Show People: Latest thing at the ballet: a jump-jet: Teddy Kumakawa

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The Independent Culture
THE LAST time I saw Tetsuya Kumakawa dance he was a mandolin player in Romeo and Juliet. This is not the kind of role that makes headlines: he doesn't, for instance, have a heterosexual affair. Nevertheless, Kumakawa won the only spontaneous outburst of applause that evening. Kumakawa always gets a good reaction. The time before that, I'd seen him dance an excerpt from Don Quixote. He leapt so high there was a beat in the middle, where he hung in the air, neither going up or going down. The audience did that very rare, very corny, thing. As one, it gasped.

Tetsuya Kumakawa - or Teddy, as people call him - gives high-definition performances. He circles the stage with the cool of a matador, spins like a top, and takes off like a Harrier jet: vertically. He even makes moving slowly look interesting. 'I'm not the kind of dancer to stand at the back and look nice,' he says. 'I have to move to show what I can do.'

When he moves, you see that God gave him huge gifts, but when he stands still, you see that a perfect dancer's physique was not among them. He's five foot eight, or, as he says, '173 centimetres'. In ballet every centimetre counts, and he has grown 'three centimetres in the last seven years'. Some of that, unfortunately, went on his torso. In career terms this meant 'I never thought I was going to be the Prince.'

Born 21 years ago in Hokkaido, Japan, Kumakawa arrived at the Royal Ballet School in 1987, aged 15, with a technique that left his contemporaries standing. He scooped up prize after prize: the Gold Medal and the Prince Takamodo Prize at the Prix de Lausanne and the Gold Prize at the European Young Dancer of the Year competition. His career at the Royal Ballet was impressive: Soloist, 1989; First Soloist, 1991; Principal, 1993; and a string of virtuoso parts that included the jester in Cinderella, Bluebird in Sleeping Beauty and the Fool (which he created) in Prince of the Pagodas. Kumakawa was jester, soloist and star-turn. In other words, the small guy.

That is changing. Last year Anthony Dowell, the Royal Ballet director, cast him as the regal Oberon, rather than Puck (which he had already played) in The Dream. Two months ago he played the Prince in The Nutcracker. Kumakawa is losing his cuteness and becoming dashing and authoritative. He may be Romeo yet.

Next week he opens in Caught Dance, one of a series of three new ballets premiered in Dance Bites, a welcome initiative from the Royal Ballet: a mini-tour for new work. Kumakawa partners Viviana Durante in a pas de deux, choreographed by Matthew Hart, also 21. This new 10-minute piece is provoking a large amount of interest in the Royal Ballet. Off stage, Kumakawa and Durante are partners, too. In La Fille Mal Gardee their stage kiss was notable for its length. Will the audience for Caught Dance see the fireworks the company witnesses off stage?

Once Hart knew who his cast would be, he picked a storyline to suit their temperaments. Caught Dance has a male spider and a female spider and the female spider eventually destroys the male spider. (Yes, it's Black Widow.) I went to rehearsals to see who gobbled up whom.

If the Opera House needs another fund-raising scheme they could sell tickets to these things. It's better than a performance, watching Kumakawa sip his Coke, take a drag on a cigarette, stroll across the squeaky floor, do a few, very fast twists and turns, then wrap Durante round his body, and wait for the next instruction. 'Can you get out of that in a way that's very exciting?' asks Hart. Can they just.

To start with, it was only the central heating that was up too high. But the steps are quick and the counts are difficult. After a while, Durante explodes. 'Calm down]' says Kumakawa, 'You're red]' He waves his hand in front of her face to cool her down. (Guaranteed to do the opposite, I'd imagine.)

'Sorry rehearsals were so boring,' says Kuwakama, as we leave. In the lift, he bangs his head against the wall: 'Bloody Italians.' Somewhere else in the building a 26-year-old ballerina was probably banging her head against a wall, cursing 'Bloody Japanese.' But new ballets look horrible to rehearse. You're practising something at full stretch that only half-exists. Two days later, apparently, Durante walked out and Kumakawa vigorously rearranged the furniture. 'It's so difficult,' says Kumakawa, 'I haven't been trained to do this ballet.' He has less experience partnering too, preferring solos: 'The responsibility is not so big. With the girl, if I drop her, it's going to be my fault. So I'm more nervous.'

Kumakawa sits in the crowded, messy dressing-room that he shares with three others. He has an easy charm, but his answers are quick and unreflective. No, England didn't surprise him when he arrived here. No, the style of dancing wasn't very different. No, he didn't have any problems settling in. Did he dislike being interviewed? He grins. 'I like being interviewed in Japanese.'

He likes most things Japanese. His Chiswick flat, he says, is very Japanese. Right now, he says, rubbing the back of his neck, he'd like 'a good Japanese shiatsu'. His ankle hurts too. 'If it still hurts in a week I'll go to the physio.'

He returns regularly to Japan to see his family and to 'guest' in performances. Out there, as the Royal Ballet discovered when it toured two years ago, he is quite a star. The yen is so strong, he says, that when he converts the money he earns back into sterling it virtually doubles. What does he spend these yen on? 'I'm into cars.' He's putting wider tyres, a low suspension and lots of gadgets on to his Honda CRX. The gadgets, naturally, are Japanese. That's what he misses. Over there, he says, 'there's so much choice'. Over here, 'you can't even get the stickers'.

'Dance Bites', Haymarket, Leicester (0533 539797), tomorrow 7.30pm, Tues 2pm & 7.30pm; Corn Exchange, Cambridge (0223 357851), Thurs & Fri 7.30pm, Sat 2.30pm & 7.30pm; Grand Theatre, Blackpool (0253 28372), 14 Feb 8pm, 15 Feb 1.30pm & 8pm.

(Photograph omitted)