Houston Ballet soloist Nao Kusuzaki’s expansive port de bras spreads across the stage like a pair of wings, fitting for a story of a bird who transforms into a woman. Kusuzaki not only danced the lead role in Tsuru, a piece based on the Japanese folktale The Crane Wife, but also conceived and produced the entire project, which was a partnership between Asia Society Texas Center and Houston Ballet. Drawing a range of audiences, it was the go-to event of the dance theater season last June.
Now in her 11th season with the company, Kusuzaki is known for her lyricism, her gentle presence both onstage and off, and her entrepreneurial streak. She says, “In many ways, a ballet career prepares us to have skills useful in entrepreneurship: clear long-term goal setting and laser focus, the resiliency to keep going when the outlook is not as we expect, and self-reliance.” Leaving Japan at age 10 for the U.S. gave her a chance to train seriously in ballet, but also left her missing her home and tradition—which informs the work she chooses to produce now. “I want to do projects that allow for a deepening understanding of Japanese culture,” she says.
After training at The Washington School of Ballet and Boston Ballet School, Kusuzaki joined Boston Ballet in 2001, and first met Houston Ballet artistic director Stanton Welch when he set his Madame Butterfly on the company. She joined HB in 2004, was promoted to soloist in 2008 and realized her dream of dancing the role of Cio-Cio San in Madame Butterfly in 2012.
When the tsunami hit her native Japan in 2011, Kusuzaki organized a fundraiser, galvanizing her colleagues to perform and getting Welch behind it. The successful event not only raised funds and public awareness, but gave her an on-the-job experience. “I realized how much I enjoyed creating a place where artists and community gathered for a greater cause,” she says.
Tsuru had a more luxurious gestation, starting when Houston Grand Opera’s community initiative HGOco created an opera loosely based on Kusuzaki’s experience moving from Japan to the U.S. When program director Evan Wildstein left HGOco to direct programming at the Asia Society, Kusuzaki approached him with the idea of transforming The Crane Wife into a chamber ballet. “This folktale provided a platform to communicate cultural values of Japan through the language of dance,” she says.
From those early conversations, a chamber ballet was born, with Kusuzaki and Wildstein organizing a creative team that included HB dancers Charles-Louis Yoshiyama, Shahar Dori and Zecheng Liang. Kusuzaki worked closely with the dancers, choreographer, stage director, scenic and lighting designers, and musicians. She kept the job-juggling to a minimum by scheduling the show after HB’s season was over so there was time to rehearse, tech and perform.
“Nao has a unique capacity to learn as much as she contributes, which, for a producer, is an invaluable skill,” says Wildstein, who recently moved on from the Asia Society.
Kusuzaki now sees her role as an artist in a larger arena. With a tour of Tsuru in the planning stages, her creative wheels keep turning. “My long-term goal is to create a platform where artists of different fields can gather, a place which inspires imagination,” she says.
Karen Kain is internationally renowned as a performer and as the National Ballet of Canada's artistic director. The former NBoC principal always carries herself with the grace and sophistication of a true leader. However, in this 1976 clip from Giselle, the distinguished ballerina is convincingly naïve and bewildered in her interpretation of the mad scene.
Kain conveys Giselle's innocence at the start of the scene with pure, unaffected gestures and facial expressions. Then, after Albrecht betrays her, her eyes stare unfocused into the distance as if she's in a trance. Although this scene is mostly acting, Kain dances dreamily to the musical motif at 5:30 and conceals her technical strength in order to show the character's frailty. It takes a true ballerina to perform this heartbreaking and beautiful role, and with performances like this and her lifelong commitment to the art form, Kain proves that she is an extraordinary one. Happy #ThrowbackThursday!
If you, like many of us here at Pointe, wish you could have seen Royal Ballet star Zenaida Yanowsky's retirement performance on June 7, you're in luck. The Royal will screen a recording of it in select movie theaters across the U.S. starting Sunday, June 25. (In many cities, it will be screened on Tuesday, July 11.) The program includes three works by the company's founding choreographer, Sir Frederick Ashton: The Dream, Symphonic Variations and Marguerite and Armand—the latter of which stars Yanowsky and Roberto Bolle. You can also catch other Royal favorites like Marianela Nuñez, Vadim Muntagirov, Steven McRae, Akane Takada and Yasmin Naghdi. Make sure to bring tissues!
To find dates, times and theaters near you, click here.
Choreographer Diane Coburn Bruning has a different kind of vision for her Chamber Dance Project. Though she relocated the project-based company from New York City to Washington, DC several years ago, her focus remains on creating collaborations between classically-trained ballet dancers and other contemporary artists to share in intimate venues with live music. This summer, the artistic director brings together dancers from Cincinnati, Kansas City, Milwaukee and Washington Ballets for a condensed period of time. The company's 2017 season show titled Ballet Brass & Song opens this weekend, and features works by Jennifer Archibald, Jorge Amarante, and a world premiere by Coburn Bruning herself. We caught up with her last week to hear more about her company's mission.
Some may consider New York's Symphony Space a smaller theater, but big things were happening inside June 6–10. Just under 200 young dancers from all over the world were testing their luck at the Valentina Kozlova International Ballet Competition in hopes of receiving scholarships, medals and company contracts. Their jury? An international panel of company and school directors, chaired by Andris Liepa, that included State Ballet of Georgia's Nina Ananiashvili, Boston Ballet School's Peter Stark, Dance Theatre of Harlem's Virginia Johnson and Cincinnati Ballet' s Victoria Morgan.
Last weekend, the Mariinsky Ballet announced on its website that one of its most revered prima ballerinas, Uliana Lopatkina, has retired from the stage. A principal dancer since 1995, Lopatkina's interpretation of Odette/Odile and "The Dying Swan", among other roles, was legendary. To honor her dance career, we're re-visiting this interview from the February/March 2013 issue.
What's the toughest part of being a dancer?
More than most professions, ballet erodes the private sphere. You don't fulfill yourself in this career: You serve it; you're a slave to it.
What ballet makes you most nervous?
Swan Lake. Even if it's not the most difficult ballet to perform, it's difficult in another way, a mystical way.
Being in the corps can be pretty unforgiving. You dance in nearly every performance, it sometimes feels like you're only onstage to add to the scenery, and you're expected to fit in—while still vying for soloist roles. It's enough to make even the most determined dancer lose steam. Pointe spoke with three corps de ballet dancers about how they use a combination of self-discipline and creativity to keep themselves motivated.
Shine in Class
After a few years, morning class can feel like a chore—especially during heavy rehearsal periods when your body just wants to rest. But rather than viewing it as a drag, try reframing class as a chance to show your best, hardest-working self. For San Francisco Ballet corps member Rebecca Rhodes, class is a time to push harder, not slack off. "It's a great time to be noticed," she says, especially for dancers hoping to be cast in featured roles. "I make sure to do every combination two or three times, and I try not to pick and choose what's comfortable," she says.
This past winter, Isabelle Brouwers used her two-week break from English National Ballet to bring dance to the orphaned children at the Spurgeons Academy in Kibera, a slum on the outskirts of Nairobi, Kenya. Funded by the U.K.-based charity, Global Care, Spurgeons Academy provides an academic and extracurricular education to 400 children in Nairobi, as well as daily essentials like food and water.
After stumbling on a video of the children practicing ballet on Al Jazeera, Brouwers told us that she immediately knew she wanted to help. "It made me realize how fortunate I was to grow up with all the resources to make my dream of becoming a dancer a reality, and I was so passionate about trying to offer a similar opportunity to these children," she said. Brouwers' research led her to the Spurgeons Academy, where she learned the children's dance classes were organized by Anno's Africa.