. What was the most difficult aspect of that?

Kumakawa: I wasn't frustrated. I had a really good time and I knew that I was good at my job. All the roles I had been given by Anthony were great roles. They suited me. He would never have given me one that didn't suit me. So I never went into his office and said Anthony I am good at this role why don't you give it to me. I never complained or requested it, I wouldn't say I was frustrated, but I could say I was bored with it because I kept doing the same roles and I wanted to be involved in the total art form, from different directions. Like lighting, or costume or set, so that's the reason I left the RBC.

CNN: The way you left the Royal Ballet was controversial. Can you remember what that time was like?

Kumakawa: I was very young and I was impatient. I could not wait to get out and when I thought about it I really had to do it right away. But there was a way of doing it properly, so I wasn't proud of myself the way I did it. And of course the decision wasn't just coming out of me because I had five other guys with me. We all got together and just got sort of excited and it's like kids planning some naughty things to do. The timing I guess was wrong because my name was on the leaflet for the next season already and I didn't resign. I sent a little fax saying I'm not coming back which was so bad actually. I think they were furious.

CNN: Why did you decide to set up the K-Ballet in Japan?

Kumakawa: Simply because Japan's where I come from. I could have gone to a different country. America, or you know. But Japan was more of a challenge to create theatrical work, particularly ballet because we were so behind compared to London or New York. The environment wasn't there. Dance wasn't treated properly and audiences didn't know much about dance. Of course the RBC toured Japan often, the Paris Opera came often, so there was an audience but not for a Japanese company.

CNN: What were you trying to create with the K-Ballet?

Kumakawa: Professional productions, no compromise productions. Big productions, and very well made.

CNN: How is your life different now, compared to what it was like in London?

Kumakawa: When I was in London I was just a dancer. Somebody told me what to do all the time and I had to live under the rules. I was controlled by the company but I wanted to be freer and I liked the fact that I could make my own decisions and make that happen. I get more pleasure back. Even bigger than just being a dancer.

CNN: Japanese audiences have always enjoyed ballet, but have they changed since you started?

Kumakawa: The number of the audiences has expanded and also more male people come to the theatre. Before, 99 percent of the audience was female. I would say now 80 percent are woman and 20 percent are gentlemen, which is very good number. But I grew up in Covent Garden with all these very nice ladies dressed up and gentlemen came with their bow ties. It was a social community area there. But when I returned to Japan it was just like a big rock concert. All women and just screaming. I thought this is not something I know. But never mind, because the theatres are full and so we performed whatever we could. So gradually things have changed over these past ten years.

CNN: Are audiences missing you?

Kumakawa: They are. I'm not just saying that because I see the number of tickets sales every week. This week only a couple of hundred tickets have sold. We have to sell 20 thousand, so it is a big difference. But this time is my real turning point, and sooner or later it would have happened because in the future I would have given up you know, I would be stepping out of the main role or becoming the director not the dancer anymore -- in 10 yrs time, 20 yrs time I don't know. But sooner or later it would have happened so I think it's good that it happened just now, this time. This is my practice for my retirement.

CNN: What can you give your students?

Kumakawa: I can give them a confidence, I can give them a truth. If they're not so good I have to say they're not so good. I don't lie. Once they're good then I say they're good. But I can't advise them how to be a good dancer because I don't know why I became a good dancer.

CNN: So would you say talent is something you can't teach?

Kumakawa: The arts world is difficult. You often say someone is born to be a dancer, born to be a painter or born to be a architect. They have a talent from where they are born. But to make it happen you have to do a lot of practice. I can make a dancer better than what they are. I can teach to a certain level, but anything above that is something you have already. So I can give them a hint and I can give them a hand to improve their talent.

CNN: Can you explain a bit about the relationship you have with your body?

Kumakawa: I have to beat my body often in the studio because sometimes my leg doesn't feel like dancing, but in my head I have to do it. So I have to beat my knee and try to jump around. That's just working hard, but on the other hand you have to rest too. When my body wants to dance but my head is tired then I have to rest.

CNN: How has the injury to your knee affected you?

Kumakawa: In all sorts of ways. My knee has affected me because just being a dancer I can't dance now because of my knee. But being a director, star dancers like myself are not on stage so I have a problem with selling tickets. So in all sorts of way it has affected my life style. But on the other hand this is a good challenge.

CNN: Do you miss being on stage?

Kumakawa: I do, but I haven't given up being a dancer. So I am looking forward to returning on stage. My feelings will probably explode on stage when I return, so I am looking forward to that. I am sort of holding myself in frustration and it's going to burst on stage when I return.

CNN: Do you favor classical ballet?

Kumakawa: I am attracted to classical ballet. Of course the music too, but I listen to all the other music too. But in my profession I am focused I would say 80 percent on classical ballet. I am very good at modern dance too. I've done a lot of modern dance. My body is very flexible. Modern dance doesn't have as much history and of course in the future modern will be classical. And the ballet itself will live forever. We die but the art still exists which is great.


CNN: What is it about classical ballet that you love so much?

Kumakawa: Simply, the music's great. Fantastic composers who made all this great music. Tchaikovsky's fantastic. It's like sitting in nature, listening to classical music. It's sort of nice healing music and exciting too. Also all these great artists -- Anthony Dowell, Nuruyev, Berishnikov -- all my heroes that danced all these great roles, working with music by Tchaikovsky, Mozart, Bach, Liszt, all these great composers -- that's why I like it so much. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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