Ballet Careers

Houston Ballet Soloist Nao Kusuzaki Has a Knack for Producing

Kusuzaki in Tsuru at the Asia Society. Photo by Lynn Lane, Courtesy Kusuzaki.

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.

Kusuzaki in Stanton Welch's "Swan Lake." Photo by Amitava Sarkar, Courtesy Houston Ballet.

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.

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My algorithm usually shows me professional ballet dancers in performances, rehearsals, class, backstage and on tour, which I quite enjoy. But there are the other dance feeds that I find myself simultaneously intrigued and horrified by: the hyper-elastic, hyper-extended, gumby-footed girls always at the barre doing developpés to six o'clock. There are the multiple turners, the avid stretchers and we can't forget the endless balancers.

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


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American Ballet Theatre principal Isabella Boylston moonlights as artistic director of Ballet Sun Valley, which she founded last year. The second annual festival will run July 17–18 in Sun Valley, Idaho, Boylston's hometown. Boylston has created two programs composed of pas de deux and solo pieces from choreographers including George Balanchine, Jerome Robbins and William Forsythe, as well as Justin Peck's In Creases, the one work for a larger ensemble.

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Ballet Careers
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Cleaning is a daily procedure. Proper maintenance will help extend the life of your floor and protect its special slip-resistant surface.

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What do you do when you finally have some time off after a busy season? Well, if you're the dancers of New York City Ballet, you find new ways to dance, obviously. Ahead of the company's 52nd annual residency at Saratoga Performing Arts Center, corps members (and super creatives) Peter Walker and Emily Kikta teamed up with their fellow dancers to choreograph and produce a series of videos leading up to the mainstage performances July 17-21.

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Left to right: Via Elevé Dancewear; Via LeaMarie

Planning to spend the majority of your summer sweating it out in the studio? Don't worry, you're not alone. And while you're definitely going to want to save the warmups for the winter, you can still accessorize your studio look without adding bulk, thanks to the always-in-style ballet skirt. From bright florals to washed out pastels and wild prints, we rounded up our favorite short (and a few long!) ballet skirts for summer.

AinslieWear Limoncello Wrap Skirt

via AinslieWear

f you can't spend your summer in the Mediterranean under actual lemon trees, this skirt is a solid backup. Plus, it gives us serious Beyonce "Lemonade" vibes, which will help you feel more fierce and less sweaty-mess in class (hopefully).
ainsliewear.com, $50

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Monthly periods can be a huge hassle for anyone. But donning a leotard and tights or getting through a tough barre when you're having your period can make it even harder to deal with. Dr. Lauren Streicher, clinical associate professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Northwestern University, offers these tips for bunheads to ease pain and symptoms.

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An American in Paris, the wildly popular musical directed and choreographed by Christopher Wheeldon, comes to movie theaters nationwide September 20 and 23. Filmed in London in 2017, this version features the show's original stars: former New York City Ballet principal Robert Fairchild and former Royal Ballet first artist Leanne Cope. Based on the classic 1951 Gene Kelly film with a score of Gershwin standards, An American in Paris played on Broadway and in London's West End to rave reviews and numerous awards, including a 2015 Tony for Best Choreographer. This limited screening will bring the best of Broadway up close to the masses. For a full list of participating theaters and to purchase tickets, available July 12, click here.

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