The disadvantage of the classical ballet canon—Giselle, Swan Lake, The Nutcracker– in that it reflects only the Western world, at least in the way ballets are usually interpreted. Giselle revolves around the town square of her German village; y The Nutcracker, ClaraThe family welcomes guests to a Christmas party at their home, also in Germany.
Plot ballets, which represent non-European cultures, tend to be stereotyped or fetishized. Boyaderkafor example, depicts India as a place of golden idols, opium tributaries and harem. Many companies no longer perform Chinese dance The NutcrackerThe second act for similar reasons.
As the month of heritage of the American-American and Pacific islands ends, Stephen Nakagawa offers timely correction in his new ballet, Rising sun, put to music by a Japanese composer Kiyoshi Yoshida. City newspaper Asked Nakagawa, who was dancing with Washington Ballet since 2015, about his choreography below.
The Washington Ballet will perform the rising sun at CityCenterDC every night from June 2 to 4 as part of the “Dance for All” event. This interview is the first of three questions and answers with local dancers in anticipation of free performances. The interview was edited for length and clarity.
Washington City Newspaper: Some choreographers start with music, some start with a creative concept, others start with an old story or feeling. Can you tell our readers how the dance you staged began?
Stephen Nakagawa: Inspiration for Rising sun began my journey when I first heard the music of composer Kiyoshi Yoshida in 2005. While my sister, Chelsea Winterstudied at the North Carolina School of the Arts, her teacher, Warren Canaver, choreographed to the music of Yoshida; I instantly fell in love with his work. Many years later, during the rise of violence against the AAPI community, I felt it was time to put into Yoshida’s music a work based on my heritage.
WCP: How was it to take on the role of choreographer and work with other campaign participants in this capacity?
SN: Before coming to the studio as a choreographer, I was a little nervous; I didn’t know how the dancers would perceive my process and movements. I wanted to make sure I had a clear outline before entering the space because at the time I only had one hour a day to create this piece. I was lucky to be given dancers because each of them was receptive to how I developed the movement and I was receptive to their ideas. I wanted to make sure that every step was comfortable for each dancer and above all, they liked what they danced.
WCP: Can you describe a certain moment in the choreographic process when everything seemed to fall into place? Or a moment you are especially proud of?
SN: The first dance in this piece that I created was the Maikos dance, which involved two women holding fans. Before I created it, I had an idea that these two women were dancing, but I knew something was missing. One evening, while watching the kabuki theater, I was struck; dance fans are needed. Fans were invented in Japan between the 6th and 9th centuries and in the Heian period were used as a tool to reflect their social status. I felt that fans needed to be included in this ballet as important to Japanese history and culture.
WCP: Tell us about the costumes. Were you involved in their development?
SN: In the process of creating, I came up with a lot of ideas on how I want the costumes to look. Towards the end of the process, I thought of every idea because I wanted the audience to focus exclusively on music and dancers. I felt that simplicity was the key to maintaining the presence of music and dancers. I worked with Monica Lelandhead of the Washington Ballet’s wardrobe, and together we found the best look for the piece.
WCP: What do you hope viewers will bear with your work at CityCenter?
SN: My number one goal in creating this piece was to give the audience members a sense of beauty as well as strength. I wanted to show the world, during the growing violence against the AAPI community, that we will remain united. Name –Rising sun—Means that the AAPI community will stand strong together and look forward to a new day. A day when all over the world our heritage is considered something to be proud of.
Dance For All performances at CityCenterDC will begin at 6pm on June 2, 3 and 4 at CityCenterDC. washingtonballet.org. Free.