BUDAPEST – Shoko Nakamura embarked on a challenging journey when she began retraining for ballet performances just one month after giving birth to her son, Joel, in 2011. The dancer, who goes by just her first name when performing, says the physical pain involved in getting back into shape often reduced her to tears.
“All the muscles I had built up over the previous 20 years or so had gone,” says the 35-year-old Shoko, who at the time of her son’s birth was a principal dancer at the renowned Berlin State Ballet. “That was the most devastating thing for me, I had to restart from scratch.”
As trying as the experience was, it was not the first serious obstacle that she had had to overcome. At 19 she suffered a serious ligament tear that took 18 months to fully recover from. Postpartum recovery, however, posed a different type of challenge.
“If you can’t dance because of injury, the reason why you can’t dance is simple to understand,” she says. “But after giving birth I was very healthy, and yet I couldn’t dance. I just couldn’t accept the situation.”
On top of that challenge came Shoko’s self-inflicted pressure to be not only the perfect dancer but also the perfect mother, a goal that any new parent can understand. Luckily, help came from her Polish husband, Wieslaw Dudek, who was himself a principal dancer in Berlin at the time of Joel’s birth. He helped Shoko strike a comfortable balance between being a dancer and a mother, which made her love him even more. However, she adds that she didn’t always think she’d meet a guy like him.
“Before coming to Europe, ballet was everything in my life,” she recalls of her youth. “I was extra cautious about my diet, had no interest in dating men and was thinking I would probably find a husband through an arranged marriage — an omiai — when I retired.”
Shoko began taking ballet lessons at age 6. She entered the John Cranko Ballet School in Stuttgart, Germany, at 16 after having won a scholarship as the first prize at the Prix de Lausanne (an international ballet competition that helps dancers between the ages of 15 and 18 launch their careers). It was during her first year as a professional with the Stuttgart Ballet that she suffered the torn ligament. She made a splendid comeback in 2000 and joined the Vienna State Ballet, where she was soon promoted to the position of soloist.
She took on a new challenge in 2006 by moving to the Berlin State Ballet, where Vladimir Malakhov had been artistic director since 2002. Shoko had met him while attending the Stuttgart school, and had danced the character of Gamzatti in a production of “La Bayadere” that Malakhov had choreographed for the Vienna State Ballet.
Shoko rose from being a soloist to a principal performer in 2007, only a year after joining the Berlin State Ballet, and was widely regarded as a “next-generation Japanese star” after Tetsuya Kumakawa and Miyako Yoshida, two former principals with the Royal Ballet in London. Yet another calling came in 2013, when Tamas Solymosi, director of the Hungarian National Ballet, offered her a principal dancer position.
It was prior to her stint in Budapest that Shoko married her husband and gave birth. The couple married in 2010 and planned to have a child as soon as possible so that Shoko would be able to get back to ballet.
“(My husband) told me there was nothing wrong in asking for help from my mother or relatives in caring for our son while I trained,” she says. “He also convinced me that I would make a full recovery if I focused on being myself.”
So that’s what Shoko did — in four months. She stopped nursing her son at the four-month mark and was completely back to her pre-pregnancy body and strength shortly after. She then flew from Kyushu, where she gave birth, back to Europe and performed at a charity gala to raise funds for survivors of the Great East Japan Earthquake in May 2011. After that it was back to the stage in Berlin for two years before heading to Hungary.
In 2014, after one year with the Hungarian National Ballet, her husband quit the Berlin State Ballet and moved to Budapest to fully support his wife’s career. The couple now takes 4-year-old Joel to a kindergarten by car in the morning. Dudek then drops off Shoko at the theater for training and rehearsal, before heading to the Hungarian Ballet Institute to teach younger dancers and children. Shoko trains for several hours per day on average, and sometimes rehearses until as late as 10 p.m. When she returns home exhausted, a warm supper prepared by her husband is always there waiting.
She also credits Dudek with helping her craft. Drawing from the love she has for her husband, Shoko says she finds it easier to slip into certain roles and connect the character’s feelings with the dance movements in a more natural way.
Yuka Asai, a corps de ballet dancer with the Hungarian National Ballet, says she has also noticed the difference.
“She was an amazing dancer before, having gained a reputation for her energetic performances,” Asai says. “But she now brings something more from within herself. She is more mature and refined in conveying a character’s emotions to the audience.”
Despite the time Shoko devotes to the pursuit of dance, at the end of the day she is still a working mother. If a call comes in to say Joel is ill, or he just needs some extra time at the playground, Shoko says she’ll still spend time with her son even if there’s an evening performance to get to. The demanding commitments of work and family are tricky to navigate, but she says she is better at switching focus from one moment to the next than she had been in the past. The added demands of motherhood have also had some unforeseen outcomes.
“I used to be filled with anxiety and fear before a performance, but now I don’t even have time for that,” she says. “I’m no longer scared about making mistakes on stage. Of course, making a mistake is not good, but all people make mistakes. I tell myself that I always strive to give my best in a performance, so even if I make an error, I’m able to handle it without the audience noticing. I’m more worried about what happens to my son.”
And while she is confident about her technical skills and artistic ability, other challenges remain. Shoko says she suffers chronic adductor muscle strain, a common symptom following childbirth. For two or three years after giving birth, the acute discomfort made it difficult for her to walk normally on the street. Even now, she sleeps with tennis balls beneath her legs to alleviate any pain.
“All the top dancers live more or less like this. They beam on stage, but backstage is quite a different story. It’s like an occupational hazard of being a principal dancer,” she says with a laugh, adding that she refuses to take painkillers. “A young dancer in today’s world would have quit dancing by now if she had pains like mine!”
Having finished her last performance, “Sylvia”, with the Hungarian National Ballet on May 23, Shoko flew back to Japan the following day with her family. Stepping away for the time being from company life in Europe, she will be based in Tokyo for the 2015-16 season with an occasional performance in Europe. Her first appearance as a guest principal in her home country will be the role of Medora in “Le Corsaire” on May 30 and 31, staged by the Tokyo-based K-Ballet company.
She will then return to Berlin to dance “La Bayadare” before being whisked off to Poland in June to perform with her husband in a gala concert. Dates in Japan are to take her through the fall.
“I have been in Europe since I was 16,” she says about returning home to Japan. “I have danced from time to time with K-Ballet over the past several years, and more and more people have been asking me to dance in Japan. But I haven’t always been able to accept offers because of scheduling conflicts with my companies in Europe. But I would really like to perform in my home country while I’m at my peak.”
Shoko’s wish is not only to perform classics such as “Swan Lake,” “The Nutcracker” and “Giselle” in Japan, but also performances rarely shown here like “Onegin” (adapted from Alexander Pushkin’s verse novel) and “Manon” (based on the novel “Manon Lescaut” by Abbe Prevost). She hopes this type of dramatic story-ballet production will not only fascinate core ballet fans, but attract viewers who tend to think of ballet as a remote, closed world.
As we near the end of our conversation, Shoko points out that while ballet is a part of the culture in Europe, this is not yet the case in Japan.
“I probably don’t have the capability to transform (the art) drastically in Japan because there are so many types of entertainment,” she says. “But I want to dance and touch people’s hearts for as long as I can.”
Shoko performs in the K-Ballet Company’s production of “Le Corsaire” at Bunkamura Orchard Hall in Tokyo on May 30 (4:30 p.m.) and 31 (2 p.m.). Tickets range in price from ¥6,000 to ¥13,500. For more information, call 03-3477-9999 or visit www.k-ballet.co.jp/performances/2015-corsaire (Japanese).