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Editor’s note: Due to high likelihood of inclement weather, the June 2 performance has been canceled. The June 3 and 4 shows will go on as planned.
A shortcoming of the classical ballet canon—Giselle, Swan Lake, The Nutcracker—is that it only depicts the Western world, at least as the ballets are typically interpreted. Giselle twirls around the town square of her German village; in The Nutcracker, Clara’s family welcomes guests to a Christmas party at their home, also in Germany.
The story ballets that feature non-European cultures tend to stereotype, appropriate, or fetishize. La Bayadère, for instance, portrays India as a place of golden idols, opium dens, and harem pants. Many companies no longer perform the Chinese dance in The Nutcracker’s second act for similar reasons.
As Asian-American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month concludes, Stephen Nakagawa offers a well-timed corrective in his new ballet, Rising Sun, set to music by Japanese composer Kiyoshi Yoshida. City Paper asked Nakagawa, who has danced with the Washington Ballet since 2015, about his choreography below.
The Washington Ballet will perform Rising Sun at CityCenterDC nightly from June 2 to 4, as part of the company’s Dance For All events. This interview is the first of three Q&As with local dancers in anticipation of the free performances. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Washington City Paper: Some choreographers start with music, some start with a creative concept, others start with an old story or a feeling. Can you tell our readers how the dance you’ve choreographed began?
Stephen Nakagawa: The inspiration for Rising Sun began its journey when I first heard the music by composer Kiyoshi Yoshida in 2005. While my sister, Chelsea Wynter, was studying at the North Carolina School of the Arts, her instructor, Warren Conover, choreographed a piece with music by Yoshida; I instantly fell in love with his work. Many years later, during the rise of violence toward the AAPI community, I felt it was time to bring forward a piece based on my heritage to Yoshida’s music.
WCP: What was it like stepping into the choreographer role and working with other company members in that capacity?
SN: Before stepping into the studio as a choreographer, I was a bit nervous; I didn’t know how the dancers would receive my process or movements. I wanted to make sure I had a clear outline before entering the space because, at the time, I only had one hour a day to create this piece. I was lucky enough to have been given the dancers I was given because each one was receptive to the way I developed movement and I was receptive to their ideas. I wanted to make sure that every step was made comfortable to each dancer and that, above all, they enjoyed what they were dancing.
WCP: Can you describe a particular moment in the choreographic process where things seemed to snap into place? Or a moment that you’re particularly proud of?
SN: The first dance in this piece I created was the Maikos Dance, involving two women holding fans. Before creating it, I had an idea of these two women dancing, but I knew something was missing. One evening, while watching kabuki theater, it hit me; the dance needed fans. Fans were invented in Japan between the 6th and 9th centuries and, during the Heian period, were used as a tool to depict one’s social status. I felt the fans needed to be implemented into this ballet as an important significance to Japanese history and culture.
WCP: Tell us about the costumes. Were you involved in designing them?
SN: During the creation process, I thought of many ideas of how I wanted the costumes to look. Towards the end of the process, I scratched each idea because I wanted the audience members to focus solely on the music and the dancers. I felt simplicity was key to keep the presence of the music and dancers alive. I worked with Monica Leland, the Washington Ballet’s wardrobe supervisor, and together we found the best look for the piece.
WCP: What do you hope viewers take away from seeing your work at CityCenter?
SN: My number one goal when creating this piece was to bring a sense of beauty as well as strength to audience members. I wanted to show the world, during the rise of violence towards the AAPI community, that we will stay unified. The title—Rising Sun—means that the AAPI community will stand strong together and wait for a new day to come. A day where our heritage is seen all over the world as something to be proud of.
Dance For All Performances at CityCenterDC start at 6 p.m. on June 2, 3, and 4 at CityCenterDC. washingtonballet.org. Free.