ERINA TAKAHASHI, Lead Principal and JAMES STREETER, First Soloist, English National Ballet
“IN CONVERSATION" WITH GRAHAM WATTS OBE
30th September 2020 via Zoom
It was a huge pleasure to have Erina and James with us as we all appreciated that life under Covid was anything but predictable, said Susan Dalgetty Ezra, referring to the necessity to alter first the day, then the time, of this Zoom event because the pair were involved in a filming schedule for a forthcoming English National Ballet online performance.
And a further last minute change in circumstances meant that dance critic and writer Gerald Dowler was no longer available to steer the Conversation and fellow critic and writer Graham Watts had stood in at the last moment. This was much appreciated, said Susan.
For his part, Graham, who has also chaired the National Dance Awards since 2010, was delighted. It was, he told Susan, “ a great pleasure to get your message and come off the substitute’s bench to take over from Gerald.”
He then kicked off the evening by asking James what first got him into dance as a five-year-old living in Rochford, Essex.
“Well I initially started when I was three,” said James. “I’ve been told I was on a bus and turned to my mother and said: ‘I want to be a dancer’ and she looked at me and went ‘oh, OK.’” It turned out to be a bit problematic to find a dance class for him at that age so, in practical terms, his dancing career started when he reached the age of five. He didn’t come from a dancing background, he admitted, although both parents loved the theatre and his father loved music.
“Someone asked me when I decided to be a professional dancer,” said James, and I honestly couldn’t tell you. It’s very difficult to pinpoint that moment because it’s like a snowball effect. You start your training and for me being on stage is the most incredible thing. You’re in a different world. The only way I can describe it is that you’re in a bubble and you’re protected and nothing can harm you. You’re free to express yourself to others. It became something I knew that I truly wanted to do.”
His parents were very supportive and encouraged him throughout in anything he wished to take up. This brought the conversation to a revelation that astounded both Graham and the virtual audience.
“I was also a speed skater,” announced James. “ So I was skating for Britain. I’ve got British records. I was a British champion and I went to the European and World Championships!” He ceased the sport, however, at the age of 14 because it was then becoming “slightly dangerous” as the speeds increased. If he suffered a fall as he grew older it would put him out of action for everything, including dance, for two or three days. “It also didn’t offer me that magical thing I got when I was on stage.”
Recovering his composure from the initial shock of this information Graham said: “I imagine that the skating trained your muscles, the balance that you need to have. That must have actually helped you as a dancer.”
James agreed. “ My ankle stability when I stopped skating was really, really good. It’s all about transference of weight. It can emulate a balletic move.” Having then committed himself totally to dance James entered the English National Ballet School.
Turning to Erina, Graham said that, as she had joined English National Ballet in 1996, she was already well established there when James joined the company in 2004. She had been made a Principal in 2000 under the directorship of Derek Deane. James came in as a member of the corps de ballet.
They were in the same company but at different ends of the spectrum, said James. He elaborated: “ It was very interesting because in those days it was very hierarchical. A corps de ballet member didn’t speak to a Principal unless a Principal spoke to them. Now, I assure you, it’s very different and the Principals are incredibly open.” Nevertheless the Principals had been helpful to him, providing advice and expertise and it was then that Erina and James became friends.
Erina said: “I remembered when James joined. There was another dancer joined at the same time and there were these two young boys full of energy. I remember talking to other dancers and saying ‘look at those two boys. So fresh, full of energy and passion.’ We just started talking to one another and became friends.”
Were there, Graham wondered, many other couples in the company at that time?
Erina and James recalled that there were very few and James explained the life that the company led then: “ We were on tour a lot. In those days we had theatre digs. If anyone has stayed in theatre digs, some can be absolutely incredible and you can have the time of your life, and others can be a little bit suspect.” There was a huge sense of community among the dancers who would spend hours in one another’s company after a show as most people were reluctant to go back to their lodgings.
James recalled that he had joined ENB with fellow new recruit Max Westwell and he was thrilled by the sense of family that permeated the company.
Graham wanted to know at what stage Erina and James ceased being just friends and became, as he put it, “an item”?
Erina said: “ I think people guessed that something was going to happen before we did!” James admitted that it was difficult to keep anything quiet in a company that was as close as ENB. He added: “You don’t normally have a star with someone who’s just joined the company. That dynamic helped me to be accepted further.” The couple married in 2011.
Graham asked what it had been like working under a succession of company directors? Erina has been with ENB under four directors: Derek Deane, Matz Skoog, Wayne Eagling and Tamara Rojo. James had joined under Matz. Graham noted: “I was working it out, it seems impossible looking at both of you, you both look incredibly young, but between the two of you, you have 40 years with the same company which is really impressive.”
Erina said one thing that had never changed during her time at ENB was the family atmosphere. “When I joined I was young. I did get promoted very quickly but I always felt the company was one big group and that still remains.” Derek gave her many opportunities and there were many older, more experienced dancers that she used to look up to. “Even when I became a soloist I felt I couldn’t just approach the higher rank people. That’s how it was.” She added: “Whatever they were doing, even just sewing their shoes or taping the toes, I would sort of be behind them, sneaking up, looking at what they were doing.”
Graham said that Erina had been very busy around this time, had been cast in many things and had also won the Emerging Dancer competition about the time she was promoted to Principal by Derek.
“He gave me the opportunity to be a soloist but I was still corps de ballet. So, at Christmas, in a Nutcracker matinee, I might be a soloist and in the evening back to corps de ballet, doing the snowflakes. I never felt it was too much. I was just happy to be taking everything he was giving me.”
Turning to James, Graham wanted to know how things had changed during the time he had been with the company, particularly in respect of the diversity of the repertoire?
James explained that when he first joined under Matz the ENB was kickstarting a five-year plan. This involved very long tours presenting the classics. Then under Wayne different works such as Manon were brought in but the biggest impact had been made by Tamara who had completely diversified what the company was doing.
“This is part of the reason why we have to apologise for moving this (event this evening) because we have been filming our digital programme,” said James. “ A Sidi Larbi piece which is a million miles away from the company that I joined.”
Tamara had a way of bringing in such people and she had created an environment such that people wanted to work with the company’s dancers.
“That’s hugely inspiring for us who are dancers within the company but also hugely attractive to dancers who are outside; who go ‘I want to be able to do this.’”
He described the seasons that had been completed prior to Covid lockdown. “We were bouncing from classical to Akram Khan – Giselle to Dust - we were going to Liam Scarlett, to Russell Maliphant. What’s incredible and what Tamara’s done is prove that we can do that and we’re doing it well and we can put on the contemporary stuff and we’re standing up to what the choreography requires". “We are a modern day classical company now really at the forefront of dance and we’re setting trends that never existed in a classical ballet company.” He added, although he wouldn’t give anything away: “ This digital programme that’s coming up is really incredible.”
Graham said he felt the diversification of the repertoire, whether Bausch or Forsythe for example, was in effect a leveller. A purely classical company would have roles clearly defined which led to a hierarchical structure as already mentioned. But, he said, having spoken to Akram Khan recently, he was taken with the fact that Akram would insist in his Giselle that everybody rehearsed together. “He said to me something like ‘When you treat the corps as a corps and you rehearse with them separately from the principals, they feel as though they are background and they become background.’”
The change was visible in things like Emerging Dancer where we were seeing really young dancers with incredible technique because they had had such a variety of styles. Graham wondered if it was difficult, as classically trained dancers, suddenly to have to adapt to a range of other movements, even elements of kathak and hip hop?
Erina felt it was down to the individual. Some people took a while to achieve unfamiliar movements, others not. “But,” she said; “the important thing about doing such a ballet, is that it opens your mind instead of being stuck in a classical ballet technique. For myself, it has totally opened my view. I’m still challenging myself doing the Sidi Larbis and with the Akrams too.”
James said one had to be extremely versatile as a classical dancer. There was no longer a label that one was just a classical dancer. “For me, I’m hugely grateful to the time I spent with Akram and with Forsythe. That has involved me, not just as a dancer, but as a person. You learn so much about yourself through these processes,” he said.
Much of the time doing the classics was with pre-determined moves but when one was creating a new work or when something was being created on you, then it would become your own movement. “And no performance is exactly the same,” he explained. “One of the best things that has happened to me is that I don’t enter a performance with an expectation of how I’m going to feel and that is something that Akram taught me. Real feeling comes from the ground and travels up. Our reactions are very natural and very normal and this is what makes these pieces so incredible.” This experience, he felt, also made him stronger as a classical dancer.
Graham said that Sidi’s and Akram’s works were all about building realism into whatever role was being played. “That must help other aspects of your dancing,” he said to James, adding that he appeared to have mastered the contemporary style, particularly with Akram for whom he had become the lead principal in both Dust and Giselle.
James responded that he was very grateful for everything he had learned from Akram – how to use his weight differently and how he could react emotionally - and he said that, like Erina, the experience had opened his mind to the world of dance. He also explained that this was the first time he had probably danced without ballet shoes and how different that was. “From a technical point of view, if you’re wearing ballet shoes, your foot is supported and when you’re not your toes are spread out. It’s a different feeling.” This, together with being taught and guided by Akram, helped him to learn so much about his body.
“I can’t thank him enough for everything he’s done for me,” he said, and added: “ … and for Tamara for allowing me to do Dust. Erina said that every show with Akram was different. “You don’t know what to expect, what you’re going to feel, until you start".
Referring to Dust and its First World War setting Graham said: “It’s one of the great pas de deux of this century. And then there’s the song, knowing that the young man singing it died not so very long afterwards in the trenches.” He went on: “I’ve seen you two dance it several times in different parts of the world and I challenge anyone to watch it and still have a dry eye.”
Graham acknowledged that Tamara had had the foresight to know that Akram would bring something to the company and then the tenacity and perseverance to land him. He said: “I don’t think many people know that Akram said ‘no’ many times to choreographing Dust on ENB and a combination of Tamara and Farooq (Farooq Chaudhry - Executive Producer of the Akram Khan Company) eventually won him over and then Giselle became a slightly easier decision.” Everyone had hoped to have seen the third collaboration, Creature, by now but with the pandemic this was yet to come. He then asked Erina and James how they had been coping with the Covid lockdown over recent months.
Both agreed that family time had been amazing. “When you’re dancing you’re either with the company or guesting somewhere else,” said James. “We’d probably spend about two weeks with Archie a year, just the three of us. That’s not to say he’s not with us when we’re on tour. We have amazing relationships with each other in that sense but actually just pure Archie, Mummy and Daddy time, that’s quite rare in our world to have three or four months of it.”
Erina explained that, when the lockdown happened, she and James converted Archie’s playroom into an impromptu dance studio and that helped her and James keep in shape. James said he would wake at five each day and go for a cycle till 9 before the three of them breakfasted together. Erina would then exercise in the studio from 9.30 to 2 or 3pm and then he would go in to do his barre exercises.
They had been rehearsing the new Akram Khan piece up to the Thursday before lockdown with some 25 people. They were less than a month away from the scheduled premiere. “Akram called us over and said, ‘We’re in a really good place. Let’s give it three weeks and let lockdown happen. We’ll come back and finish it off and see what happens.’ And that was the last thing we did.”
James went on to explain the emotional impact that they felt as dancers during the pandemic. “ Something I found very difficult is that our art form is there for everyone to escape their troubles and problems … just to escape life for three or four hours of an evening. And that was taken away from us as performers. That’s what we’re here for, we’re here for you and that’s part of the incredible joy we get from doing it.”
Graham agreed and suggested that another galling aspect of the lockdown was that ENB had only recently moved into brand new premises.
Erina said that this was indeed a sad time. “I was doing a class at home and thought I wish I could be in our new building, in a big studio.” When she and James had premiered a video of Swan Lake during lockdown they had danced it in their lounge! “We rehearsed some of the lifts in the garden,” she said ruefully but they both admitted that their son Archie – aged three and a half – had relished the experience.
“Archie absolutely loved watching us,” said James, “and quite a few times he’d go ‘you need to do this!’ demonstrating a move.” Erina chipped in: “He said at one point ‘ oh Daddy I think you need to stand behind and Mummy you need to do this!’ Giving us a correction.”
Once they were able to get back into a Covid-secure theatre space for filming with a socially distanced film crew it was, said James, “ like coming home.” “ I had goose bumps straight away,” said Erina. And just standing how I stand, suddenly I became a ballet dancer. It was a great feeling and I realised how much I had missed.”
The couple had learned a lot about themselves through this time and it had reinforced the fact that they really needed dance in their lives. “That’s not just for us but for everyone watching us at home, for our audiences,” said James. “You need to ensure the safety of our art form. I want it to be there for everyone. It’s really, really important.”
Responding to Graham’s question as to whether he believed the art form was safe as the pandemic continued, James acknowledged this was a tricky one to answer. “I don’t think it will ever be unsafe because people love it. We will always do it. There’s a demand for it.” But he feared what would happen if theatres closed as some had already done. “As a sector there’s a real risk and certainly for the economy it has a huge impact.”
Turning to a brighter subject, Graham said that now at least the company once more had use of it new headquarters and it had been wonderful to see that the ENB building on London City Island had won the Architects' Journal Building of the Year Award. From a dancer’s point of view why was the building so special, he asked?
Erina said the facilities for dancers were amazing. “The first impression when you come into the building for the first time, I remember thinking ‘wow! Is this ours? It took me a while to really sink in.”
James felt the same: “I still walk in every day and have to pinch myself. It’s like nothing else that we’ve ever experienced. Without this building we wouldn’t have been in the position we are now. I don’t know what we’d have done with lockdown and Covid 19 if we’d been in Jay Mews,” he said referring to the company’s previous headquarters in Kensington. “We wouldn’t have been able to split classes into eight dancers, socially distanced. Now we have access to five or six studios, huge studios.”
He continued: “ I walk past every single day a production studio that, with my pass touched on the door, I can walk into, my own production studio.” They have the seating for audience, space for an orchestra, the building has a loading dock with space for lorries to drive in and that was just on the ground floor.
On the first floor was an office suite (from where Erina and James were conducting the Zoom Conversation from the ENB boardroom). And then there was the physio suite. “ We have a hydro pool with barres in, you can swim against the current, there are ice baths,” James explained. “We have incredible pilates and a gym, brand new purpose built for dancers. The changing rooms are amazing, we have our own spaces.”
Comparing the studios with what they had previously, he said that some members of LBC who had been to Jay Mews would realise that “coming in after a class the smell could be,” he hesitated, “intimidating.” But in the new building the temperature is kept at a good level for the dancers and air is circulated around the building so that one never felt drained at the end of the day. The place was full of light and therefore full of energy.
Graham noted that people who had watched online the recent Emerging Dancer competition would have witnessed the building at its full potential. And, he pointed out, this event had been produced by James. He wanted to know about that achievement, especially during Covid.
“There were huge challenges,” said James. “ There are huge challenges putting on a production anyway. Things change very quickly and you have to make instant decisions on the spot. Adding Covid on top of that becomes ever more difficult because the dancers are all in bubbles, even bringing in an audience safely and securely. We had a panel of people, a decision had to go to five or six people; executives, a medical team, Laura on facilities, to ensure we were doing absolutely everything possible to be safe and secure.” To this end, everyone dancing had their own route to the stage and their own dedicated toilets to ensure no passing in the corridors. A one-way system operated throughout the building. Then there were the logistics of bringing in a film crew, rigging up a boom camera and keeping people two metres from each other.
And then James added: “ I was there at the birth of Emerging Dancer, then I was an Emerging Dancer, then I mentored and now I’ve produced it. I think it’s a testament to how successful the format of Emerging Dancer is.” Those competing, whether nominees, finalists or ultimate winners, had all gone on to achieve greater things. It was a rewarding experience and, during the time of Covid, something even more special.
Graham switched the subject saying he had seen some of James’s choreography in the past, had been very impressed and wondered if we would see any more?
James admitted he would love to do more and had had previous conversations with Tamara on the subject but, at present, it had been hard to find the time for him to do this because he was dancing so much and so well.
Speaking to Erina, Graham said it was also time to congratulate her as she had just won the arts and culture category of the Asian Women of Achievement Award for 2020. Erina said she had been totally in shock to receive this news. “ Even for someone to be recognised, to get nominated, I was so honoured, I was over the moon,” she said. There had been a virtual ceremony just a few days previously and the actual winner had only been announced there and then. James had been filming the event to send to Erina’s mother in Japan and, he said, the video shows them both reacting with utter joy.
The conversation returned to three-year-old Archie and Graham recalled the determination of a three-year-old James, on a bus with his mother, to become a dancer. Archie must possess wonderful genes. Did his parents think he might follow in their footsteps? Erina said their son loved dancing and would start as soon as he heard music. He was, she said, even choreographing himself.
James added: His floorwork is incredible. He drops, rolls, turns around, kicks his leg up.”
One day, during lockdown, Erina explained, “ He called me ‘Mummy, Mummy, look at this!’ and he started doing a pirouette. He must have been watching us exercise. We didn’t realise how much he’s been watching.”
James said the first full-length performance his son had watched was at the age of one and a half. And, he said, he was the most silent person in the theatre because “we had always gone ‘shhh!’” Now he shhh’s everybody and loves sitting in the wings. He would watch two shows a day and could not be persuaded to leave before a performance had ended.
Graham then posed a series of questions raised by the virtual audience tuned in to the Zoom conversation. One wanted to know if either had ever danced Rosalinda by Ronald Hynd? Neither had but, said James: “We have worked with Ronnie. He’s wonderful. He’s like the granddad you always wished you had.”
Another questioner wanted to know if it was possible to predict which young dancers would become Principals and could an average dancer rise to such heights with support and training? Erina agreed that with some young dancers one could see their potential but with others help and coaching could see them grow into it. James said: “What’s incredible about dance is that everyone offers something different. And a great coach will be able to enable that acceleration to increase. You can see when someone has incredible talent but being a dancer is not just about that. There are so many other things. You have to want it as well. Sometimes the most talented dancers you see don’t last very long. They are so talented that their talent overtakes the potential for them to progress. I’m not saying there’s anyone like that in the company now, but I’ve seen it in the past.”
If one looked at Erina, said James, she was a fully rounded dancer, she could do everything; act, dance, move, inspire, set examples and lead from the front. “It becomes much bigger than just becoming a talented dancer.”
A further question was how partnering one another differed from partnering with someone else? James, for example, had been Albrecht to more than one of Akram Khan’s Giselles?
James replied that he never went into a performance with an expectation. “I don’t go into a performance being Erina’s husband. I see the person standing in front of me as Giselle and their reactions lead my dance,” he said. “We’ve had a lot of comments that when we dance together it looks so emotional. We don’t try to achieve that.”
Erina said that she had danced Giselle opposite James, Isaac Hernandez and Joe Caley and this proved very interesting because everybody had approached it differently. And, she said: “I didn’t want to be stuck in one Giselle that I’d made.” With other dancers it took longer to get to know them through rehearsing. But with James “because we know each other so well I feel that we are even breathing together.”
Graham asked which was the first pas de deux they had danced together? They both said ‘Swan Lake” and both added: “It wasn’t great!” James explained: I was still corps de ballet, Erina was a principal and had a gala and said, ‘oh, let’s do White Swan together.’ We both finished and said we will never dance together again!”
Fortunately for the ballet world, things changed and James puts this down to dancing works initially by William Forsythe. “Forsythe was a game changer,” said James. “We hadn’t yet done Dust together. Something happened where we said we don’t need to be worried about this. And now it’s really nice. I absolutely love dancing with Erina.”
A final audience question was which roles would each love to dance that they had not yet danced? Erina said Tatiana in Onegin. James, without hesitation, plumped for Prince Rudolf in Mayerling.
And that wrapped up the Conversation. Susan re-iterated LBC’s congratulations on Erina’s recent award and also recalled how privileged LBC members had been to visit the new ENB headquarters late last year. “We’re excited and once life gets back to normal we’ll come and visit the premises again,” she said.
She expressed the organisation’s thanks to Graham, Erina and James and she added: “… and to Archie for keeping you on your toes over the past months.”
Written by Phillip Cooper, edited/approved by Erina Takahashi. James Streeter and Graham Watts