Cross Swan Lake with The Matrix and you've got Ninja Ballet
The elegance of fighting meets the brutal discipline of pointe in Ninja Ballet. Founder Shoko Tamai tells us about creating a new kind of performance art.
You’d think a performance group called Ninja Ballet would have enough to do combining two totally different styles of movement. But it’s actually even more spectacular than it sounds: dancing, fighting, circus tumbling, dueling with weapons and even using fire to fuse the worlds of classical ballet and ancient martial arts. Think “Swan Lake meets The Matrix.”
How do you find a cast for such a show? “I posted on Backstage saying, ‘I’m looking for dancers who can pick up choreography really fast, and martial artists who can move flexibly,” explains Ninja Ballet founder Shoko Tamai.
Then, if you can believe it, the process gets even more complicated. To choreograph her productions, Tamai splits duties with creative partner Tony Ortiz: “The lower body, I choreographed using ballet and contemporary dance, and the upper body he choreographed with martial arts.”
Born in Japan, Tamai has been dancing “since I was a baby,” landing her first role (as a flower) at just 2 years old. By age 3, she was leading the Baby Marching Band of 3 to 5-year-olds at Tokyo Disneyland who sang “It’s a Small World” — while riding unicycles. “That’s when I learned determination,” she recalls. “People think it comes from ballet, but it actually comes from Baby Marching.”
She’s since been a World Ballet Competition finalist and performed with Cirque du Soleil. But she didn’t get into martial arts until arriving in New York in 2008 and meeting Jamie Guan, the martial arts trainer for the Beijing Opera before fleeing China during the Cultural Revolution.
Fusing fighting styles with ballet was something she did “just for fun” until a spiritual journey through Thailand that expanded her creative vision as the boundaries between what’s real and what’s imagined blurred.
Tamai officially founded Ninja Ballet in 2017 and staged their first performance last December. Their second production, playing at Long Island City’s Secret Theater June 28-July 1, is titled “Ma.” The Japanese word means “negative space,” referring to the disconnect between time on a universal scale and time as humans experience it. The story, written by Tamai who’s also one of the six performers, follows three warriors who have suffered their own unique losses, and how their lives have been shaped by their drive for vengeance.
And while the warriors face their trials with swords, fists and fire, the live soundtrack will be provided by six musicians playing instruments from all over the world, from gongs and singing bowls to Indian drums and the Japanese koto.
“Everybody has a choice in this life,” Tamai says about the show’s message. “At the end, what I wanted to give the audience is forgiveness.”
“Ma” is playing at The Secret Theater, 4402 23rd St., Long Island City. Performances are June 28-July 1 at 7:30 p.m., with an additional matinee at 2:30 p.m. on June 30. Tickets are $30 online, $35 at the door, brownpapertickets.com