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By Theodore Bale
Young, alone, and at the end of a one-year scholarship at San Francisco Ballet School, Misa Kuranaga auditioned for a spot in a ballet company—any ballet company. She was 19, and her search took her to studios both glamorous and modest around North America. But it soon became apparent that nobody intended to offer her a contract. Hesitant about her next move, she was still certain about one thing: She wasn’t going back to her birthplace, Japan. The opportunity to become a professional ballet dancer in Japan, she says, doesn’t yet exist.
“In my mind,” says Kuranaga, a Dance Magazine “25 to Watch” last year, “I had to stay here no matter what. If I go back to Japan, what will happen? Nothing will happen! I knew I would have to stay here, keep fighting, keep improving, and find where I can be. There was no other choice.”
Now, four years later, as second soloist at Boston Ballet, Kuranaga has performed roles ranging from romantic (the Sylph in La Sylphide) to classical (Princess Florine in Sleeping Beauty) to cutting-edge contemporary (premieres by Lucinda Childs, Helen Pickett, and Mark Morris). A dancer of great strength and radiance with a beautifully fluid port de bras, she is also one of the most committed and competitive dancers in the company. Last summer she went to the USA International Ballet Competition in Jackson, Mississippi, dazzled the judges, and took home the Women’s Gold (see “Dance Matters,” Oct. 2006).
Growing up in Osaka, Kuranaga was often headed to one competition or another accompanied by her childhood ballet teacher, Jinushi Kaoru. She started studying when she was 7, and a year later she was in pointe shoes. The following year she entered her first competition in Nagoya.
“That’s how Japanese people are,” says Kuranaga, “so many competitions!” She laughs now at the thought. “It’s not a good environment to dance. In Japan, dance is sort of like an extension of a hobby. It’s never a real job.”
When she won a gold medal dancing the Black Swan variation, also in Nagoya, former Bolshoi Ballet artistic director Yuri Grigorovich was in the audience. He invited her to Moscow to dance the same role as a non-competitor in the Seventh Moscow International Ballet Competition gala performance. She was just 10. Four years later, in 1997, she won another gold medal in Tokyo, dancing Tschaikovsky Pas de Deux and another pas de deux from Le Corsaire.
However, being a competition wiz has its limitations. “I had learned how to dance onstage,” says Kuranaga, 23, “but I hadn’t really worked enough on my technique.” Feelings of doubt lingered when she went to the Prix de Lausanne in Switzerland. “I felt I had nothing more to do but be in international competitions,” says Kuranaga. “I couldn’t dance how I wanted to dance because I didn’t think I was trained enough.” But she won a scholarship at Lausanne, and, at the recommendation of Junishi, chose to study at San Francisco Ballet School.
When she got to SFB, however, she had a different set of problems. Nobody spoke Japanese there, and Kuranaga says she developed an aversion for what she called “American technique.” “You have to take huge steps, with big arms, and everything has to be really big,” she recalls. “I thought there was no sensitivity.” She experienced loneliness at times, but never called her mother to have a good cry. “I was there to work,” she says, “and that’s how people from Japan think.”
After her year at SFB, a friend told her that in order to get hired in the U.S., she had to improve her Balanchine technique. So she went to New York to study at the School of the American Ballet (which is affiliated with New York City Ballet). During that year she finished her high school degree at the Professional Performing Arts School and worked on improving her English. She saw many performances by NYCB, and that changed her feelings about Balanchine technique. “Eventually I loved it so much,” she says, “and now of course I love performing Balanchine.” At the SAB workshop in June, 2003, she exuded a natural grace. She was offered a position as apprentice with City Ballet—but she had already signed with Boston Ballet.
Mikko Nissinen, artistic director of Boston Ballet, says that when he saw Kuranaga in class at the Monaco Dance Forum in December, 2002, she stood out, and that it seemed like everyone there wanted to offer her a contract. “It was because of her fierceness and willingness to commit, and her clarity,” says Nissinen. “And she was very comfortable in the contemporary class.”
Nissinen saw qualities in her that were ready to be developed. At the beginning, he says he was mostly concerned with “getting a little bit more attack and strength.” Each year since she’s been a company member, he’s worked with her on an annual plan for achievement. “Right now we’re working on certain nuances,” says Nissinen. “She can impress anyone with her fouettés. But I am trying to make sure she doesn’t get too high on that twirling motion and that she pays attention to the details.”
Kuranaga spends all her free time preparing her roles, using any resources available to her. Before rehearsals for Ashton’s La Fille mal gardée, in which she was cast in the lead, she searched the web for the synopsis and borrowed videotapes to get a closer look at the ballet. The story is key for her, even if she’s just performing an excerpt or variation. “If I’m doing Corsaire pas de deux or variation,” says Kuranaga,” I still have to tell the audience the whole story. Who is she? What is the background?”
She is particularly fond of performances by The Royal Ballet on video and dreams of someday performing a MacMillan ballet. Her idols are women she has never seen perform live: Margot Fonteyn, Gelsey Kirkland, and Natalia Makarova.
What does she take from all of that viewing? For one thing, she says, “There are at least one thousand ways to do an arabesque.” Then she adds, “I try to learn from everything.”
She went to Jackson last summer to challenge her own limits. “Mikko told me to go there only as an artist,” says Kuranaga, “and I think I kept my promise. If I had been there simply to compete with other people, I think I would have been very distracted and unable to concentrate. I realized that it’s not about winning the medal, how high you can jump, or how many pirouettes you do.” She showed the judges not only dazzling fouettés, but also the artistry of a mature performer.
Kuranaga danced with Boston Ballet corps member Daniel Sarabia in four pieces: the Black Swan pas de deux, the Diana and Acteon pas de deux from La Esmeralda, Jorma Elo’s Basic Three Minutes, and an original duet titled Two by Viktor Plotnikov, a former principal dancer at Boston Ballet who is now a choreographer and teacher.
Plotnikov wanted to challenge the pair, so he made a duet that must be performed “as fast as possible.” He retained classical steps, but made strange transitions between them. “Misa did some very difficult things,” he says, “some worm-like movements, or caterpillar arms, which take her right into a pirouette. The pirouette might be classical, but with a snap in the head, or the arm starts to break apart and she goes in a different direction. Technically, I took them to extremes. Misa can move really fast, and I wanted to exploit that.” At Jackson, he says, “They danced it with such power that the audience went nuts for them.”
And how did it feel when she was presented with the gold medal at one of the biggest competitions in the world? “I couldn’t really feel it,” Kuranaga told Dance Magazine editor Wendy Perron at the time. “I could only think of how my arabesque could have been better.”
Nissinen believes that Kuranaga possesses the talent to become a world-class ballerina, but he doesn’t want to rush her toward that goal. “I want to make sure she reaches the highest possible level she can, instead of just making a big splash,” he says. “The deeper her professionalism is, the longer she will be able to serve the muse.”
Theodore Bale is dance critic and columnist at the Boston Herald.