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.