Misa Kuranaga had just arrived in Taipei, and was already eager to get in a rehearsal. At the following night's last-minute gala engagement she would dance Don Quixote and Balanchine's Tschaikovsky Pas de Deux. But at that point, she still hadn't met her partner.
“He has a great reputation," Kuranaga says of New York City Ballet principal Joaquin De Luz, “so I thought, Okay, let's do this. I wouldn't take such a crazy risk if I didn't know his name."
Gone are the days of comfortable career partnerships in ballet, of one-track dancers, of ballerinas who rely on a company to build their fan base. Kuranaga, whose killer work ethic and lyrical lines have long made her a fan favorite, has come to embody the future of ballet—a world of dancers who are independent and endlessly versatile. Dancers who supplement full-time company lives with part-time commercial gigs, and fill their vacations with guest appearances spanning the globe. “Being a dancer is almost a superhuman commitment, and Misa seems to understand that," says Boston Ballet artistic director Mikko Nissinen. “She has always been a wonderful dancer—but she's matured and become a true ballerina."
Growing up in Osaka, Japan, Kuranaga won early ballet success in competitions, then started her career as a San Francisco Ballet apprentice. But one year and a bad case of culture shock later, she wasn't rehired. She faced a decision: to leave ballet behind or to start over. Kuranaga chose to go back to school, enrolling at the School of American Ballet. By the end of the year, she received multiple job offers and chose Boston Ballet, earning her first principal role in La Sylphide only one year later.
She quickly built a reputation as a workhorse, spending hours in the studio alone. “I haven't seen anybody work as hard as her—in every class, every rehearsal," says American Ballet Theatre principal Herman Cornejo, a favorite partner of Kuranaga's at the Vail International Dance Festival. Her determination led to steady promotions: second soloist in 2005, soloist in 2007 and principal in 2009.
“When I got to principal, that was actually my start," says Kuranaga. “You have more freedom to express yourself." Having spent years in search of “perfect" technique, she now faced the challenge of figuring out who she was—and communicating that from the stage. Rather than adopting a flashy persona, she was simply herself: the always-striving, never fully satisfied, vulnerable but determined ballerina. “She is a very honest artist, that's what makes her so pure," says Nissinen. “She's very sincere, in life and onstage."
Company life has now become her artistic safe space. “I'm getting to a point that I don't have to feel nervous about every single thing anymore," she says. That comfort has given her the security to relax and deepen her artistry. “Only she knows her weaknesses," says Cornejo. “Sitting in the audience, I would never know."
Today, Kuranaga's fame reaches far beyond Boston. She brings her characteristic honesty to her tens of thousands of followers on social media, which she approaches as a public diary, whether she's feeling silly in rehearsal, challenged by altitude sickness or inspired by a new partner. “I used to hate to post videos on YouTube, because I didn't feel like I should be promoting myself—I felt like somebody else should do it," she says. “But now, promoting myself makes me feel good. It's a wonderful way to be independent." That self-promotion has earned her notable side gigs, including advertising campaigns for Freed of London, Japanese skin-care line SK-II and Italian jewelry company Bulgari. Earlier this year, Bulgari chose Kuranaga as one of 10 inspiring Japanese women from a variety of professions, and after completing a series of photo and video shoots over the summer, this month Kuranaga will attend a red carpet event in Tokyo where one of the 10 women will win an achievement award.
It's just the latest stop on a never-ending schedule of galas, festivals and events around the world, from Vail to Taipei to Havana. “I'm seeking inspiration," she says. “That's why I love guesting—because I grow. And then when I go back to Boston I train myself differently."
For now, the work is what fuels her. The thrilling challenges like meeting a new partner right before a performance or dancing at high altitudes remind her that even now at the pinnacle of her career there's still more to learn. “It's hard, but once you've done it, it becomes your confidence," she says. “Then you're like 'At sea level I can do anything.' "
It's a cycle familiar to many: First, a striking image of a lithe, impossibly fit dancer executing a gravity-defying développé catches your eye on Instagram. You pause your scrolling to marvel, over and over again, at her textbook physique.
Inevitably, you take a moment to consider your own body, in comparison. Doubt and negative self-talk first creep, and then flood, in. "I'll never look like that," the voice inside your head whispers. You continue scrolling, but the image has done its dirty work—a gnawing sensation has taken hold, continually reminding you that your own body is inferior, less-than, unworthy.
It's no stretch to say that social media has a huge effect on body image. For dancers—most of whom already have a laser-focus on their appearance—the images they see on Instagram can seem to exacerbate ever-present issues. "Social media is just another trigger," says Nadine Kaslow, a psychologist who works with the dancers of Atlanta Ballet. "And dancers don't need another trigger." In the age of Photoshop and filters, how can dancers keep body dysmorphia at bay?
If "Fosse/Verdon" whet your appetite for the impeccable Gwen Verdon, then Merely Marvelous: The Dancing Genius of Gwen Verdon is the three-course meal you've been craving. The new documentary—available now on Amazon for rental or purchase—dives into the life of the Tony-winning performer and silver-screen star lauded for her charismatic dancing.
Though she's perhaps most well-known today as Bob Fosse's wife and muse, that's not even half of her story. For starters, she'd already won four Tonys before they wed, making her far more famous in the public eye than he was at that point in his career. That's just one of many surprising details we learned during last night's U.S. premiere of Merely Marvelous. Believe us: You're gonna love her even more once you get to know her. Here are eight lesser-known tidbits to get you started.
Every dancer knows that how you fuel your body affects how you feel in the studio. Of course, while breakfast is no more magical than any other meal (despite the enduring myth that it's the most important one of the day), showing up to class hangry is a recipe for unproductive studio time.
So what do your favorite dancers eat in the morning to set themselves up for a busy rehearsal or performance day?
When it comes to dance in the U.S., companies in the South often find themselves overlooked—sometimes even by the presenters in their own backyard. That's where South Arts comes in. This year, the regional nonprofit launched Momentum, an initiative that will provide professional development, mentorship, touring grants and residencies to five Southern dance companies.