Ballet Stars

Silken Strength: Boston Ballet's Misa Kuranaga

Misa Kuranaga photographed by Nathan Sayers for Pointe.

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."

Kuranaga with Isaac Akiba in William Forsythe's "The Second Detail." Photo by Gene Schiavone.

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."

Kuranaga in "Coppelia." Photo by Gene Schiavone.

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."

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Richmond Ballet dancers in "An Open Later..." by Matthew Frain. Photo by Sarah Ferguson, Courtesy Richmond Ballet.

What's going on in ballet this week? We've pulled together some highlights.

The Bolshoi Premiere of John Neumeier's Anna Karenina

Last July Hamburg Ballet presented the world premiere of John Neumeier's Anna Karenina, a modern adaptation on Leo Tolstoy's famous novel. Hamburg Ballet coproduced the full-length ballet with the National Ballet of Canada and the Bolshoi, the latter of which will premiere the work March 23 (NBoC will have its premiere in November). The production will feature Bolshoi star Svetlana Zakharova in the title role. This is especially fitting as Neumeier's initial inspiration for the ballet came from Zakharova while they were working together on his Lady of the Camellias. The following video delves into what makes this production stand out.

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Pei Yu came to the school at age 10 from Hebei, a province near Beijing. Now 20, and in her third year of BDA's professional program, she is an example of a new kind of Chinese ballet student. Founded in 1954 by the country's communist government, BDA is a fully state-funded professional training school with close to 3,000 students and 275 full-time teachers over four departments (ballet, classical Chinese dance, social dance and musical theater). It offers degrees in performance, choreography and more. BDA's ballet program has long been known for fostering pristine Russian-style talent. But since 2011, the school has made major efforts to broaden ballet students' knowledge of Chinese dance traditions and the works of Western contemporary ballet choreographers. Pointe went inside this prestigious academy to see how BDA trains its dancers.

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Ballet Stars
Tim Verhallen, via Instagram

Dutch National Ballet Soloist Michaela DePrince has been busy winning over the mainstream media. Since last spring, the First Position star not only landed a spokesmodel deal with Jockey, but she also recently teamed up on a commercial with Chase Bank and just announced that Madonna will be directing her upcoming biopic, Taking Flight (totally casual).

What could possibly be next? The cover of April's Harper's Bazaar Netherlands, it turns out. Posing in an arabesque with her hair slicked back in her usual ballet bun, DePrince traded in her leotard and tights for a stunning metallic Gucci dress (can we do that, too?).

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Ballet Stars
Leanne Benjamin and Luke Heydon in "Coppélia," via YouTube.

Dancing with The Royal Ballet from 1992 until 2013, former principal Leanne Benjamin tackled just about every role in the classical gamut, from Juliet to Nikiya to Giselle. As the young and spirited Swanilda in this clip from Coppélia, Benjamin reveals that she has equal talent for the silly as the serious. Her comedic performance in Swanilda's doll dance is this role at its best.

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New York City Ballet's shoe room. Photo by Tess Mayer.

Deep in the basement of Lincoln Center's David H. Koch Theater is a small, windowless space that's home to nearly 6,000 pairs of pointe shoes, neatly stacked on shelves that reach to the ceiling. It's New York City Ballet's shoe room, and for company members, it's one of the most important places in the world. Dancers frequently stop by to search for the ideal pair for a special performance, or to tweak their custom pointe shoe orders, trying to get that elusive perfect fit. "If the shoe isn't right, the dancer can't do her job," says shoe room supervisor and former Pacific Northwest Ballet principal Linnette Roe. We talked to Roe and NYCB soloist Emilie Gerrity about some of the most interesting—and surprising—secrets of the shoe room.

The NYCB dancers go through 9,000 to 11,000 pairs of shoes each year, including flat shoes, sneakers, jazz shoes, and character shoes. The company has an annual shoe budget of about $780,000.

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Younji-Grace Choi at the 2014 USA IBC. Choi is now a dancer with Cincinnati Ballet and will return to the USA IBC as a senior competitor this summer. Photo by Richard Finkelstein, Courtesy USA IBC.

Exciting news today: the USA International Ballet Competition has just announced its list of invited competitors for the summer 2018 competition. The USA IBC has invited 119 dancers from 19 countries out of over 300 applicants to compete in Jackson, MS June 10-23.

Since the last USA IBC in 2014 the competition has expanded its age limits; the junior category now allows dancers ages 14-18 and the senior category dancers ages 19-28. Of the 119 competitors this year, 53 are juniors and 66 are seniors. The United States has the highest number of competitors invited (52), followed by Japan (23) and South Korea (14). The other countries represented are Armenia, Brazil, Bulgaria, Canada, China, Columbia, Cuba, Dominican Republic, Kyrgyzstan, Latvia, Mexico, Mongolia, Peru, Philippines, Ukraine and the United Kingdom.

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The latest front in the controversy over the underrepresentation of female choreographers in ballet is at Les Grands Ballets Canadiens de Montréal. They're facing a petition and choreographer resignation that forced them to rebrand a season and publicly defend their programming.

On February 26, artistic director Ivan Cavallari, who started the job in the summer of 2017, announced the 2018-2019 season, which included a program titled Femmes. The program announcement said the evening would have "woman as its theme," and that Cavallari had "chosen three distinctive voices, rising stars of choreography, to undertake this great subject."

The three voices Cavallari chose to create on the theme of women, however, were all men.

"This was just too much for me, it was the last straw," says Kathleen Rea, a former member of National Ballet of Canada who now freelances, choreographs and teaches in Toronto. Rea says she's been bothered by the dearth of women choreographers throughout her career. But referring to women as "subjects" and excluding them from choreographing on a program about them compelled her to take action.

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