After being nominated for one of the highest global honors in ballet in May, Misa Kuranaga could be forgiven for relaxing her grueling training regime or wondering what else she has left to achieve. But the 34-year-old from Osaka remains as motivated as ever.
As principal ballerina of the Boston Ballet she practices in class every morning, pushing herself to correct weaknesses and set goals for improvement. Unlike the intensive support given to students, professional dancers rarely receive corrections on form from teachers, and coaching is offered only on the ballet parts to be performed, so Kuranaga gratefully grabs every opportunity for feedback and takes the lead on her skill development. She attributes her self-disciplined approach to hitting bottom in Japan as a teenager after reaching the top very early.
“As a child, I won all the domestic competitions. Then my teacher told me there were no more competitions I could compete in until I was older,” she explains. “Since I was 9 years old my whole life had been about competing so I felt really lost.”
Without the drive to win and, being too young to become a ballet company member, Kuranaga found it difficult to focus on performances. She began to doubt the purpose of continuing. At age 18 — despite practicing ballet five times a week from age 7 — she was ready to give it up. Then she found out about the professional scholarship award at Prix de Lausanne. Winners could choose to be an apprentice at one of a host of globally renowned companies.
“Dancers usually have a list of top dance companies they want to enter, but I didn’t care where I would go,” she says. “I thought that only if I got something out of this competition might I stay in the ballet world. It was a personal challenge — for the last time.”
Kuranaga’s teacher requested San Francisco Ballet and Kuranaga won a one-year scholarship to be an apprentice there, leaving Japan in 2001. Looking back, she appreciates her period of self-doubt. Through it, she has become her greatest coach.
“I really gained back my motivation,” she says. “If I hadn’t hit the wall I might have burned out by now, but I still take ballet classes as a student every day. It’s funny to everyone but it’s how I am.”
Kuranga has learned the hard way that continual development is the key to success. Surprised by what she describes as the “big and rough” Balanchine style that pervaded San Francisco Ballet, she was reluctant to change her approach. After one year, she parted ways with the company. Now she recognizes that she “shouldn’t have been so stubborn but should have been open to change.”
Although living and working in the U.S. was “very tough” and companies — with their large number of performances — were unable to offer as much individual support to dancers as could Japanese companies, she embraced the challenge.
“For me, dancing in Japan was not an option at that time. Still now, I want to only perform as a guest in Japan. The repertoire is closed, and the ballet center is New York and Europe,” she says.
Kuranaga’s solution was to return to her studies at the School of American Ballet in New York. On graduation in 2003, she was offered a corps de ballet position at Boston Ballet before quickly rising through the ranks to become principal dancer in 2009, all while picking up prestigious awards along the way.
She has performed the works of classical and contemporary choreographers, building a vast repertoire, including Sleeping Beauty, The Nutcracker and Romeo and Juliet. Aside from Boston, she has headlined in galas in New York, Helsinki, Taipei, Tokyo, Dortmund and Florida.
“When I got promoted to principal dancer it was pretty exciting because I felt like I had waited for that moment my whole life, but I don’t want to make the same mistake I did when I was little,” she says. “My goals now are more general. Being a real ballerina is just the beginning of my career.”
Her focus remains on learning and performing. Given that aesthetics are critical in ballet, she has battled with her physical characteristics for much of her career. At 156 centimeters, she believes she is probably one of the shortest ballet dancers in the world and is not pleased with her body line.
“If you have the minimum required of everything like me, you need to maximize everything by being smart, mentally strong and motivated,” she says.
Thankfully, she adds, she is easily motivated by everyday things, be it a beautiful sky, a movie or a post on Instagram.
Also central to her work is inspiring upcoming dancers to keep going during tough times.
“You can be super talented, but if you don’t have a strong mentality, there’s no way you can sustain it. You have to do training to the level of an Olympic athlete every day and you have to love ballet to keep going,” she says. “My role now is to be a great role model for my company and the world.”
She hopes to help other dancers reach their potential, just as her first teachers did at Jinushi Kaoru Ballet School.
When the teachers saw 7-year-old Kuranaga during her fourth lesson, they were convinced she had been trained before, and that she could become a professional. It was that talent which Russian choreographer Yuri Grigorovich saw in 1993 as well.
At age 10, Kuranaga was too young to compete in the Moscow International Ballet Competition at the Bolshoi Theater, but that didn’t stop Grigorovich from asking her to perform the black swan solo with the winners. Being given such an opportunity was an experience Kuranaga never forgot, and she returned to compete in 2001.
“My goal was to really share my gratitude to be back there on the same stage. I wanted to do my best in every round and I got gold in the end,” she says. “My connection with Bolshoi is very warm and wonderful.”
With such fond memories of her time in Moscow, Kuranaga was excited to return to the stage there in May to celebrate her nomination for best female dancer at the Prix Benois de la Danse awards. Though she didn’t win, she remains positive.
“I have had many great moments in my dancing career and I know there is a lot more I can accomplish,” she says.
Name: Misa Kuranaga
Profession: Principal ballet dancer
Key moments in career:
1993 — First performance in Bolshoi Theater, Moscow
2001 — Wins professional scholarship award at Prix de Lausanne; wins a gold medal at the Moscow IBC
2009 — Becomes principal dancer at Boston Ballet
2017 — Nominated for Prix Benois de la Danse award
Words to live by: “Inspiration leads to motivation, motivation leads to action, action leads to success.”
Strengths: Easily inspired
Weaknesses: Body features
2001年 ローザンヌ国際バレエコンクール のプロ研修賞受賞、モスクワ国際 バレエコンクール金賞受賞
2009年 ボストン・バレエ団のプリンシパ ルに任命される