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Kaori Nakamura, Principal Dancer, Pacific Northwest Ballet

Conquering English, French, and the Public

by Dean Speer and Francis Timlin

November 2004

DS/FT: How did you get started in ballet and get all the way from Japan to PNB and Seattle?

KN:  I started ballet in my small hometown in Japan with a local teacher at the age of 7. I just wanted to wear a tutu and pointe shoes but knew nothing about ballet. I was so disappointed to find out this was not everyday gear! (Laughs.) Right away classes for me were three days a week.

I started entering in competitions when I was 11. Everyone does this in Japan; it’s very popular. My first time, I fell on stage – bam! I was so disappointed. But I tried again next year and got third place. The next year second place, and finally when I was 13, first place!

I entered the Prix de Lausanne competition in 1985 and I won! I got a scholarship to a ballet school of my choice, and I picked SAB (School of American Ballet) and went for the all-year program. I was only 15, didn’t know anyone and didn’t speak a word of English at all. At first, it was very hard and frustrating.

I was in Lausanne with my mom. It was a very different level than Japanese competitions -- many beautiful bodies, pretty faces, and a raked stage. With only a few days for me to adjust! The competition begins with class and most are cut after class. The next day is variations and the day after that is contemporary variations.

Many thought I should go to the Royal Ballet School, as many Japanese had, but I wanted to go somewhere different, so I picked New York. I didn’t really know about Balanchine; I just picked blindly. I was shocked. Such different training. I thought it was a big mistake. I decided to stick it out for one year, and then got used to the Balanchine style and started to think it was great for me.

Who were your teachers at School of American Ballet?

My teachers where Suki Schorer, Stanley Williams, and Alexandra Danilova. Danilova was always very elegantly dressed for teaching class with a leotard, a matching chiffon skirt. Williams was actually very quiet and liked quiet music.

I auditioned a lot in New York for companies at the end of my year but was told “Thank-you, but no” due to no green card or work visa, so I went back to Japan where I did find work performing and guesting around. But I wanted more of a challenge.

So what happened?

The Royal Winnipeg Ballet came to Japan on tour and asked me to guest in a pas de deux and I thought it was a good chance. John Meehan hired me and so off I went to Winnipeg at 20 years old.

How were your experiences there?

It’s a small company so everyone has to do everything. I joined as a second soloist and moved up the ranks to soloist and then to principal. I didn’t get to do many principal roles because there were five or six principal women in front of me in seniority.

Some aspects were very hard such as going on too many tours and having to dance on hard, sometimes cement, floors. We were not so lucky as we are here (at PNB) to have our own touring floor.

I decided to apply around and sent my résumé and pictures out, and PNB was the first one to respond. I was asked to audition, which I did here in Seattle, and was offered a job in 1997, with my first year as being a soloist. I was promoted the following season to principal. I love the Company, Kent and Francia, and the city and I’m thrilled there are not too many tours!

What have been some of your favorite roles here?

"Swan Lake," "The Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet" which I get to do this year, after waiting for years! Olivier (Wevers) is my partner so that makes it very easy. Right now, I’ve been mostly rehearsing with Kent and that been great. He knows exactly what he wants and is very helpful. The part (of Juliet) is going better and better as I get into the acting and feeling of her character.

I like PNB’s version of "Swan Lake" and its sad ending, which is better to me. It makes me wonder what happens in the everafter.

Odette versus Odile...

I especially like doing Odile. I have to practice my turns but the bigger challenge is acting and communicating. I enjoy making new discoveries about the story and character. This is why I’m really starting to enjoy R&J.

What else is coming up this season that you’re looking forward to?

"Symphony in C." I’m really excited about this. I don’t know what part I’m doing yet, as casting has not gone up. It will be fun to do "Merry Widow" again. I liked working with Ronald and Annette. And Kent’s "Silver Lining" has my favorite pas de deux, When Smoke Gets in Your Eyes.

Tell us about your pointe shoes.

I wear Freed, size 4 (small!). My maker is retiring (again!) so every year I have this shoe problem. I probably use less pairs per season than most – about 60 – as I really like soft shoes, but not as soft as Evelyn Hart’s!

Any pets or outside hobbies?

I love cats and have two, Bébé and Tigger. Tigger likes to bring me “presents” from outdoors. I don’t think I’m ready for a dog.

Where do you see yourself or where would you like to be with your career, say five or ten years from now?

I do think about my future and hope to continue dancing for at least another three or four years. (Knocks on wood.) I like teaching and have done a lot of guest teaching in Japan, including coaching teenagers who are preparing for competitions. I like smaller schools. Maybe to have my own someday. I have found that teaching is good for my dancing!

What about Japan?

My family is there and I love Japan, but I don’t want to go back for the long-term. It’s very hard for professional dancers. Dancers have to sell tickets to their own shows and any unsold tickets are deducted from your paycheck. You have to pay for your own pointe shoes and teach in order to make enough money for the extras. I’m happy here!

Edited by Jeff.

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