Born in Japan and graduated from the Vaganova Ballet Academy, today Marina Kanno is a demi-soloist of the Staatsballett Berlin. We had a talk with Marina on her studies in Russia, favourite ballets and choreographers, daily routine and dreams.
Is ballet popular in Japan?
In a way, yes. Many people do ballet as a hobby, we have a lot of ballet schools, many kids like doing ballet as well. But when it comes to professional things, I must say, we don’t have a lot of state theatres. We don’t really have insurance and these security things, and also the payments are not so good, so it’s very difficult to do ballet professionally and earn a living from it. That’s the problem. Sometimes I may have a thought that I want to go back home, because it’s my home country. Yes, I could, but then I will have to find the second job kind of teaching stuff during the time when I dance. Here we concentrate only on dancing, only on the quality of it. We still have different systems of doing ballet in comparison to Europe.
Is that why you moved to Saint Petersburg and entered the Vaganova Ballet Academy?
Not really. Possibly, I always wanted to go outside of Japan to see what’s there. Japan doesn’t have a very big history of ballet, so, to learn it you should go outside one moment. I was lucky enough to have an opportunity to enter the Vaganova Ballet Academy. I did the audition in Japan, and they took me, so that is how I went there. My dream was always to stay with the European ballet company, and I stayed there. I’m lucky, I’m really lucky.
You spent two years at the Vaganova Ballet School. What can you say about the methods of teaching among Russian ballet masters?
They were great. It’s the best ballet school I would say. Though I’ve seen many different sites with different school people, but their basic, the way they teach was just amazing, that was what I needed. Always you can add, always you can learn something more from other styles too, but the basic… Also discipline in everything. I would say the Russian school is the best.
Do you think that Russian teachers’ attitude to ballet and teaching is different from teachers’ of other countries?
They were strict, but I always got a lot of inspiration, energy and passion from Russian teachers. I can’t really say if it is a feature of Russia or not, but Russian people are very passionate. They could give a lot of energy, so even when you are tired you want to do more We need to give energy to teachers, but teachers also have to give energy to us. It’s like a catch ball. If I throw, I should get it back. Most of the time I saw a lot from Russian people: they had this energy and this power to give. It seems like it comes from blood, I don’t know, from culture. It doesn’t mean that only Russian people can do these things, because I know many people, there are a lot of amazing people in other countries as well. Besides, Russian teachers always know the exact explanations for any steps and techniques, their corrections are so clear. They can explain the meaning of steps and feelings with no suspects and doubts.
Was it difficult to you to get used to Russian culture at the beginning?
Oh, really. I left at the age of 16 and couldn’t even say “hi” in Russian. I was alone there, because I couldn’t speak the language and couldn’t understand anything, so I was so stressed...
And the Russians usually don’t speak English as well.
I went there about 15-16 years ago, but now, I guess, it must be better. At that time they were closed and quite not nice to foreigners. I don’t know whether this atmosphere is still there: if you are not Russian, you are not good enough to be here. Honestly, there was some atmosphere like that. Just because of this, may be, I had more motivation to learn the language and speak to them… and not to let them talk about me in a bad way (laughing). That was my motivation too, honestly.
Did you take up courses or just speak to Russian people to learn the language?
We had the Russian language every day at school only for foreigners, because we didn’t take any other subjects. That’s why when we finished school, we got a certificate, but we didn’t get a diploma. We had Russian and dance subjects. But Russian wasn’t obligatory. If you didn’t want, you might not go to the courses, but, of course, for me it was necessary. I went there every day and studied a lot. It was really difficult. For me coming from Japan to Russia was a culture shock. Everything was different. To live in places where you didn’t have hot water sometimes was normal there. Some problems with electricity sometimes happened. It was also a shock. But it was fun.
What were other striking things about Russia, its culture and people?
I have to say I was very young and enjoyed everything as a new experience. I didn’t even feel homesick, I just enjoyed because it was so different. Even now I love St Petersburg. It’s a beautiful historical city which you just can’t compare with any other cities. Next week I’m going to St Petersburg, by the way. I haven’t been there for 7 years and now I decided to visit my friends. I’m looking forward to seeing the city. I’m sure it’s all different now. I especially love it for the feeling of art in the city which I do not see in Germany or in other places. People appreciate art there, and art is everywhere. That’s the spirit to feel, and that’s what makes this city beautiful to me.
Did you have the opportunity to dance on the Mariinsky stage? Did you want to stay with the company?
Yes, I did, I danced there. The thing is at that time when I was there, they didn’t accept foreigners to join the company. Now, I know, it’s changed, they like to invite foreigners, they work at the Mariinsky Theatre, it’s normal. In my time it was impossible. Nobody even thought of joining the company if you are not Russian. So, for me it was no way. Some small companies might have taken foreigners, but it was also a rare chance. Now – everywhere. I know a lot of Japanese people who work in Russian companies. Besides, it was not my intention to stay in Russia.
Why did you decide to move to Berlin then?
By chance (laughing). Before I graduated I had to go to auditions from the school. For me it just didn’t matter where they would take me to. I wanted to stay in Europe, so there was a lot of pressure and stress. At that time it was really difficult to get a job in Europe being an Asian. Then I did an audition in Vienna, at the Wiener Staatsoper, and was really lucky. They got me. It was my first job. I worked there for two years and then… I didn’t even plan to go to Berlin, honestly, but one day Vladimir Malakhov saw me. At the end of the season he needed one girl, so he called me and asked to join his company in Berlin. I accepted it without thinking. That’s how I came to Berlin and stayed here. I like the city, it’s big. I come from Tokyo, then lived in St Petersburg and can’t stay in a small city.
What do you think of Vienna? Did you enjoy your time there?
When I visit it now, I like it a lot. It’s beautiful, it’s really beautiful. So much culture, they really appreciate art there. People are more relaxed in Vienna. But at that time, when I was 18 years old, for me it was a bit quiet somehow. On Saturday and on Sunday nothing was working, everything was closed. And for me it was hard to like it, that’s why I was thinking of moving, then I got the offer and left. Now I’m older, so when I see Vienna, I feel I would like to live there (laughing). Everything is different when you get older.
What can you say about your repertoire in Vienna and in Berlin?
It usually depends on the director you have. Everything changes. At the time I was there, it was Harangoso, now it’s Manuel Legris. Here we had Vladimir Malakhov, now it’s Nacho Duato. So it’s a completely different thing. I can’t really say what’s good, what’s bad. I can only say that everything you do, it’s like an experience. I like challenges, trying something new. I used to dance only classics, actually. I graduated from the Vaganova school, and at that time they did only classics. I’ve never even studied modern ballet. So, for me it was really difficult to come to Europe to dance modern ballet, because I didn’t know how to do it, I had no base for it, but here, slowly, within the years, looking how people dance modern ballets and trying, I’ve learnt to do it. Now I really, really enjoy modern dance. Without it I can’t live. I need to dance modern things, even extreme ones.
What do you mean by extreme things?
Shechter, for example. It’s not even neoclassics, it’s modern, it’s contemporary. It’s a different category. Classical ballet dancers usually don’t dance this category of dance. That’s what I call extreme. You can find this kind of ballet in dance theatres. It opens a new way of thinking to a classical ballet dancer when you do such things.
What is your favourite role among classical ones? Who are your favorite contemporary choreographers?
Until now? It’s my dream to dance “Onegin”, Olga. I didn’t get many chances to do it. Hopefully, in the future I will have an opportunity. You are somebody there, you act there, you have the role to play, that’s what makes it special. What I’ve always liked – Nacho’s “The Sleeping Beauty”. It was difficult at the beginning to get the coordination, but it made me change a lot.
Then I like Nacho’s contemporary pieces. I like Preljocaj and Shechter. Kylian is a master. Of course, I love Kylian. Nacho has a lot of background from Kylian and sometimes I find very similar what they have. I was also lucky to work with Ohad Naharin from this upcoming generation of choreographers. I can’t really say who is my favourite one because they are all different and, in a way, the method of expression is different. I enjoy everything because it’s new. It always brings something to you, no matter what you do.
What is your favourite ballet film?
Well, I’m not a big fan of ballet movies, actually. When it comes to the movie, some parts could be true, but most of the time it’s only for entertainment, because if you wasn’t inside, if you didn’t have the experience, I don’t think you’ll get the idea what ballet is exactly like. I would like to see “Mathilda”. Maybe I will get some video in Russia.
How do you start your day? What do you usually do in the evening and in your free time?
Of course, I don’t do the same things every day. Usually I get up at 8-8:30. Before 9:30 I’m already at the theatre. At 10 o’clock we start the class. At 11:30 we have rehearsals until 2-2:30 pm, then we have a lunch break. And then, from 3 to 6 pm, we have rehearsals. This is a usual plan. Sometimes if I don’t have a rehearsal, I may leave earlier or have a break at the beginning. It depends. If I have nothing in the evening, I see my friends, we have dinner together or go shopping. Or I do some things you have to do at home. From time to time I go to classic music concerts, various performances and museums to get inspiration and energy. Also I try to study languages when I have time.
If you have a performance, it’s different. We finish at 1:30, and then we have a break before the performance. The performance usually starts at 7:30, but it doesn’t mean we should come at 7:30. You need to make a make-up, put on your costume, do the warming-up. Usually two hours before the show we are already at the theatre.
Do you keep a diet?
No. When I was younger, I used to get paranoiac like “oh, I cannot eat this and that”, but I dropped it after 25. Stress makes you, I would say, not fatter, of course, but I think it also comes a lot from your head. Some people really care about what they eat. What you eat, this way your body looks like. It’s true. May be I should care more about the way I eat, but I enjoy eating and I like to enjoy life, so I want to eat whenever I feel like and whatever I feel like. This is the best for me. If I want to eat sweets, I will eat them.
What does it mean to you to be a successful ballerina?
It’s a very difficult question and it’s very personal, because everybody has different ways of thinking. For me, of course, I would like to do some roles where I can show myself. I don’t think I would like to stay in a group. This is not my dream. To become a prima ballerina, I think, it’s nice too, but it’s not the end position. It’s about how you prepare yourself for everyday and also respect from colleagues. I don’t like cheating, so when people see you, that you do it correctly, you will always get respect from other people. For me it’s more important than trying to get a position where people think “oh, it’s a star”. I’m sure that a star is a star, but I don’t think that everybody should aim to be a star.
What would you like to advise to a young person who wants to start doing ballet?
I think they need to have a lot of discipline, for sure, passion and love. They should not give up. Life never goes without making mistakes and facing problems. We shouldn’t be scared of making mistakes, because this is how you grow up and get stronger and stronger. It is nice to understand what life teaches you. Ballet is not simple, anything is not simple, but you have to know what you want and leave other things for it, for ballet. Life not usually goes straight, sometimes it goes up and down. The most important thing is not to give up and when a mistake or something bad happens, you should come back, stand up again and continue.