A Fiendish Conversation with Kaori Nakamura
The PNB principal dancer looks back on her career as she prepares for her final full role in Giselle.
It's time for the final bow. After an impressive 17-year career with Pacific Northwest Ballet, 44-year-old Kaori Nakamura plans to hang up the pointe shoes at the end of this season. While her talents are still top notch (she aced the lead in The Sleeping Beauty earlier in the year), it's better to perhaps leave too soon rather than hang around too long. The Japanese native will remain in the PNB family, taking a faculty position at the PNB School. But before she ends her days as a performer, there's a little more dancing to be done. PNB closes out its main season with a production of Giselle (May 30–June 8) with newly revamped costumes and scenery. The story tells of a scorned lover who dies of a broken heart, only to rise from the dead for revenge. Nakamura will then take her last curtain call at the Season Encore performance on June 8.
For our latest Fiendish Conversation, we talked to Nakamura about the sadness of seeing the finish line, the family environment at PNB, and zoo animals.
So what thoughts are going through your head as you near the end of your career as a dancer?
With less than a month to go, my heart’s getting heavy—like (makes a gut punch noise)—when I try to think about my last day. It’s kind of sad, but sometimes like, “Yeah, this is it. I should enjoy and be happy.” But more sad; that type of depressing sad.
What made you decide that it was the right time to retire?
Well I was thinking, the last two years, my body’s getting tight and hurts. I’m 44 now. I think this is a good time. I don’t want to keep dancing until it looks bad. It’s good right now. I’m still enjoying dancing. I just started feeling my body.
Considering how physically demanding the profession is, making it to 44 in shape where you can still dance at a top level is impressive. I’ve talked to many other dancers about the ever-present fear of injury derailing their dance careers.
I think I’m really lucky I didn’t get injured, have a big injury, or have to stop every couple months to fix my back or something. So I’m 44, and I think that’s a really long career for a ballet dancer.
Over the course of your career, are there any shows that you especially enjoy dancing?
There’s a lot; especially when I did full-length ballet—Sleeping Beauty, Romeo and Juliet, Swan Lake. With a full-length ballet, it’s more rewarding. We work so hard: 3 hours of ballet, you’re on stage all the time, and it’s really hard. Especially like Romeo and Juliet with the last season. Swan Lake last season.
And Sleeping Beauty this season. You were really great in that.
Oh, thank you! Thank you! That was hard. (Laughs) Sleeping Beauty was the hardest ballet. I wasn’t sure I could make it, but I did it. And Giselle is the new one coming; all costumes are new, the set is new. I just really like doing full-length story ballet.
Aside from the performances, what have been some of the other highlights of working at PNB for all these years?
This is my home. This is family. I’ve been here 17 years. If I didn’t like, I would’ve been gone a long time ago. But I just love working with everybody: Dancers, artistic staff, costume shop—every single person is just so nice and supportive. It’s amazing to work with them. Every day, I come here and enjoy talking to people, dancing with everybody, working with the director. It’s just so nice.
And you’re not really going to be leaving the family because you’re joining the faculty. What made you want to stick around?
This is the best thing. I was worried: I don’t want to leave here because I love them so much. How can I stop coming here every day? I think I’m so lucky Peter (Boal) offered me the job at the school. And I cannot ask for more. I’ll be here, around, just not dancing; on the other side, teaching young kids.
As a native of Japan, how has Seattle impacted your dance?
I love Seattle. I think it’s beautiful. They have everything—water, mountains. It’s really comfortable to live here. And they have great art support. Not only ballet, but with opera and music. Even the audience is amazing support. Every time when I go on stage, I feel it. So I grew up with the audience and the audience grew up seeing new ballet every year.
Other than teaching, is there anything you want to do after your dancing retirement?
I’m still thinking about it. I was thinking I could travel. I want to travel a lot, but that’s kind of impossible—it costs a lot. (Laughs) Travel and spending time with my kids.
Where do you want to travel to?
Everywhere. My biggest dream is going to Africa, because I love animals. I actually could just go to the zoo. But Africa—I’ve seen it on TV and in books—that’s my dream.
So Giselle is next up and then it’s the Season Encore to close things out. What will you be performing in that final show?
I do three things, which are kind of my favorites: Romeo and Juliet pas de deux, Swan Lake pas de deux, and the Rose Adagio from Sleeping Beauty. Yeah, Rose Adagio maybe has some tricks—people from outside are coming, some old dancers or something like that—but I can’t tell you. It’s a surprise.
May 30–June 8, McCaw Hall, $28–$184
PNB Season Encore
June 8 at 6:30, McCaw Hall, $35–$200