Kusuzaki in Stanton Welch's Swan Lake (photo by Amitava Sarkar, courtesy Houston Ballet)

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.

Cauthorn and Strongin, two to watch at SFB, in "Frankenstein." Photo by Erik Tomasson. Courtesy SFB.

Max Cauthorn was an on-the-rise corps member when he stepped into the title role of Liam Scarlett's Frankenstein last February; when the curtain came down, he was San Francisco Ballet's newest leading man. In his first full-length starring role, he carried the physically and emotionally demanding three-hour ballet with fluent technique and a natural charisma. But he didn't do it alone: In her own lead-role debut with SFB, soloist Lauren Strongin brought tenderness and steely integrity to Frankenstein's true love, Elizabeth.

Photo by Erik Tomasson, Courtesy SFB.

Keep reading... Show less
Pointe Stars
Postelwaite and Pantastico's powerful reunion in "Cendrillon." Photo by Angela Sterling, Courtesy PNB.

Lucien Postlewaite's Prince was anything but charming last February in Pacific Northwest Ballet's production of Cendrillon, Jean-Christophe Maillot's contemporary take on the Cinderella story. He strutted and preened, egged on by his friends. But once this prince met Cendrillon at the ball, his egotism gave way to lyrical grace, from the curve of his neck through his elegant extensions. For her part, Noelani Pantastico embodied the role of Cendrillon, taking us on her journey from a lonely, unwanted stepdaughter to a lovestruck young woman. Both dancers glided through the technically demanding choreography, infusing it with heartfelt emotion. This may be a fairy tale, but the romance felt real.

Keep reading... Show less
popular
via Instagram

Usually, it's the jaw-dropping moments on the stage that leave us equal parts inspired and amazed. But National Ballet of Canada principal Svetlana Lunkina has us totally in awe of her behind-the-scenes routine. A 2015 Pointe cover star (and former Bolshoi dancer), Lunkina shares as many clips on Instagram of her classes and rehearsals as she does glam stage shots. Earlier this week, she shared her floor workout—and you have to see it to believe it.

Keep reading... Show less
Your Best Body
Photo by Paul Kolnik, courtesy New York City Ballet.

This time of year, we're used to seeing dancers embodying the flavors of The Nutcracker's magical Land of Sweets. But the real-life equivalents of those seasonal treats are more than just holiday guilty pleasures, and have benefits that could help you get through a crazy month of performances. Here are a few reasons to indulge in the spices and flavors of the season—now, and all year long.

Peppermint

This powerhouse herb has an abundance of benefits to help you get through a busy performance season. It's been known to aid digestion and help calm anxiety, and one study found that inhaling its vapors may improve athletic performance. Smelling peppermint has also been found to increase focus. You don't just have to get it from candy canes: Try brewing a hot cup of peppermint tea between rehearsals, or to wind down after a long day.

Keep reading... Show less
popular
Richmond Ballet dancers show off two adoptable shelter dogs at its annual "Pupcracker." Photo courtesy Richmond Ballet

If you're looking to upstage Clara, there's no better way to do it than with a four-legged furry friend—especially when that furry friend is looking for its forever home. Cue Richmond Ballet: During its December 16 and 21 matinees, the company is teaming up with the Richmond SPCA to present the "Pupcracker," special Nutcracker performances featuring adoptable shelter dogs. Several pups make their stage debut during the party scene as the guests bring their family pets to and from the Silberhaus home. Audience members can then meet—and adopt—the dogs during intermission and after the performance. The SPCA even provides a crate, collar, leash and treats so that patrons can bring their new family members home after the show.


Audience members can meet and adopt featured dogs during intermission. Photo Courtesy Richmond Ballet.

Keep reading... Show less
Videos
Rudolf Nureyev and Merle Park in "The Nutcracker" (1968). Photo by Donald Southern, Courtesy of the Royal Opera House Collections.

Given the thousands of incarnations The Nutcracker has undergone—from tiny-tot productions in small-town studios to grand modern classics—the ballet's Grand Pas de Deux from Act II has remained remarkably intact. With slight variations, most professional dancers have seen its familiar choreography at some point or another. Tchaikovsky's radiant score calls to mind elegant promenades, partnered penchées and slow, supported développés.

Keep reading... Show less
Training
Photo by Taylor-Ferné Morris.

I have flatter feet and want to make them look better on pointe. Are there any special pointe shoes for my foot type? —Joana

Keep reading... Show less

Sponsored

Videos

Sponsored

mailbox

Get Pointe Magazine in your inbox

Sponsored

Win It!