By Marino Saito
Northwest Asian Weekly
Graceful, light, strong, and fierce — that’s how Pacific Northwest Ballet principal dancer Kaori Nakamura is described by fellow dancer Jonathan Porretta.
After a 17-year career with the company, Nakamura will retire from performing at the end of PNB’s 2013-2014 season.
Originally from Gumma, Japan, Nakamura started learning ballet at the Reiko Yamamoto Ballet Company when she was 7 years old.
“I had some friends learning ballet at that time, and they made me think that I wanted to learn ballet,” she said. “Also, I wanted to dance wearing a cute tutu.”
“To try to sum up the extraordinary talents of Kaori Nakamura is like asking to capture all the beautiful butterflies in the world with one swoop of a net…impossible,” said Porretta, who has partnered Nakamura in several ballets. “Kaori embodies both an artist and athlete. She is the epitome of grace and lightness, strength, and fierceness. Getting to perform with her on opening night of Coppélia (June 2010) was a dream; she is the most humble and gracious partner. She has taught me so much about having a genuine relationship on stage with your partner.
“I have had some of the most amazing and fun times dancing with her,” Porretta continued. “She has a twinkle in her eyes that is both full of mischief and love all at the same time. She is truly a dream come true. In a word, I would call her my idol.”
Nakamura wore her first pointe shoes when she was 8 years old, and entered her first competition at age 11. During the competition, she fell on the stage. She was so disappointed, Nakamura said, but she decided to continue dancing and joining competitions. She tried again the next year and won third place.
She rode high on the success of that, she said, and won second place the following year. She finally won first place when she was 13 years old.
In 1986, Nakamura took first prize at the 14th Prix de Lausanne competition in Lausanne, Switzerland. She received a scholarship to go to a ballet school of her own choosing, so she attended the School of American Ballet in New York.
“Most people recommended to me to go to the Royal Ballet School in England, because it is so famous all over the world,” she said. “But I picked the American Ballet School because I had known there were already a lot of Japanese students at the Royal Ballet School. I wanted to go somewhere else, so that I could have a different experience.”
A rare gem
At first, Nakamura wasn’t sure that she made the right decision. “It was a very hard time for me. I thought that I made such a big mistake to pick New York.” She did not know much about Balanchine’s American ballet and realized that it was a very different style of dance and training. She felt shocked at that time, she said, but decided to think positively about it and persevere. Gradually, she became used to the Balanchine style and American way of training.
“I remember many of us from the New York City Ballet peeking into the studios of the School of American Ballet many years ago to see the young Kaori Nakamura, the youngest winner of the Prix de Lausanne, who had selected the School of American Ballet for further study,” said PNB artistic director Peter Boal. “She was so very tiny and perfect — a rare gem — with impeccable technique and a fierce work ethic. Now, 25 years later, I am so honored to have worked with Kaori as she continues to ascend to new heights of artistry and excellence. She remains the consummate professional.
“Though we will miss her exquisite performances, I am thrilled to know that she will join our school faculty and bring her unique wisdom and experience to our students,” added Boal.
“I had another problem,” she added. “I was just a 15-year-old kid, so I did not know how to speak English at all.” That was very stressful and frustrating for her, but she eventually overcame the language problem.
She did not have time to go to language school to learn how to speak English, so she tried to communicate with her ballet school classmates as much as she could.
“Everyone at the ballet schools was so kind to me,” she said. “I could communicate with them with ease.”
In 1988, Nakamura won a bronze medal at the International Ballet Competition in Varna, Bulgaria. She auditioned for a lot of New York ballet companies at the end of the year, but did not get any offers because she did not have a green card or working Visa. She went back to Japan to perform, but did not want to give up performing abroad.
Luckily, she said, when she was in Japan, Canada’s Royal Winnipeg Ballet came to Japan on tour and saw her performing. She was hired as a second soloist when she was 20 years old in 1990. Later, she became a principal dancer for Royal Winnipeg Ballet. Although she danced for them for seven years, she said her roles were limited because the company had so many other senior principal dancers.
“Kaori was my partner in Winnipeg (1992-1995) and a good friend,” said celebrated choreographer Alexei Ratmansky, who most recently directed her acclaimed performance as Kitri in Don Quixote (February 2012). “I’ve always admired her dancing — effortless, light, sharp, and feminine. Technically, she could do anything, but artistically, she was able to develop fully only in Seattle and I am glad she dedicated her talents to PNB.”
The move to Seattle
Wanting more challenging opportunities, Nakamura sent her resume to many different companies. Pacific Northwest Ballet was the first company to respond to her. She traveled to Seattle to audition, and PNB offered her a job. She became a soloist in 1997, and was promoted to principal in 1998.
“The hardest physical part of being a ballerina is maintaining a healthy body and doing the same routine every day,” Nakamura said. She usually dances from about 10 a.m. to 7 p.m., Monday through Friday. While she enjoys dancing, she still gets nervous in front of an audience.
“Dancing in front of many people is mentally the hardest point for me,” she said. “I get nervous when I dance on stage, still now. I never get used to doing that.”
Ever since she was 8 years old, when she wore pointe shoes for the first time, her dream was to be a ballerina. Even when it’s hard, she said, dancing makes her feel happy. She prefers performing story ballets, especially Swan Lake, Romeo and Juliet, and Sleeping Beauty.
Becoming a mother brought significant changes to Nakamura’s life as a dancer.
“After I had a kid, my life became harder,” she said. “My 3-year-old daughter is very energetic all the time. Before I go to work, I make breakfast, and after coming home, I cook dinner and play with her, so usually I don’t have private time.
“But she always gives me power and motivates me a lot,” she added. “Playing with her is always my favorite time and that makes me very, very happy.”
Nakamura said she likes her home country, Japan, very much, but she did not want to work there as a ballerina because it is very hard for professional dancers financially. For instance, she said, dancers have to buy their own pointe shoes at a cost of about $70 a pair. They also have to sell tickets to their own performances, and unsold tickets are deducted from their paycheck. “I’m very happy to work for PNB in Seattle,” she said.
Following her retirement, Nakamura will be joining the faculty of PNB School. “I feel scared,” she said. “It will be my first time to stop dancing every day since I started learning ballet. I want to try something new. I want to go to the gym and do yoga or something to maintain my muscles.”
Although she has not decided on her plans after retiring, she said that her ultimate goal is to one day have her own ballet studio.
Nakamura has advice for young students who are interested in ballet.
“To be honest, it is very hard to continue practicing and doing the same routine every day,” she said. “But you have to do that. That was not easy, at least for me. But you can do it if you never give up. Keep doing and don’t give up on your dream,” she said.
Audiences will have several more opportunities to watch Nakamura’s performance during the 2013-2014 season, including the upcoming Director’s Choice, which runs from March 14 through March 23.
She is scheduled to dance the Divertissement pas de deux in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, from April 11 through April 19, and the lead role in Giselle, from May 30 through June 8. The season will conclude with PNB’s annual Season Encore Performance on June 8, which will feature Nakamura reprising some of her signature performances.
Tickets to Director’s Choice, in addition to the rest of PNB’s season offerings, may be purchased through the PNB box office by calling 206-441-2424, online at www.pnb.org, or in person at 301 Mercer Street, Seattle. Tickets to the Season Encore Performance are currently available for purchase by PNB’s renewing subscribers, and go on sale to the general public on March 3.
Nakamura is one of 13 current principal dancers at Pacific Northwest Ballet, including two others of Asian descent: Batkhurel Bold and James Moore. (end)
Marino Saito can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.