International ballet star Erina Takahashi is in Cork for The Nutcracker, writes Jo Kerrigan
THAT most beloved of all ballets, The Nutcracker, will be staged at Cork Opera House later this month, ensuring delighted small faces as wannabe ballerinas beg their parents for tickets. It’s a major undertaking for resident company, Cork City Ballet, but artistic director Alan Foley anticipates it with gusto.
“No matter how many times you see it, this is always special, because it’s the complete storybook fairytale and it’s so Christmassy, too. As director, the thing I love is that it’s perfect for introducing boys to ballet, as well as girls. It has all those toy soldiers, the enemy rats, the children at the party, King Rat, the battle scene — small boys love that.
“And, then, they’re transported to the Land of Snow and they travel through that to the Kingdom of Sweets. So many ballets have long dance sequences, but in The Nutcracker there is something happening every minute, just like turning the pages of a wonderful picture book and seeing the magical tale unfold.”
The magical tale culminates in the pas de deux of the Sugar Plum Fairy and her Prince, which Foley says is the most spectacular music Tchaikovsky wrote. Playing the fairy will be exquisite Japanese ballerina, Erina Takahashi. Fans who saw Cork City Ballet’s Ballet Spectacular last year may remember an explosive extract from Don Quixote: the male dancer carried his ballerina onstage in an incredible, one-handed lift high above his head. That ballerina was Takahashi, in a guest appearance.
“This role is every little girl’s dream,” says Foley.“Every child practising at the barre wants to be her and now they can see the dream onstage. We’ve very lucky to have Erina, because she really epitomises that fairytale glittering perfection. She will be wearing the costume from English National Ballet, which is all gold, from head to toe, and it’s exquisite.” JAPANESE STAR Born in Kushiro, Takahashi started her training aged three. “I think it is important to start as early as possible, both to develop musicality and to activate the body,” she says. At the Kushiro Ballet Academy, she was never satisfied with her own class and tried to join the older children, and went to the studio to practise after class.
“I always wanted to dance more, to improve,” she says. Soon, Takahashi was winning awards in national competitions and then was accepted by the English National Ballet School.
There her talent was recognised and she was chosen to appear at international dance festivals. Joining the parent company, she was promoted to principal dancer, and awarded ‘best female newcomer’ by the Critics Circle. She became senior principal and has since danced a range of challenging roles, in both classic and modern ballets. Constantly in demand for performances all over the world, guesting with international companies, she rarely has a spare moment. But dancing is what she was born to do.
A favourite role? “I think it would have to be Giselle. It is such an emotional story and it demands so much feeling. I always like to dance these parts, where you have to put tragedy and emotion into the story, as well as beautiful movement.”
An as-yet-unfulfilled ambition is to dance in Mayerling, that tragic ballet of Crown Prince Rudolf of Austria and his forbidden mistress. “That I very much want to do.”
But she loves dancing the Sugar Plum Fairy and is looking forward to returning to Cork. “I enjoyed my last visit here so much. The audiences are so enthusiastic, so warm.” And, like so many other little girls the world over, her own childhood dream was to put on that sparkling costume and be the envy of all. “And now that is what I am doing.”
Dancing is Takahashi’s life and she will, she says, go on dancing as long as she can.
There is family life to consider, too, of course. In 2011, she married ENB principal dancer, James Streeter, and they hope to start a family one day.“I think it is easier when you are both dancers. You understand the pressures and the demands and can help each other in that way,” she says.
Takahashi also wants to help other young dancers to develop their talents, as she was helped in her youth. PARTNERED WITH WIKSTROM Her partner for the Cork production of The Nutcracker is Jan Erik Wikstrom, one of the few who has has been honoured with the title of Royal Court Dancer by the king of Sweden.
“He is just a beautiful dancer,” says Foley.“The very first time I saw The Nutcracker, in Sweden, he was the Prince and I so wanted him to come to Cork, so audiences here could see him. And now we’ve got him. What a pairing that will be, Erina and Jan Erik.” Wikstrom and Takahashi are old friends and this, says Erina, will be a happy reunion for them both.
There has always been a tradition in the great ballet schools of the world — the Bolshoi, the Kirov, Paris, London — of introducing talented students into major productions to give them their first taste of professionalism.
The Nutcracker, says Foley, is one of the best for this, because there are so many small roles and crowd opportunities for the next generation of dancers.
“It’s a huge part of their ballet training and experience. The youngest kids we’re using in this production are around eight years of age, and we have had to use different teams for different performances, because they all so much wanted to be in it.”
Foley is also looking forward to seeing his students’ faces when they work side by side with international stars, seeing them warm up, practise difficult steps, wait in the wings. “That’s something they will never forget.”
He is particularly happy, too, that two of his own former students, Kevin Hayes and James Berkerey, are coming back for The Nutcracker. “It’s wonderful to see the continuity. Cork audiences will remember them as students and now they’re back as fully fledged professionals.” he says.
With stunning costumes from the Kirov, and wonderful sets by Lisa Zagoni, the Christmas magic is almost complete.
“The warmth of the theatre, all those unique smells and scents, the rush of emotions — every adult will remember the excitement and innocence of childhood for this one,” says Foley.
Not surprisingly, it’s already booking very fast.
The Nutcracker, Cork Opera House November 20-22; plus a Saturday matinee, 2.30pm; www.corkoperahouse.ie
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