What kind of fool am I?

In ballet, size isn't everything: unless, that is, you are a man under 5ft 7in and want to pick up girls with the minimum of effort. So where does that leave Tetsua `Teddy' Kumakawa? Louise Levene on a dancer rising above his shortcomings
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Teddy Kumakawa is a bit of a fool. He plays the jester in Cinderella, Puck in The Dream, The Fool in The Prince of the Pagodas and now (in a frankly surprising piece of casting) he will play Petrushka in the Royal Ballet's latest revival. Even backstage, as he sits hugging a sofa cushion lightly dusted with fag ash, his baggy trousers and braces give him the air of a clown out of make-up.

Tetsuya "Teddy" Kumakawa first burst on to the Covent Garden stage in1989 as the Bronze Idol in Natalia Makarova's production of La Bayadre. Only 17 years old, the diminutive dancer literally stopped the show with a pointless little solo of quite staggering virtuosity. It was the only thing worth seeing in the third act and it made his reputation. The young star has progressed to a more varied repertoire but still excels in all the roles that require exceptional speed and elevation.

Why the type-casting? Well - size does matter and Kumakawa is what we might generously term Medium Height. Ballet is not an equal opportunities employer at the best of times; you have to be exceptionally fit, reasonably good-looking and mildly talented to be in with half a chance. But after that your size and shape determine your progress as much as your talent. Princes are generally danced by danseurs nobles: tall, handsome hunks who can lift a ballerina without breaking their stride and parade about the place with the general air of owning it. Exceptions are made, but that is the general idea and many a mediocre dancer has played Siegfried purely on the strength of his inside leg measurement.

Sizeism aside, ballet has always tried to be fair, and there are plum demi caractre roles for the shorter male dancers. After all, only little men could deliver the really impressive stuff. Monica Mason, assistant director of the Royal Ballet, sums up realistically: "Physically, the type of dancer who can do the virtuoso fast flying work is probably someone not taller than 5ft 9in. Baryshnikov was 5ft 8in, Rudolf himself was only 5ft 9in and a half. When you get to 5ft 10in and 5ft 11in you've got the aesthetically pleasing length of line - but you can't get the speed."

Just as short-arsed footballers like Beardsley and Gascoigne can perform seemingly impossible physical feats, so that same low centre of gravity gives a dancer incredible poise and the ability to pull off manoeuvres that would send a taller man sprawling. "Teddy has the compactness and natural-born talent to almost never be off balance." Below a certain height of course, and you start to look silly next to the girls. Ballerinas are a petite lot but put them on points and even men of average size are in trouble. The seriously short are doomed to grotesque roles that don't involve straight partnering, the brainless suitor in La Fille Mal Garde, the undersized berk in Elite Syncopations, sundry jesters and novelty acts. No wonder Wayne Sleep left the company.

Two inches shorter, and Kumakawa could have been doomed to just such a life, bouncing through the Royal Ballet's repertoire of fools and halfwits like an india-rubber pixie. As it is, he hovers on the brink of princeliness thanks to the close interest of the directors. Monica Mason seems determine to save him from himself. The late Sir Kenneth MacMillan had the occasional run-in with the then teenage soloist when he was creating The Prince of the Pagodas. "Kenneth didn't want him to change the steps. Often Teddy wanted to invent something far flashier. When I work with Teddy I talk about the story a lot and try to explain to him about being in the context of the whole ballet. Perhaps Petrushka will show him this. Because he has the ability to be such a virtuoso it's difficult for him sometimes not just to see it as a moment for him to grab the audience and impress them with the steps." But boy, are they impressed.

When Kumakawa made his debut in Don Quixote, tucked away at a Saturday matine performance the packed house carried on cheering after the house lights came up. The implausibly high jumps, the ice-dancing pirouettes had instant appeal. People who know absolutely nothing about ballet know what they like and what they like is action and plenty of it. Reviewers (especially those older ones weaned on dancers who would rather miss a cue than draw attention to their technique), found Kumakawa's flash dancing unpalatable enough in demi caractre roles - but shuddered at the thought of his princes. He danced the hero in Bayadre in 1992 to replace an injured principal. "I got thrown in for that performance. I learnt it in four days. Four days. It wasn't that hard to learn the steps." But are steps enough? One of the old guard, who habitually refers to the young Japanese as Mr Kamikaze, was struck by the interpretation. "I hadn't seen the steps better danced since Rudolf. He danced some of the steps better than Rudolf. But it was still ludicrous." But Kamakawa has less and less to fear from the senior branch of the service. Last autumn an extraordinary journalistic cull saw the premature retirement of four leading dance critics, with more than 200 years of ballet-going between them. At 23, time is on Kumakawa's side, as those who remember "Rudolf" are gradually pensioned off.

Did Kumakawa see the force of their criticism? "It happens quite often. It looks like I'm doing too much technique because the technique has such a big impact. But I am proud of my technique. I have something others don't have. They may have something I don't have, but at least I have something."

His new role is nothing like the impish crowd-pleasing clowns he has danced so far. Created by Fokine for Nijinsky in 1911, Petrushka is a very sad, rather sinister tale of three puppets with lives and loves of their own. Nijinsky's clown embodied not only generations of Russian sentiment but also the pathos of the actor caught painfully between illusion and substance. Kumakawa will share the role with Irek Mukhamedov. Although the burly Russian is also a slightly unlikely choice for the sad little clown, he does at least possess a reputation as a great actor. Is Teddy afraid of unfavourable comparisons? "It's difficult to say. The steps are the same. The story's the same. The only difference is the way we think as Petrushka. We're very different. He's much bigger. Twice bigger." He mimes Irek's beefy bulk against his own skinny ribs. All right, never mind Mukhamedov. What about Nijinsky? Surely the young dancer must be intimidated by the ghost of his perfection? No chance.

"It doesn't frighten me at all. Everybody who saw Nijinsky is dead probably."

n `Petrushka' at the Royal Ballet, London, WC2 (0171-304 4000)