merina takahashi she got lost on her first day at ballet school. Having just arrived in London at the age of 15, barely speaking English, she decided to take a side road and ended up in a panic, unable to find her way back. “I’ll never forget that,” he says. “I don’t know why I felt like I wanted to be adventurous and go a different path.”
She paints herself as a shy teenager, but what could be more adventurous than moving around the world on her own to become a dancer? There was loneliness in pursuing that dream, whether it was stranded on the back streets of Kensington or living in a shelter, staying as late as possible at school to avoid going back to her room. But once Takahashi found the National School of English Ballet that first day, he basically never left, he joined the ENB company in 1996 at 17 and 25 years later as head director, he’s still there. That’s an epic career for a ballet dancer, still in flawless shape at 43 with no immediate plan to retire.
Takahashi may not have the media profile of the artistic director of the company Tamara Rojo or the star signings that come and go (Vadim Muntagirov, Cesar Corrales, Alina Cojocaru) but he has been a constant presence. Both technically accomplished and subtly moving, she has been a playful and multifaceted Juliet (in Romeo and Juliet), a strong and bright and charming Medora in Le Corsaire, and a contemporary moody in the work of Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui and Akram Khan. Her favorites are emotional roles, like Manon, “showing inner feelings through movement. I love something with more passion than I can bring out. “His youthful shyness faded when he started acting.” On stage I was a different person. “
Right now, she’s about to play Marie, the female lead of Khan’s Creature, which is set to premiere after many Covid delays. It is loosely based on Frankenstein. Marie is the caretaker of the titular creature, and they forge a deep bond. When Takahashi and I speak, the piece is still evolving and will continue to evolve even once they are on stage. “I always love working with him,” says de Khan. “Even when I’m on the subway home, my mind goes in a way that I have never experienced in another ballet. We create the story, along with the emotions, as we create the steps; I’m turning into Marie. “
It’s the third job that Khan, who comes from an Indian kathak and contemporary dance background, has done for the ballet company, part of Rojo’s bold programming approach and a far cry from the usual representative. “I didn’t think I would have that challenge at this age,” says Takahashi. “I guess that made me keep dancing, because Tamara didn’t let me get bored.”
When Takahashi joined ENB 25 years ago, it was a more traditional ballet company, led by director Derek Deane. Hierarchies were ingrained, younger dancers did not speak to directors unless they were spoken to first. At the bar in daily class, if you accidentally stepped into a higher ranking dancer’s favorite spot, “they may not say anything,” says Takahashi, “but they would just leave their bag next to you and stand next to you until That you realize, OK, I think I need to move. ” That doesn’t happen anymore, Takahashi says, and since she was quickly promoted while still young (she became a director in 2000), she made an effort to be open with all the other dancers, and she still does. “Every time I see the youngest struggling, I love going to help them.”
When Deane left the company in 2001, he was followed by Matz Skoog, and five years later by Wayne Eagling, each director bringing their own personality. “Matz was calmer and more relaxed, so the company moved into that kind of atmosphere.” And then in 2012, Rojo took over, bringing a determination to drag the classical ballet repertoire into the 21st century, but also a revived work ethic, leading by example. She joined as lead principal dancer and artistic director, teaching classes and rehearsals in the morning and then spending the rest of the day directing the company (and performing in the evenings). “And doing the job in an amazing way,” says Takahashi in awe. “She never missed a class, and that opened my eyes. And I think that’s why the dancers also started to work harder. There was a different tension. “
Dancers’ techniques have changed over two and a half decades as they are necessary to address more contemporary styles, and attitudes have changed as well. Takahashi notices the self-confidence of the younger dancers, they no longer keep quiet and do what they are told (“This is how I was really raised”). “They’re so ambitious,” he says, “they want to solo as soon as they join the company. But I almost want to say that being in the corps de ballet is also good, you can learn things there. “You have noticed the difference that social media has made, where dancers from all over the world post videos of their technical tricks and everyone else tries to match them. You are no longer just competing against people in the same room as you and that is raising everyone’s skill level. “The things they can do are incredible.”
Another thing that has changed in the last 25 years in ballet is a belated consideration of diversity and an awareness of cultural sensibilities. Takahashi tells me that she doesn’t think being Japanese in the UK affected her career, although Deane said she couldn’t cast her as Alice in Alice in Wonderland because she needed to be blonde (“I wasn’t offended,” she said, although colorblind casting is generally the norm in British ballet now), and then she remembers hearing that they had recommended her for a guest spot somewhere, but they didn’t get it because they didn’t want a Japanese dancer. “That was the only time I was thinking, why? What’s the difference? “She says.
Takahashi is married to her fellow dancer, first soloist James Streeter (further nullifying the old hierarchical division). They are not usually on stage together, but they had a memorable performance at the Glastonbury festival in 2014 dancing to a duet from Akram Khan’s Dust. “The night before, we walked around and saw all the rock bands,” he recalls. “We were thinking, are they really going to want to come see our show?” But they came. The dancers performed on the Pyramid stage, the crowd “like little dots” and it was only when Takahashi was reaching the end of the duet that he realized that the entire field had gone completely silent. “That gave me goose bumps,” he says. “And then they went crazy.”
The couple have a four-year-old son, Archie, and when Takahashi returned to training just three months after his birth, Archie became a regular presence in the studio, sitting on the knee of ballet teacher Loipa Araújo (Takahashi also emphasizes that they have a great babysitter and grandparents to help out). Before the pandemic, Archie went on tour with them around the world and is an expert in etiquette behind the scenes. “We teach him that near the stage he has to be quiet,” he says. “If someone is speaking, [say] ‘shhhh!’ “
Takahashi found out she was pregnant just as she was about to dance at the Paris Opera, a historic concert. She was feeling so sick that all she could do between alone was to stand absolutely still on a staircase next to the wings until she heard her musical cue, and then she would jump on stage in front of a couple thousand people who had no idea what how miserable it was. she was feeling.
That mental and physical toughness is based on being a dancer. “It is very difficult mentally, you have to be very strong with yourself,” he says. Streeter once said that his wife wasn’t satisfied if he told her it was great, that she wanted him to separate his performances. “Every dancer is so critical that you constantly criticize and belittle yourself,” says Takahashi, and her resistance is due in part to her never feeling satisfied in her pursuit of perfection. “It’s endless and I want to improve all the time.” But self-criticism can be destructive, and her resistance also comes from learning to be kinder to herself. “You need to learn to grow up and stay motivated and positive.” While in her early days as a director she was driven to anguish, now she knows how to say to herself, “There is enough criticism for today.” “I try not to hurt myself so much, I know that now,” she says, ready for the next adventure.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism