Popra Nakayama is always busy. This morning the Tokyo native, now New York-based performer attended her regular ballet class. Then, right after our talk in a cafe, she says she has to rush off to instruct a dance fitness course. For two years Nakayama has been teaching “PopFit,” a course she developed herself that combines different styles and elements from ballet, dance cardio, yoga and Pilates.
“When participating in fitness classes, I always feel there is something that is left out in a single session,” she explains. “You can get a more efficient and effective and satisfying workout by combining the different styles.”
This, pragmatic approach, it seems, is how Nakayama tackles matters in general: Why not try something new and see how far you can go with it?
Almost six years ago, Nakayama arrived in New York to follow her dream. She hoped to perform in a musical on Broadway. She attended a two-year full-time acting course at HB studio, then spent one year on a work permit, after which she was able to land herself a highly sought-after artist visa.
It didn’t take long before she found herself dancing in various off-Broadway musical shows — “Frankenstein,” “Beauty and the Beast,” “The Little Mermaid,” “War+Lovers,” and “A Christmas Carol” among others. Her latest show, “Alice in Wonderland,” premiered last week.
Other achievements include performing at the prestigious Carnegie Hall, as the opening act of “Kajiki’s Artist Show” and, notably, at the United Nations Headquarters for Guan Gong’s 1,856th Birthday Anniversary World Guan Gong Community Global Grand Opening Celebration. There, she performed a self-choreographed dance inspired by calligraphy that included acrobatic moves and elements of Chinese fan dance.
“I wanted to grow as a performer in the entertainment capital of the world,” says Nakayama when asked about leaving Japan. But of course, there was more to the story than that.
While studying at college in Tokyo, Nakayama had wanted to become a flight attendant. But, at 19, she had a sudden change of heart and wanted to become a performer. The only issue was that she had never taken dance lessons and 19 was considered a little late in age to start.
Nevertheless, she began taking classes in dance and vocal training, working her way to up to taking part in auditions.
In truth, Nakayama was not completely unfamiliar with the entertainment business. Her mother used to be a professional backup dancer for Pink Lady, a Japanese pop idol group from the late 1970s and early 1980s, and a jazz, salsa and samba dancer. Her father, Kazuya Nakayama, is an actor, best-known for his main role in “Izo” (2004) directed by Takashi Miike.
“Somewhere inside of me I didn’t want to admit that I wanted to become an artist myself,” she says. “I stayed away from the field. But once I turned 19, I just wanted to try (and see) how far I could go.”
It wasn’t easy going, but her best friend in Tokyo encouraged her, pushing and supporting her to keep taking auditions. Though she says she failed many times, Nakayama eventually landed her first gig at Roppongi Kingyo, a musical theater performance in Roppongi, where she performed six days a week, 12 shows a week, dealing with challenging quick changes for multiple costumes and dancing on a stage with moving platforms.
“After one and a half years, I started to feel I was hitting the ceiling of my development as a performer by being there. I realized what I really wanted to do was combine my dancing, acting and singing abilities,” she recalls. “There was no place for me to showcase all my abilities. I wanted to grow as a performer.”
It was then, again with the support of her best friend, Nakayama decided to take the leap and move to the States.
For Nakayama, America has its advantages. She prefers the casual and open atmosphere when it comes to business.
“There is no keigo (formal Japanese). You can easily connect with people in the same field and, even if the person is higher up, like a director or a producer, you can always give your opinion and they would listen,” she explains. “There is no wall compared to the community in Japan.”
She adds that the environment fosters encouragement and opportunities.
“It is this accessibility that enables me to challenge myself because I have less hesitation to pursue new things,” she says.
Nakayama tried to take every opportunity she could, and, luckily, they kept coming. She took part in so many different projects that she gained enough work and acclaim to allow her to apply for an artist visa.
“New York is a good place to explore yourself and what you want,” she says of her experience. “I always feel inspired by this city — its craziness and its chaos. I like the unique people here. I often get inspiration from seeing performers on the subway.”
In comparison, Tokyo, she explains, has a small musical sector, and projects are hard to monetize. Also, she says, “In terms of musicals, there is only one big theater company.”
She doesn’t claim finding work in New York as easy, though
“Of course, there is a lot of competition, it’s the best of the best (here),” she says. “I can’t compete as a dancer with the best dancers, as I didn’t train since I was 3 years old. But I can compete with a combination of all my abilities.”
Last year, Nakayama auditioned for the “Miss Saigon” show on Broadway for the first time. She made it to the final auditions for a singing and dancing part. Though she didn’t get the role, she is optimistic, saying, “If you keep trying, there are always people watching you. Eventually you will be picked up.”
Broadway may have been her initial dream, but she is now also pursuing action film acting work by training in samurai sword fighting and Muay Thai boxing.
“Since I’m a dancer I want to show my physical abilities. Also since English is also my second language, it can be a bit of a barrier.” she says. “Sword fighting is all about choreography. You have to remember the movements to be in sync with your partner. Maybe some day I can portray a character from Japanese culture.”
Currently she is involved in some indie film projects. It’s a start — but, of course, Nakayama will keep pushing on to see how much further she can make it in films, too.
Name: Popra Nakayama
Profession: Musical performer
Key moments in career:
2011 — Starts career as a dancer in Tokyo
2013 — Moves to New York and starts studying at the HB Studio acting school
2014-19 — Performs in “Sleepy Hollow” and continues to regularly perform in other off-Broadway musical shows, including “Cinderella,” “Beauty and the Beast,” “Frankenstein” “The Little Mermaid” and “A Christmas Carol,” and “War+Lovers”
2015 — Performs as a dancer in “Omotenashi Journey,” the opening act of “Kajiki’s Artist Show” at Carnegie Hall
2016 — Co-directs, choreographs and performs an original dance for the Guan Gong’s 1,856th Birthday Anniversary World Guan Gong Community Global Grand Opening Celebration at the United Nations Headquarters in New York
2017 — Takes role of dance captain for “Mad Mel Saves the World,” at Midtown International Theater Festival in New York
2019 — Joins musical “Alice in Wonderland” and begins rehearsals for the role of the real-life female samurai, Takeko Nakano for the play “Women Who Made a Difference”
What I miss about Japan: “My family; freshly cooked rice that gleams like jewels, fish … actually, all Japanese food; going to shrines and being able to have moments of deep spiritual reflection. (Shrines are hard to come by in New York); chilling on tatami mats that have a nice grassy scent; and natural open-air hot springs where I can drink sake.”