Told from the perspectives of four female characters and set in 21st century Japan, Genji is Nao Kusuzaki’s contemporary retelling of The Tale of Genji – the classic 11th century novel that depicts the aristocratic and romantic life of the Emperor’s son, Hikaru Genji, and written by novelist, poet, and lady-in-waiting Murasaki Shikibu.
The World Premiere chamber ballet is Asia Society Texas’ second dance commission its 43-year history – and its second dance piece created in partnership with Houston Ballet. It also marks the organization’s second time working with Kusuzaki, the Founder and Executive/Artistic Director of Creative Minds Collaborative and a former Houston Ballet soloist, whose 12-year career with the company spanned from 2004 to 2016.
Genji will debut in performances March 24 – 25, 7:30pm, at Asia Society Texas, featuring dancers from Houston Ballet and an original score written and performed live by New York-based composer and musician Kaoru Watanabe.
As described in a press release, Kusuzaki explores the female characters’ relationships with Genji and one another in this contemporary ballet about friendship, love, and the dynamics of power and social class.
“The intricacies of these relationships reveal universal human emotions – such as loyalty and jealousy, beauty and destruction of love, and dealing with life’s impermanence – that make the story as relevant today as it was in 11th century Japan,” she said in a statement.
Asia Society Texas began its foray into commissioning dance works in 2015 with Tsuru, performed by Kusuzaki and co-created by her and choreographer Kenta Kojiri. Based on the “The Crane Wife” folktale, Tsuru debuted with praise from Arts and Culture Texas and the Houston Chronicle.
“Houston Ballet has built a strong relationship with Asia Society Texas over the past decade … We are excited to once again partner with Asia Society Texas on the World Premiere of Genji,” said Jim Nelson, Houston Ballet Executive Director, in an email to Houston Arts Journal.
“Again, Kusuzaki draws on classic Japanese literature and folklore to create a new dance adaptation of a classic Japanese tale,” Nelson said. “Ms. Kuzusaki brings a unique perspective to narrative dance work that is rooted in classical ballet technique, and Houston Ballet is proud to support her and our dancers in sharing this work with our community.”
Houston Arts Journal reached out to Nao Kusuzaki to learn more about the World Premiere of “Genji”:
Houston Arts Journal: Why do you think a contemporary retelling of The Tale of Genji is important?
Nao Kasuzaki: The Tale of Genji is not only known as one of the world’s oldest literary works, but it is also one written by a female author, during a period in Japanese history (Heian period) when the arts truly flourished. The arts cultivated during the Heian period are what we identify today as traditional Japanese art. The Japanese phonetic syllabary kana was born, waka poetry blossomed, as well as music and dance – gagaku and bugaku. The stage work of The Tale of Genji was a perfect backdrop to share with Houston audiences about these elements of Japanese history.
And the further along I read The Tale of Genji, the more intrigue I found in the various human emotions and how similar our relationships can be from a thousand years ago. Seeing its relevance and universal appeal, I felt the contemporary retelling through a ballet would offer interesting and meaningful perspectives. Layering onto it are elements of history and culture – through use of kimono fabrics, traditional instruments like koto and fue, calligraphy and waka poetry recitation, and gestural movements.
HAJ: Why do you love to work with Houston Ballet dancers? What do you think they will add to this World Premiere?
NK: When I was involved in the first commissioned work with Asia Society Texas in 2015, I was dancing full-time with Houston Ballet. Since I joined the company in 2004, Houston Ballet had become my ballet family, and naturally, I was drawn to working with them for that project. I also felt very supported by the Houston Ballet organization for that collaboration and had a truly fulfilling process leading up to the performances.
This time, for the second commission from Asia Society Texas, I was retired from full-time dancing, but still felt connected with Houston Ballet, as I stayed involved with the organization. I continue to love and respect what they do and am thrilled to be able to work with them again.
Three of the dancers are soloists and of Japanese origin, and the other two are in the beginning years of their careers. I also know that all of the cast members have studied The Tale of Genji through school and showed curiosity and excitement from the beginning. They’re all such team players with unique individuality. These qualities certainly add to their interpretation and development of characters for “Genji.”
GENJI CREATIVE TEAM:
Choreographer and Artistic Director: Nao Kusuzaki
Composer and Musician: Kaoru Watanabe
Set Designer: Ryan McGettigan
Costume Designer: Allison Miller
Lighting Designer and Stage Manager: Tiffany Schrepferman
Ryo Kato (Genji), Houston Ballet
Jindallae Bernard (Rokujyo), Houston Ballet
Emma Forrester (Aoi), Houston Ballet
Aoi Fujiwara (Fujitsubo), Houston Ballet
Yumiko Fukuda (Murasaki), Houston Ballet
Evelyn Chang, Houston Ballet Academy
Jordan Evangelista, Houston Ballet Academy
Victoria Mosher, Houston Ballet Academy
Giselle Ford, Houston Ballet Academy