Expanding the Classical Ballet Canon Part I: Nao Kusuzaki’s Genji at Asia Society Texas Center in partnership with Houston Ballet

Think about classical ballet’s signature repertoire—The Nutcracker, Swan Lake, Sleeping Beauty, Giselle, Cinderella. Each of these canonic story ballets is drawn from a European folk tale or story, and set to music by a European composer. Is it time to ask, “what other stories can ballets tell?”

Now two ballet choreographers, Alexa Capareda and Nao Kusuzaki, have created new story ballets based on non-Western folk tales and literature.

In Part I, we cover Kusuzaki’s chamber ballet Genji, a contemporary realization of The Tale of Genji, the consummate masterpiece of Japanese literature written in the 11th century. The premiere performance, presented in partnership with Houston Ballet, will take place at the Asia Society Texas Center in Houston on March 24-25, 2023.

Read Part II on Alexa Capareda’s Maria and the Mouse Deer, inspired by the Filipino legends of Maria Makiling and the Southeast Asian trickster tales of the mouse deer. Austin Ballet II premiered the work in October, 2022, and it is now slated for more performances.

Nao Kusuzaki: Genji

Commissioned by Asia Society Texas Center and presented in partnership with the Houston Ballet, Japanese-American dancer/choreographer Nao Kusuzaki’s new chamber ballet Genji is not just a contemporary retelling of the classic Japanese masterpiece through dance, but also an intimate vision of the culturally sophisticated world of Heian Japan.

This is the second work that Kusuzaki, former soloist with the Houston Ballet, has created for the Asia Society. Her pivot from ballet dancer to choreographer and director came about in 2011, when a catastrophic earthquake and the subsequent tsunami devastated her home country of Japan. She organized a successful fundraising performance with dancers from the Houston Ballet that brought together the community and gave hope for the recovery effort. “That was life-changing for me,” remembers Kusuzaki. “Until then I was a dancer and I was dancing for a choreographer or a production. My purpose was just to execute that.” But through the project Kusuzaki found a new purpose. “Seeing the whole production come together and the friendships and community it created, I realized that dance has something more significant than just its artistic element but has the power to bring people together.”

The desire for connection and community led Kusuzaki to the creation of Tsuru in 2015, a chamber ballet commissioned by the Asia Society based on the Japanese folktale The Crane Wife. Kusuzaki left her native Japan at the age of 10 with her family, first to Washington DC, then Boston. When her family went back to Japan, she stayed behind to pursue ballet. When she joined the Houston Ballet in 2004, she was a young adult alone for the first time. She felt the need to find her identity and reconnect with her culture. She recalls, “The longer I was away from home the more appreciation I had for my own culture, the beauty and tradition behind it that was a part of me.” Tsuru was her way of communicating Japanese culture to the community on an artistic and personal level.

The success of Tsuru led to a new commission from the Asia Society. This time Kusuzaki has taken on the ambitious task of setting the supreme classic of Japanese literature, The Tale of Genji, as a chamber ballet. Written in the early years of the 11th century by Murasaki Shikibu, a lady-in-waiting in the imperial court during the peak of the Heian period, the world’s oldest novel relates the life and loves of the “Shining Prince” Genji in 1300 pages, 54 chapters, and with nearly 500 characters. In unsurpassed style and with penetrating insight, Lady Murasaki reveals the refinement of Heian court life, where devotion to poetry, calligraphy, music, and dance were highly valued, and the subtleties of human emotions and relationships were carefully observed. The book is widely studied in Japanese high schools and colleges. It has inspired thousands of paintings, several film adaptations, an opera, and at least 20 different manga series. Kusuzaki’s Genji is the first ballet adaptation of the book.

Kusuzaki was intrigued that the book was written by a female writer over a thousand years ago. She read the entire work for the first time during the pandemic. “This is one of my Mother’s favorite novels and she was always talking about it and referencing it,” says Kusuzaki. “It was always in my mind growing up but I didn’t have the guts to tackle this huge literary work. It’s about friendships and love and betrayal,” reflects Kusuzaki. “Relationships, it’s the same from a thousand years ago to now.”

Kusuzaki’s contemporary interpretation centers on the important female relationships in the book. One way to read the book is through Genji’s numerous amorous adventures, going from one woman to the next, but Kusuzaki wanted to capture the women’s perspective. In the Heian period, women lived in their own quarters, sequestered behind screens that separated them from the men of the court. “The women were together and the men were together,” explains Kusuzaki. “There was a real sense of community and strong female relationships, a deep bonding that happened amongst the women.”

For her ballet, Kusuzaki chose to feature Genji’s relationships with four main female characters, as well as their relationship with each other—his unattainable ideal Lady Fujitsubo, who became his stepmother; his first wife Lady Aoi; Lady Rokujyo, whose jealousy causes her living spirit to murder her rivals; and Murasaki, the little girl Genji nurtured from childhood to later become his devoted companion.

The movement vocabulary is neoclassical, with elements of stylized Japanese gestures. “It will feel both ancient and modern at the same time,” says Kusuzaki. “That’s my challenge—the balance between not losing the essence of the story but also creating the world I’ve visualized.” The set design by Ryan McGettigen incorporates a pivoting screen, reflecting the sense of division that separates the women from the men, but also highlighting the intimacy within the space. The costumes, envisioned by Kusuzaki and designed by Allison Miller, feature the traditional Japanese kimono unsewn and deconstructed, giving it a contemporary feel. The women’s dresses, in neutral tones, are accented with different colors to reflect each character’s personality.

The music is a through-composed score by Japanese composer Kaoru Watanabe, who will be performing on a plethora of traditional Japanese instruments on stage. Watanabe is renowned for his collaborations with a diverse range of artists. He has worked with jazz musicians and flamenco dancers, performed with the Silk Road Ensemble, and scored a film for Wes Anderson. For Genji, Watanabe has created a sound world both ancient and contemporary, transporting the listener to a realm of golden clouds and feverish dreams. Recitations of waka poems, an integral part of the novel, will also weave through Watanabe’s soundscape.

All five dancers are from the Houston Ballet. Ryo Kato and Yumiko Fukuda, husband and wife in real life, dance the roles of Genji and Murasaki. Their evocative pas de deux, enacting the scene of the characters’ first encounter, is full of tenderness. Expressive gestures miming a bird flying away or a little girl playing with her doll flow into graceful, classical partnering that show the pair’s intimacy and connection. Kusuzaki’s choreography gives attention to nuance and subtlety, reflecting the essence of Japanese aesthetics. The confrontational carriage scene between Lady Rokujyo and Lady Aoi, performed by Jindallae Bernard and Emma Forrester, is riveting in its stylized movements and dramatic push and pull. The music is moody, ranging from contemplative temple bells to discordant flute and strings, to haunting vocalizations that conjure a priest performing an exorcism.

Kusuzaki has invited Melissa McCormick, Harvard Professor of Japanese Art and Culture, to give a talk that will illuminate the historical context and larger cultural significance of The Tale of Genji.

Kusuzaki hopes there will be more ballets telling non-Western stories. In Genji, she sees common threads people can relate to—the intricacies of human emotions and relationships, the quest for love, the impermanence of all things. But she also wants people to appreciate the different perspective a non-Western story can show. “It’s like the screen. Even if we look through it and see the other side, we don’t see the whole picture. We see a subtle element about it and find beauty through it. We find intrigue and mystery.”