Ballerina Erina Takahashi: “I didn’t think I would have this challenge at this age”

Ballerina Erina Takahashi: “I didn’t think I would have this challenge at this age”

Erina Takahashi got lost on her first day at ballet school. Barely arrived in London at the age of 15, barely speaking English, she decides to take a side road and ends up panicking, unable to find her way home. “I’ll never forget that,” she said. “I don’t know why I wanted to be adventurous and take a different path. “

She paints herself as a shy teenager, but what could be more adventurous than traveling the world on your own to become a dancer? There was loneliness in following this dream, whether she was stranded in the alleys of Kensington, or living in an inn, staying as late as she could at school to avoid returning to her room. But once Takahashi found the English National Ballet School on that first day, she hardly ever left, joining the ENB Company in 1996 at 17 and 25 years later as Principal Principal, she is still there. It’s an epic career for a ballet dancer, still in great shape at 43 with no immediate plans to retire.

Takahashi may not have the media profile of company artistic director Tamara Rojo or the starry signatures that come and go (Vadim Muntagirov, Cesar Corrales, Alina Cojocaru) but she has been a constant presence. Both technically accomplished and subtly moving, she has been a multi-faceted, playful Juliet (in Romeo and Juliet), a strong and sparkling Medora in Le Corsaire, and a contemporary shapeshifter in the work of Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui and Akram Khan. Her favorites are emotional roles, like Manon, “showing inner feelings through movement. I like something with more passion than I can bring out. Her youthful shyness dissipated when she began to play. “On stage, I was a different person. “

‘We create the story and the emotions as we create the stages’… Takahashi in rehearsals for Creature. Photography: Laurent Liotardo

Right now, she is set to play Marie, the female lead in Khan’s Creature, premiering after numerous delays from Covid. It’s loosely based on Frankenstein. Marie is the titular creature’s caregiver, and they forge a deep bond. When Takahashi and I speak, the play is still evolving, and she will continue to do so even after they get on stage. “I am always fascinated by working with him,” she says of Khan. “Even when I’m on the subway at home, my mind goes in a way I’ve never experienced in any other ballet. We create the story, with the emotions, as we create the stages; I become Marie.

This is the third work Khan, from an Indian background of kathak and contemporary dance, produced for the ballet company, as part of Rojo’s daring approach to programming and far from the usual representative. “I didn’t think I would have that challenge at this age,” Takahashi says. “I guess it kept me dancing, because Tamara didn’t let me get bored. “

When Takahashi joined ENB 25 years ago, it was a more traditional ballet company, headed by director Derek Deane. Hierarchies were ingrained, young dancers did not speak to principals unless they were addressed first. At the barre in daily class, if you accidentally stood in a preferred spot of a higher ranked dancer, “they might not say anything,” Takahashi says, “but they would just put their bag next to you and stand. next to you until you realize, okay i think i need to move out. This doesn’t happen anymore, Takahashi says, and since she was quickly promoted when she was still young (becoming principal in 2000), she has strived to be open with all the other dancers, and still does. “Whenever I see the youngest in trouble, I like to go and help them. “

When Deane left the company in 2001, he was followed by Matz Skoog, and five years later by Wayne Eagling, with each director bringing their own personality. “Matz was calmer and more serene, so the company moved towards that kind of atmosphere. And then in 2012, Rojo took over, bringing a determination to bring the classical ballet repertoire into the 21st century, but also a rekindled work ethic, leading by example. She joined as the principal dancer as well as artistic director, doing classes and rehearsals in the morning, then spending the rest of the day running the company (and performing in the evening). “And does the job in an incredible way,” said an impressed Takahashi. “She never missed a class and it opened my eyes. And I think because of that, the dancers also started to work harder. There was a different tension.

The techniques of the dancers have changed in two and a half decades as they have to tackle more contemporary styles, and attitudes have changed as well. Takahashi notices the self-confidence of the young dancers who arrive, no longer staying silent and doing as you are told (“This is how I was really raised”). “They are so ambitious,” she said, “that they want to do the solos 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. She’s noticed the difference social media has made, where dancers all over the world are posting videos of their technique tips and everyone is trying to match them. You are no longer just competing against people in the same room as you and this increases everyone’s skill level. “The things they can do are amazing. “

Something else that has changed over the past 25 years in ballet is a belated consideration of diversity and an awareness of cultural sensitivities. Takahashi tells me that she doesn’t think being Japanese in the UK affected her career, although Deane said he couldn’t choose her as Alice in Alice in Wonderland because she needed help. ‘being blonde (“I didn’t take offense,” she says, although colorblind casting is generally the norm in British ballet now), then she remembers hearing that she was recommended for a guest seat. somewhere but didn’t get it because they didn’t want a Japanese dancer. “This is the only time I thought, why? What is the difference? ” she says.

Takahashi is married to another dancer, lead soloist James Streeter (further breaking the old hierarchical divide). They are not often associated on stage, but had a memorable performance at the Glastonbury Festival in 2014 dancing a duet of Akram Khan’s Dust. “The day before, we walked around and saw all the rock bands,” she 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 wasn’t until Takahashi came to the end of the duet that she realized that the whole field had gone completely silent. . “It gave me goosebumps,” she says. “And then they went crazy. “

“The crowd went crazy”… Takahashi and Streeter performed at Glastonbury in 2014. Photographie : Jim Dyson/Getty Images

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 in the lap of ballet mistress Loipa Araújo (Takahashi points out also that they have a good childminder and grandparents to help you). Before the pandemic, Archie went on tour with them around the world and he’s an etiquette expert behind the scenes. “We taught him that near the stage he has to be silent,” she said. “If someone speaks, he will [say] ‘chut!’ “

Takahashi discovered she was pregnant as she got ready to dance at the Paris Opera, a historic concert. She was feeling so sick that all she could do between solos was stay absolutely still on a staircase next to the backstage until she heard her musical cue, then jumped on stage in front of a few thousand people. who had no idea of ​​the misery she felt.

This mental and physical strength is inherent in the profession of dancer. “It’s very difficult mentally, you have to be very strong in yourself,” she says. Streeter once said that his wife was not satisfied if he told her she had been great, she wanted him to separate her performances. “Every dancer is so critical, you constantly criticize yourself and put yourself down,” says Takahashi, and part of her endurance is that she is never satisfied with the pursuit of perfection. “It’s endless and I want to improve all the time. But self-criticism can be destructive, and her endurance also comes from learning to be kinder to herself. “You have to learn to lift yourself up and stay motivated and positive. While in her beginnings as a director, she grieved, now she knows how to say to herself: “Enough criticism for today”. “I’m trying not to hurt myself too much, I know it now,” she said, ready for the next adventure.


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