The Strength to Succeed

Boston Ballet's Misa Kuranaga has never gone easy on herself.
Published in the August/September 2012 issue.

Photo by Nathan Sayers

As Misa Kuranaga rounded an arabesque promenade during the energy-devouring third act pas in Don Quixote last spring, her tutu began to quiver. The audience held its breath, waiting. Kuranaga could have stepped down, could have held her partner Jeffrey Cirio’s arm just a moment longer. But in a surge of conviction, she suddenly let go—and nailed her longest balance of the performance. The audience erupted in cheers. If anyone hadn’t fallen in love with her yet, they were won in that moment.

After nine years at Boston Ballet, Kuranaga, a seemingly effortless dancer, has reached her prime. But behind her success lies a deep reserve of tenacity and discipline. “When Misa sees something, she grabs it with both hands,” says ballet master Larissa Ponomarenko, one of Kuranaga’s coaches.

Growing up in Osaka, Japan, Kuranaga first made a name for herself in international ballet competitions. Initially, her mother had been hesitant to enroll Kuranaga in ballet classes after she lasted only a month in piano lessons. But she soon recognized her daughter’s love of ballet. When Kuranaga, then 17, won the 2001 Prix de Lausanne and earned an apprenticeship at San Francisco Ballet, her mother agreed she could go.

Once she arrived, she found herself on her own in a country where she could not speak the language and in a company with a strong Balanchine base, though she had no experience with the technique. The result? A bad case of culture shock. “I’d heard San Francisco Ballet was a good company, but I didn’t have any knowledge of the companies of the world and their different styles,” she says. “I didn’t know anything about Balanchine, and I was stubborn and didn’t adapt, and that delayed me.”  

At the end of the year, she wasn’t rehired. She auditioned for large and small companies, but no offers came. An SFB teacher told her that she would have to learn Balanchine if she wanted to work in the U.S. With no professional opportunities, Kuranaga saw a simple decision before her: Go home, or go back to school. She chose to persevere, and enrolled in the School of American Ballet the next year. “I was homeless-feeling,” she says. “Nobody needed me and the school almost didn’t take me. But I begged them, because I knew that was the only way I could improve.”

In New York, she sometimes felt discouraged: “After winning the competitions and going to San Francisco, here I am back at school, which people don’t usually do after dancing in a company. It was hard because I was older than everybody there, and different. But I needed to catch up on a lot of stuff.”

Kuranaga threw herself into her work. She finished high school and worked with an English tutor every day. By the end of the year, she had grown to love Balanchine’s musicality and footwork. Multiple job offers came. She chose Boston Ballet.
 
Once in the corps, Kuranaga worked to continue her improvement. “She arrived as a petite girl who was striving, striving, striving, and working, working, working—repeating one movement a million times until she got it to perfection,” says Ponomarenko. “It wasn’t that it came easily to her—or at least she didn’t think so. I think all of us could see the slow but consistent progress.”

Her first year she danced Cupid in Don Quixote; the very next year, she got her first principal role in La Sylphide. “I remember saying, ‘You know, I would really like to see you one day be a principal dancer,’ ” says artistic director Mikko Nissinen. “She had everything; we just needed to increase the volume.”

By 2006, Kuranaga felt ready to expand her reach by competing in the USA International Ballet Competition in Jackson, Mississippi. She decided to perform the Black Swan pas de deux. “At first, when she chose it, I didn’t think it was suitable for her,” says Ponomarenko. “Technically, of course, she was brilliant. But I always look for more than just technique: I look for story, character. And she delivered that.” Kuranaga won the gold, but perhaps more significantly, her performance helped launch a gala-dancing career that has taken her around the world. It may also have had an impact at her home company: She was promoted to soloist the next year, and principal in 2009.

For Kuranaga, preparations for performing, whether for a gala or a role, are as much mental as physical. Years of self-discipline have developed her talent for delivering at the crucial moment, as she showed in Don Quixote, but she still worries. “I wish I didn’t have to be nervous!” she says. “Before I went on for that pas in the third act, I was telling myself, ‘I’ve always done it. Why would I not be able to do it today?’ ”

Even now, Kuranaga goes over passages alone in the studio after hours. This year, Don Quixote proved the biggest challenge: “Jeff Cirio would leave the rehearsal, and then I would stay another two hours working on my solos by myself. They didn’t come easily to me.” Though the show was the 21-year-old Cirio’s first full-length story ballet, Kuranaga says that dancing alongside him forced her to become a better artist. “He does everything so perfectly that I feel like I need to step up to match his energy and technique,” she says.

When she’s not dancing, Kuranaga loves to shop, cook Japanese food and spend time with non-ballet friends. “When work is going well, work friends are an amazing thing,” she says. “But when it’s not, it’s good to have friends who are not dancers and don’t understand ballet at all, so you can talk about something else.”

If her performances this season are any measure, work seems to be going very well indeed. According to Nissinen, audiences will soon see more of her dynamite partnership with Cirio. “They both challenge each other—they’re both vivacious, both very secure technically,” says Nissinen. “I think there is much, much more to come.”

Ashley Rivers writes about dance from Boston, MA.