Profile of a Ballerina: Nao Kusuzaki

Nao Kusuzaki, Houston Ballet
Houston Ballet's Nao Kusuzaki (Photography by: Pam Francis)

Soloist Nao Kusuzaki dances with the Houston Ballet, where she has been performing since 2004. Born in Japan, Ms. Kusuzaki moved to the United States with her family as a child, and knew early on that she wanted to make dancing her career. Since that time, her dreams have come true. Promoted to soloist within the Houston Ballet in 2008, Ms. Kusuzaki's career is an inspiration to dancers of all ages.

Choosing a Ballet Career

LoveToKnow (LTK): When did you start dancing and when did you know that dancing was going to be your career?

Nao Kusuzaki (NK): My mother tells me I was dancing as soon as I could walk, and took me to a ballet school for my third birthday. I knew I wanted to dance as a career when my family moved to the US and I enrolled at the Washington School of Ballet in D.C. The school is affiliated with The Washington Ballet, and being in that environment, I realized that dance can be a career. I saw on a daily basis the process of how a professional company puts on a performance. I was 11 years old then.

LTK: Did you dabble in other dance forms or did you always know that ballet was your dance form of choice?

NK: In Japan, I had only been exposed to ballet, and I was lucky to have frequent guest teachers from Russia visit my rural town. It helped me adapt to different styles and teachers within classical ballet. Once in the US, modern dance, character, and jazz were included in the program at my ballet school. I loved exploring different ways of moving and the physicality in each form of dance, but ballet was my favorite throughout childhood.

Professional Ballet Training

LTK: Where have you trained?

Nao Kusuzaki in rehearsal
Nao Kusuzaki, Houston Ballet (Photography: Rosalie O'Connor)

NK: I started at Yatsuzuka Ballet School in Ehime, Japan, where I trained for seven years; then at Washington School of Ballet in Washington D.C. for four years; and finally at Boston Ballet School for four years.

LTK: What is the formal training of a ballerina like?

NK: Building a solid foundation at a young age is crucial. Because of ballet's physical nature, learning correct technique, good habits, and building strength and flexibility early in training contributes significantly later on. For an aspiring ballerina, it's practice, practice, practice. Also, cross training, injury prevention, learning anatomy and kinesiology are all important. Dancing in other environments during the summer or participating in intensive programs or ballet competitions pushes the dancer to a new level. I also believe that learning a musical instrument, going to see many professional ballet performances and being exposed to ballerinas, and expressing oneself through other outlets, like choreography and other art forms, are all important in making a well-rounded ballerina.

Performance Career

LTK: Training is more than class and rehearsal; what have you learned from performance?

NK: I learn so much from performing! To name a few, I learned to trust my instincts, how to be prepared for whatever may happen on stage, and to be able to fix on the spot, so no one in the audience notices. I continue to learn the best way to calm my nerves and be in the moment. Other things include learning where the light hits on my face, shadow is created, where to focus ... so much!

LTK: Can you tell us what has enabled you to move up in the Houston Ballet?

NK: I think hard work and experience, patience and establishing my style are key, everything that makes me a unique dancer. Also, understanding what the director/choreographer looks for in his dancers helped me.

LTK: What are your aspirations within the Houston Ballet?

Nao Kusuzaki onstage
Nao Kusuzaki in La Bayadère (Choreography: Stanton Welch; Photography: Amitava Sarkar)

NK: My goals are to dance more leading roles and inspire many in the audience; to be a great role model for younger dancers and to share what I've learned with them; and ultimately, to become a principal dancer.

LTK: Are there roles you have never danced that you hope to one day get the opportunity to perform?

NK: Giselle in Giselle, Bella Figura (Kylian), Juliet in Romeo and Juliet. Empty House (Johan Inger), Artifact, Second Detail (Forsythe), Odette in Swan Lake, works by Christian Spuck, Maillot, Lightfoot Leon, and many more.

Advice for Young Ballerinas

LTK: What advice would you give young dancers hoping to join a professional ballet company?

NK: Keep an open mind, and don't be discouraged every time things don't go your way. Do your research and be well informed on the company you're interested in. Sometimes what you hear and what suits you the best may be very different. Be confident in your individuality and your own style. Continue to learn and grow as an artist, and find creative ways to make yourself unique and stand out from others. Once in the company, you will find dancers from many different backgrounds. Respect each one's training, and embrace the differences.

LTK: What are the most important things to remember when choosing a career in ballet?

NK: Always remind yourself why you decided to do this in the first place. It's easy to get caught up in the problems of the moment. Go back to the roots and remember where it all started so that you keep a clear purpose and intention in your work. A career in ballet is too short to waste any time!

Watching Ms. Kusuzaki and the Houston Ballet

Ms. Kusuzaki performs regularly with the Houston Ballet. Check their season schedule for opportunities to watch Ms. Kusuzaki on stage in one of her favorite roles. To get an idea of her expressive style, check out the YouTube clip for Falling (Stanton Welch choreography) or the promotional Houston Ballet video in which she is featured.

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Profile of a Ballerina: Nao Kusuzaki