After 23 years with the company, principal dancer Nao Sakuma retired recently from Birmingham Royal Ballet. She talks with David Mead…
From Fukuoka in the south of Japan, Nao Sakuma always wanted to be a dancer, and it was always ballet. Her mother took her to a performance when she was very young. “I don’t remember but apparently I danced in the aisle in the interval and told her I really wanted to do ballet.”
After studying at the Michiko Komori Ballet School, Nao earned a place at The Royal Ballet School, in 1995 becoming one of then new Birmingham Royal Ballet director David Bintley’s first picks from the graduating students, along with Chi Cao, who would become a regular stage partner. Twenty-three years in Birmingham is a long time, she agrees, “but it doesn’t feel like that long. It just went so quickly.”
It’s unusual these days for dancers to remain with one company throughout their career, but Nao says she never thought once about moving on. “I always liked the British style of ballet. I always wanted to join The Royal Ballet or Birmingham Royal Ballet when I was at the Royal Ballet School. So, when I got into the company, it was just perfect. I really liked the repertoire too. Even though I did so many roles many times over the years, it was always challenging to do them better or try something a different way.”
Over the years, Nao had a very special onstage relationship with Chi. “I always felt really comfortable dancing with him. We know each other so well as dancers and as people. I just know how he moves, and he knows how I move. We don’t have to think about it. And if there was a problem, we could discuss it frankly.” Just as important was that they hear music the same way, she believes. “Dancers do hear music in different ways but when I breathe with the music, he breathes the same way.”
Nao admits to having a strong preference for classical ballet. “I’m not really good at contemporary things. I never really got into them.” Choosing a favourite role is difficult, though. She closed her Birmingham Royal Ballet career with Lise in Frederick Ashton’s La Fille mal gardée. “It’s such a fun ballet to do, and I really want to say Lise, but maybe it should be Swan Lake. The music is really beautiful and it is every dancer’s dream role. It was so special to dance it for the first time in 2001. It was also the first ballet I did when I came back from having my daughter, Karen.” I danced that with my husband, Yasuo Atsuji, which made it even more special.” Nao also looks back fondly on dancing the Young Girl in The Two Pigeons. “We had an amazing standing ovation which was incredible.”
Most challenging, though, were David Bintley’s full-length ballets. “All of them! Some of the pas de deux he makes are very beautiful but quite tricky.” She admits to sometimes having a ‘will this work’ moment and getting a little nervous. “That was true, even in Sylvia, which he made on Chi and I. The big pas de deux in that was especially hard. But like all classical ballet, the more you practice, the more you feel OK.”
Although she loves the classics, Nao always had a talent for the light comedy ballets like Fille or Pineapple Poll, another by Ashton, which she says is her favourite one-act ballet. Nao was a master of the expressive look, and especially rolling the eyes in utter disbelief or mortification at something she had done. “I don’t know if I’m a funny person or not, but I just find it really easy to do comedy things. It comes much more naturally than Juliet. I really enjoy them. Doing something like Lise, I feel like I really don’t have to act.” Many will also recall her rollocking performances as Katerina in Cranko’s The Taming of the Shrew a couple of years ago.
Speaking the day before she performed with Chi for the last time in Kenneth MacMillan’s Romeo and Juliet, Nao admitted she wasn’t sure how she would feel, how emotional she would get. “If start thinking that we’ve been dancing together for 23 years or something like that, I will lose it. I just have to be professional, be Juliet and not think about the past or history. I don’t know if I’m trying to pretend that everything’s fine. But it’s good that I can finish with Chi.”
Fortunately, she says they held everything in pretty well. “The show didn’t become a disaster with too much emotion! But I was very emotional at the end when we did the curtain calls and had the shower of flowers. It was such a great way to finish in Birmingham.”
Nao’s final performance with the company came a week later in Bristol in Fille, with Yasuo as Colas. “I thought I wouldn’t get emotional at all, partly because it’s a comedy ballet and partly because I thought I used everything up the week before in Birmingham. But everything came to the surface in the last pas de deux. It was nice way to end my career.”
Her final curtain call was stolen somewhat by her 3-year-old daughter, though. “I had no idea Karen would come on with flowers. It was a nice surprise. I loved it! She had watched the whole ballet from a box and Nao says she still asks questions like, ‘Why was mummy home alone in Act 3?’ and ‘Why was mummy’s scarf yellow to start with but then pink?’ “I guess she loved it!”
Nao’s mother-in-law came over from Japan to help with the childcare, including on tour, but she says the last couple of years balancing dancing with being a mum, has been “pretty full on!” She always liked to take her time after rehearsals and just to be in the theatre or around the company. “I would practice in any spare time, even in my lunchbreak. But after having Karen, I just didn’t have time. I was in for just for class and rehearsal, then as soon as I was finished I had to go and pick her up. And, of course, there were important things like cooking for her and playing with her.” She says it felt like 24 hours was never enough, even though Yasuo’s mother was been a big help.
Not that Nao ever thought of retiring, even after a difficult 27-hour labour. “I never had even one per cent of doubt. I didn’t stop doing classes until three days before Karen was born and, afterwards, I just wanted to get back as quick as possible. As soon as I felt I was OK to move, I started doing a little bit of exercise. I didn’t really find coming back hard, even when I did Swan Lake.” It helped that Yasuo was playing her Prince. “We don’t have to hold back. I can say “Can you do this?” and we don’t fall out.” Looking back, though, she thinks her body wasn’t back properly. “Not out of shape, but my pelvis was different and my hips were a little tight. I thought I was OK but it took a while for me to move how I used to move.”
Nao has just danced the Giselle pas de deux with Yasuo at a performance by his old ballet school in his hometown in Japan. Looking forwards, she has no firm plans, although she would like to pass on her experience and knowledge. She has done a little teaching and coached Princess Aurora ahead of the company’s performances of The Sleeping Beauty earlier in the year. “I know the role back to front and I really enjoyed that. I think the girls did too.” I suspect Birmingham’s audiences, with whom Nao was always popular, would hope a way can be found.
Birmingham Royal Ballet will return with La Fille mal gardée at the Birmingham Hippodrome from September 26, 2018; followed by Fire and Fury, a double-bill featuring David Bintley’s The King Dances and the world premiere of Juanjo Arqués’ Ignite, inspired by Turner’s painting The Burning of the House of Lords and Commons. For details, visit www.brb.org.uk/whats-on.
Coming soon on SeeingDance: David Mead talks to Nao’s long-time stage partner, Chi Cao.