Life & Culture

Watch a Dancer Perform a Piece About the Japanese Work Ethic

Director Elliott Gonzo presents a short film starring Royal Ballet dancer Zelos Tsang-Thompson, which explores the toll of Japan’s hardcore work ethic

Tundra’ is a vast, flat, treeless Arctic region of Europe, Asia, and North America, where the consistently cold weather means that the soil is permanently frozen. It’s also the word that one Royal Ballet dancer, Zelos Tsang-Thompson, chooses to describe the world of ballet.

“Zelos told me how cold and heartless it can be and if you ever show signs of weakness you will be dropped,” says London-based director Elliott Gonzo, who has created a new short film starring Tsang-Thompson with his sister Philly Felton, a writer and poet. “Your superiors wouldn’t bat an eyelid,” he continues. “Someone else will be there waiting to take your place. He believed that his Japanese heritage, mainly the hardcore work ethic, helped him to push himself and eventually got him to where he is now in his career.”

Premiered here, this film sees Tsang-Thompson interpret this work ethic through the medium of dance, first shaving his head, then performing an arduous routine that leaves him dripping in sweat – all of which is accompanied by a poem by Felton, written specially for this piece. 

Speaking on the inspiration behind the film, which he has titled Tundra, Gonzo references the Japanese saying, “Repeated failures lead to success,” explaining that while Japan’s work ethic has its positives, namely in terms of what people are able to achieve, it has its downsides too: “It can have a detrimental effect – mentally and physically – on people, which we have chosen to represent through the sweat, bruises and scars on Zelos’ body. The overlaid poem by Philly Felton explores the idea of not understanding your own worth and mirrors the dancer as he works himself into a frenzy of practice.”

If Tsang-Thompson looks tired by the end of the film, that’s because he is; he and Gonzo rehearsed all day, waiting until sunset to shoot – which not only provided the perfect lighting (the redder, softer light of golden hour), but meant that the dancer exuded this very sense of exhaustion they were trying to convey.

Gonzo says that he had an emotional response to the process of shooting this film and hopes that viewers experience something similar. “As individuals, living in this modern day society we put a tremendous amount of pressure on ourselves to succeed within our chosen careers. Zelos resonated with me as he has devoted his life to ballet dancing as I have to filmmaking.”