Romeo and Juliet: Fumi Kaneko journeys through love, passion and tragedy onstage

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Fumi Kaneko and Vadim Muntagirov in Romeo and Juliet. (Photo: Kim Stevens)
Fumi Kaneko and Vadim Muntagirov in Romeo and Juliet. (Photo: Kim Stevens)
  • Fumi Kaneko is a principal of the Royal Ballet in London.
  • She recently danced the role of Juliet as a guest artist in the Cape Town City Ballet’s production of Romeo and Juliet.
  • Kaneko found the inner strength to overcome injury, just as Juliet found the courage to stand up to the establishment of her day.

When Fumi Kaneko was a schoolgirl in Japan, she had no plans to go abroad and didn’t attach any importance to studying English. Little did she know that she would one day read Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet in the original, to prepare for portraying the role of Juliet in the ballet of the same name.

Kaneko, who is a principal of the Royal Ballet in London and recently danced the role of Juliet as a guest artist in the Cape Town City Ballet’s production of Romeo and Juliet, had her first ballet lesson at the age of three. A punishing schedule combining normal school with ballet practice led to success in international competitions for the young dancer. But despite ballet’s popularity in Japan, there was little scope for a viable professional career. Kaneko joined the Royal Ballet in the 2010/2011 season, not knowing any English. “It was very hard because I had lived with my family until I was 19,” she says.

Progress through the ranks was rapid, but then she suffered a setback: right at the beginning of a performance, she tore a ligament in a knee onstage. It took surgery and almost a year to recover from that but then, just as she was beginning “to dance more like myself”, it happened to her other knee as well.

‘My love of ballet pulled me through’

Again, she had to repeat surgery and rehab. It was a bleak time - but she had a secret weapon: “I remember when I had surgery, my mum came and she made homemade food. I think that’s the best energy you can get.” Her love of ballet, says Kaneko, was what ultimately helped her overcome all the suffering and pain.

That inner strength was to stand her in good stead when it came to dancing the part of Juliet. It came as a surprise when she was cast in the role, because she felt that at 30 she was too old for the part. But her time away from ballet while she was injured had allowed her to think about how she would interpret the role: “I had so many things in my mind, and that helped me create my own Juliet as well.”

Kaneko says her coach, Lesley Collier, gave her a book which had the original Shakespearean English on one side and “normal” English on the other. What also worked for her was to underline her favourite words, especially, as Collier also pointed out, relevant words and phrases at specific points in the dancing. She also watched “a lot of Juliet ballets”, but her favourite film was Franco Zeffirelli’s 1968 movie version of the play.

Set to a dramatic score with sweeping romantic melodies by the Russian composer Sergei Prokofiev, Veronica Paeper’s production of Romeo and Juliet is vibrant and colourful. Violence, sudden death and swordfights between dashing young blades are the order of the day as the townsfolk of Verona live under the shadow of the feud between the noble families of Montague and Capulet. But there are also plenty of lighter moments and humorous touches, with a bevy of mischievous prostitutes ever at the ready to flaunt their charms.

Vadim Muntagirov and Fumi Kaneko
Vadim Muntagirov and Fumi Kaneko in Romeo & Juliet. (Photo: Kim Stevens)

'Juliet became a very strong woman'

What makes the role of Juliet so special, says Kaneko, is that the ballerina actually portrays her growth and character development right there onstage. Juliet starts off as an innocent young girl and a dutiful daughter. But then she meets Romeo “and she has this new feeling of falling in love with someone she’s never experienced before, and she finds all this strength she didn’t even know she had”.

This gives her the courage to stand up to the establishment of the day: “That’s how she became mature; she fought against her parents and she just followed her feelings, and then this sad ending happened. But I think she became a very strong woman.”  

Her coach also told her: “Don’t be afraid to be ugly onstage.“ This intensely human aspect is what differentiates Juliet from other classical roles, says Kaneko: “She’s a cute girl but she’s also human, especially in Act 3 when she takes the poison and so much happens and she has so many emotions.

“That was a new thing for me: in Swan Lake you always have this classical position onstage, but with Juliet for the first time I was like a human being - it’s such a dramatic ballet because you live her life onstage.”

Good news for ballet fans is that Kaneko has every intention of returning to South Africa. She says: “I definitely fell in love with this city, and this country.”

ALSO READ: Siphe November returns to South Africa to perform with Cape Town City Ballet for one night only

Veronica Paeper’s Romeo and Juliet runs at the Artscape Theatre Centre until 28 August as part of Cape Town City Ballet’s Winter Season. Bookings can be made at Artscape Dial-A-Seat 021 - 421 7695 or through Computicket.

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