Poupelle of Chimney Town: The Journey to Becoming a Live Professional Ballet Production

It’s easy to tell when a creator has a genuine passion for the content they’re creating. Anyone can write a story or take a photo, but there’s an extra layer of depth that’s added when the person holding the pen or behind the camera has a true love for their subject. Haruka Seki, the Executive Producer of the upcoming live ballet performance of Japanese children’s book Poupelle of Chimney Town, is the perfect example of this, as her love and admiration for the story shines through in every aspect of her project. Amidst endless final rehearsals and production meetings, Haruka Seki sat down for a quick conversation with APA about the upcoming ballet performance in Tokyo, Japan on September 23 and 24.

The first time Seki read the picture book, it was simply meant to be a nighttime story for her son. At the time, she had no idea that reading this simple tale of a young boy chasing the stars would become a spark of inspiration. Yet, as she flipped through the pages and absorbed each word, she found herself moved to tears by the message. Seeing herself and her past journey reflected in the main character, Lubicchi, Seki knew she had to find a way to retell the tale in her own way, too. As a ballet academy teacher, her first step was to put on a production with her young students, telling the story of Poupelle of Chimney Town on a small scale. Now, after years of hard work and dedication, what was once a small production has now turned into something much bigger, and the full theatrical ballet version of Poupelle of Chimney Town will be making its debut in Tokyo this month.

Lubicchi and Poupelle in the school recital.

The journey from a small recital production to a large scale show was no easy feat to accomplish. It all started in June 2020, when Seki reached out to original author Akihiro Nishino to gain copyright approval to use his story for her ballet school performance. Once he gave the green light, the next step was to contact Nishino’s company president, Yasuhiro Yanagisawa, to gain approval to use the music from the Poupelle of Chimney Town in April 2021. Yet again, Seki was met with a positive response, and she was passed along to another person to gain their permission, like a never-ending quest. Next on the list was Ko Tanaka, the original composer for the music. “Mr. Ko Tanaka permitted [me] to use his music, and said that he loves ballet, so he can compose music if needed.” Seki was able to reach Tanaka in May 2021, and a month later, her next bridge to cross was costuming. “I asked the largest ballet costume rental company in Japan to make costumes for the ballet. At this stage, they did not agree to make them, but in the end, they [thankfully] agreed.”

Following her rounds of successful outreach to clear approval for each aspect of the ballet, Haruka Seki’s next big task was to transform this project from a school recital piece into a professional performance. “To reach many children [with the meaningful message of Poupelle of Chimney Town], I decided to make it professional, with our first professional performance planned for October 2022.” Continuing forward with her new goal in mind, the next part was obtaining a conductor and orchestra for the show, which she achieved in November 2021. “The conductor of the National Ballet of Japan, New National Theater, Tokyo, Misato Tomita, became in charge of orchestration of 28 songs [for the show], seven of which were newly made by Ko Tanaka.” Tatsuhiko Nakahara and Susumu Kusakabe were responsible for arranging Ko’s music into orchestral compositions.  Continuing her efforts into the new year, Seki once again contacted author Akihiro Nishino in January 2022, requesting for his participation in writing the ballet’s script. With his agreement to write the script, the production seemed to be moving forward without a hitch.

Unfortunately, the Executive Producer faced her first big hurdle soon afterwards in May 2022. Following the announcement of the professional ballet, the production was met with criticism from the public for a few reasons. As a modern children’s picture book, Poupelle of Chimney Town is a far stretch from a typical classic ballet production, which may seem unfamiliar for those who frequent ballet performances. Additionally, as a ballet instructor with no experience in creating a professional production, some may have seen Seki as arrogant for pursuing such a large-scale project. Still, she stood firm in her pursuit of her dreams, just like Lubicchi. Simply wanting to share a meaningful story in a beautiful and familiar form of art, she did not let the criticisms deter her and continued forging on. Soon after she made the decision to keep pushing forward despite those who were against her ballet, the orchestra recording was the next step — and it was one that helped reignite her passion for the project. “I cried when I heard the music played by a full orchestra. I was so moved, and I felt that I was not wrong [for pursuing this project]. It gave me a lot of power to move forward.”

While working on the project, Seki was also pregnant with her second son. The delay in the production process, compounded with her nearing due date, led her to make the difficult decision to postpone the professional production, but only after her ballet school performance was completed. Shortly after the school performance and birth of her second son, however, the production was back underway, with yet another integral person joining the team — choreographer Naoya Homan. Once Homan joined the production, auditions for the dancers were held, and first rehearsals for the production began in April of this year. Now, in September, Seki and her first professional production are finally ready to greet live audiences for the first time, with music performed by the Royal Chamber Orchestra.

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Looking back on the journey thus far, the road to a live professional ballet production wasn’t easy. On how she was able to keep going, Seki replied with no hesitation: “The story of Poupelle of Chimney Town is very realistic to us Japanese people, and at the same time, it’s also kind of a fantasy. To have a dream and want to do something and have some people say, ‘No, you shouldn’t do that, you can’t do that, you have to stop.’ People will say things like that, but you shouldn’t let it stop you.” She hopes this story can continue inspiring young children around Japan — and the world — not to give up on their dreams just because others don’t believe in them or think it’s worth trying. “I may look like Lubicchi, who leads this project, but at the same time, I want to become like Poupelle who believes in Lubicchi more than Lubicchi does. I want to believe in my students more than they do, because it gives [them] a lot of energy to move forward as well.” With the larger, professional production of the story, she hopes to reach wider audiences with this message.

Not giving up despite the challenges and arduous process over the past three years, Seki’s persistence and resilience only serves to emphasize the meaning behind the story of Poupelle and Lubicchi even further. The professional ballet production of Poupelle of Chimney Town will take place in Tokyo, Japan, on September 23 and 24, 2023, and for fans of the story outside of Japan, the Executive Producer also hinted at hopes of producing an online recorded version of the show in the near future.

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