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Tamiyo Kusakari: Dancing with body and soul

by Kaori Shoji

Tamiyo Kusakari has been on her toes since the age of 8. Japan’s most treasured ballerina virtually grew up in her toe shoes, and spent her youth dancing on one stage after another. Now, at the age of 41, she continues to enthrall legions of fans with the skill and eloquence of her craft.

To see her on stage is a privilege, but to see her dance on the big screen was a whole other experience, as fans of the 1996 smash hit movie “Shall We Dance?” will attest.

Director Masayuki Suoh met and then wooed leading lady Kusakari on set because, as he said later in a press conference: “She was the first person I ever came across who could look beautiful just standing there. Her posture was striking.”

Indeed, the long years of training at the barre, the incredible workout inflicted daily on her body, had carved out a physique that can only be described as an exercise in gravity defiance. Audiences too, were taken, and the movie — among other things — inspired a Hollywood remake starring Jennifer Lopez and Richard Gere. In Japan, it triggered a “social dance” boom that has lasted to this day.

Kusakari, so light and sylph-like on stage, has had her share of tribulations. Like many ballerinas, she endured countless injuries, and a hernia operation landed her in a wheelchair at the age of 27. Unlike other countries, though, Japan has no subsidizing support system for dancers, which meant it was practically impossible to make a decent living from professional dancing, no matter the ability or reputation. For every stage production she worked on, Kusakari also had a quota of tickets to sell (a fact which often floored her contemporaries overseas). “Sometimes I look back on my career and think that I could have done things differently, like gone to Europe and joined a ballet company there. But I’ve learned to tell myself that it’s OK, I’ve learned to accept the circumstances and work within that and feel good about my accomplishments. I think it’s one of the advantages of maturing.”

Speaking of maturity, Kusakari recently made a splash with her autobiographical work “Zenshin Karada Kakumei (Revolution of the Entire Body),” which depicts her struggles on and off the stage, and the various methods she used to overcome her problems. “I think what made it easier for me was the fact my goals were always clear. Dancing has been my whole life, and my adulthood has been dedicated to keep at it and keep dancing. As long as I kept that in mind, everything else would eventually fall into place.” Kusakari says she’s better equipped, physically and mentally, than she was in her twenties: “My body just works better for me, and I’ve learned to work with it instead of making all kinds of demands against it.”

The Japan Times recently spoke with Tamiyo Kusakari about ballet, fitness and her plans for the future.

Most people come to a physical crossroads at 40. Generally, it’s believed to be the age when bodily troubles and mental fatigue erupt and slow people down. How is it that you actually feel better than you did at 25?

Obviously, it’s not going to work if you decide at 40 to change your body. It takes years of preparation and I realized a little after my 30th birthday, that if I wanted to keep dancing on stage after 40, I had better take another approach to body-building. The methods I had been deploying in youth, like heavy practicing, supplement pills, vitamin pills and the like, weren’t prepping my body for what lay ahead. Those were just temporary, of-the-moment solutions but they weren’t long term.

What, specifically, were your new methods?

The biggest change was the change in diet. During my 20s, I ate meat simply because I liked it, but also because — like many other athletes — I believed that in order to dance and practice I needed meat to build my muscle system.

But then I was alerted to a new way of eating: macrobiotics. As we all know now, macrobiotics recommends brown rice, whole wheat, beans and organic vegetables and avoids sugar, meat and dairy products. Now it’s become quite a fad, but 10 years ago it was all very weird and new and needed some resolve to stick to it.

Yet you stuck to it.

Oh yes. The change in my body was astonishing. The more I continued with it, the less tired I became. Dancing is an extremely strenuous activity and the battle with fatigue is a big part of becoming a professional dancer. But here I was, eating vegetables and brown rice, dancing/practicing every day and gradually feeling much less tired than I did 10 years earlier. It was a revelation for me.

I keep thinking that if this whole macrobiotics thing had come in earlier, then the Japanese athletic world would have changed. For one thing, maybe I wouldn’t have had to endure so many injuries.

In your book, you talk about Pilates as well.

Yes, I highly recommend Pilates and yoga, for anyone interested in their bodies and the state of well-being. Strenuous workouts are a short-term solution, and if you really want to build muscle tone that would last you for a lifetime, then it’s better to switch to yoga and Pilates. These teach you to breathe deeply, open your blood vessels and use muscles that you never knew existed. It teaches you about balance, and to see the body as something connected and holistic.

Before, I pushed my body to work because I felt that to dance better, I had to develop a particular body part, and after that, another body part and so on. But Pilates made me realize that the body doesn’t work like that. Indeed, when I was 27 a trainer examined my hips and was surprised at how damaged they were. Clearly, I was approaching my body in an incorrect way.

Do you waver at all from the diet and your lifestyle?

Yes, when I know for certain that I’m not working the next day — though this doesn’t happen very often — I have a glass of wine with friends. And when I’m dancing on stage overseas, unless I can get a hotel room with a kitchenette, then I dine out. Still, I’m careful never to overeat, and always try to leave the table feeling a little hungry. That works much more effectively than you think, no matter what you eat. But again, everything revolves around the dancing, so there’s not too much wavering.

There’s been criticism about your book that it’s too disciplined and too athlete-specific, and that fans wanted to read more about your personal life.

Yes, I know. But when I was writing it, I wasn’t pitching it to a general audience, but more to people who were exercising, or thinking about changing their bodies, or athletes . . . people in more or less the same arena as I am. I wanted to share the knowledge that I acquired and to recommend what worked for me, and be honest about what didn’t.

There are millions of exercise and diet books out there, so obviously this wasn’t going to be a self-help book. I wanted to write about what it’s like for a professional ballerina, still dancing after 40, and the steps I took to get here.

Just for the record, what is your day like?

Actually, there’s not much to say about it because it’s all about dancing and practicing! My husband and I run our own company together, and he’s in the post-production process of his new film, so there’s a lot of work to be done there. And it seems like my own workload has expanded, rather than diminished, over the years.

During the day I’d be practicing, working, going to meetings or whatever, and at night I’d stay up to work at the computer. You see? Not very interesting. I don’t even have time to cook, so my mother — who lives with us — is in charge of the kitchen.

What’s your next project?

I’m going on tour for a stage production called “Soiree.” It kicks off in Paris, at the Champs Elysee Theatre in early September, and finishes in Yokohama late November. I’m going to be collaborating with choreographer Roland Petit, whom I’ve always admired. So this will be something extra special for me. I’ll also be working with a main cast of prominent dancers from East Asia — in fact, the subtitle is “Asian Beauty.”

Ballet is becoming quite a boom in Tokyo, and is especially popular among women in their 30s and 40s, many of whom had taken lessons when they were children and are coming back to the barre in their adulthood. What do you think about that?

I think Tokyo women are among the most self-aware and hard-working in the world. They push themselves so hard, and the objective is often less about stress-alleviation than self-improvement. In that sense, ballet or dancing may be ideal, because everyone is forced to confront themselves in floor-to-ceiling mirrors all the time.

Of course, many women join up to lose weight or correct their posture, but those are good motives, too. The point is that they want to change and they sense that ballet is the way to do it.

Did you know that Tokyo has more ballet schools per square meter than in any other city in the world? To me, this is astounding and quite wonderful.

But don’t you think that people here have a very stereotypical image of ballet?

Yes, I know! For many, especially men, ballet is still something that involves leggy young girls wearing tutus. While that world does exist, ballet is so much more; it’s about enhancing awareness of the body and the beauty of everything around you. You become more aware of your body, your mind, everything.

I think that women who sign up for ballet classes know this instinctively. It’s not just about wanting to change, but about enhancing who you already are.

I would like to say, though, that it’s a lot of work, and for people starting out as adults, getting to wear toe shoes is not just highly improbable but very dangerous. On another level, it’s great that this society is so open-minded about sports. At least in the big cities, people get to practice the sport of their choice. There are so many options here, and for that I’m very grateful.

Throughout your career you’ve been so motivated and so single-minded. What is it that enables you to choose ballet, above all else, and stick to that choice?

That’s . . . difficult to say really, or rather, it’s difficult when I try to answer that question with genuine sincerity. The thing about being a professional ballet dancer is that, in Japan, it’s not the kind of thing you can boast about because there’s really no money in it. Sponsors are few and far between and there’s no system to support dancing as an industry.

When I was younger, I would always ask myself why I chose ballet, why I wanted this so fiercely when there are so many other options out there? Choosing ballet means not choosing anything else because it’s an all-consuming, passionate activity. I always had this dilemma: I would dance, and then ask myself why I did it. But then my thinking would form a loop and I would be right back at the beginning: I dance, because it’s the only thing I can do, it’s a pillar of my existence and of my life.

I think the most anyone can do is to find what really matters to them, and then try to live that out as best as possible. That’s all there is to it.