Misa Kuranaga may be a tiny little thing, but she is an absolute spitfire. At 10 years old, she was personally invited by legendary director of Russia’s Bolshoi Ballet, Yuri Grigorovich, to come perform at the star-studded Moscow International Ballet Competition Gala Performance. After winning a Scholarship at the famed Prix de Lausanne, she went on to study at the School of American Ballet (SAB) and win her own gold medal at the Moscow International Ballet Competition eight years later.
After joining the Boston Ballet in 2003, Kuranaga has risen up through the ranks and was last week promoted to the company’s highest rank, Principal, in the midst of its “Jewels” run. One of Boston’s most beloved dancers, she is regularly invited to guest internationally, and as a homecoming of sorts, participated in SAB’s 75th anniversary gala performance with the New York City Ballet (NYCB) several weeks ago, an experience she calls the “highlight” of her year. She recently sat down with The Harvard Crimson to tell us more about her career as a ballerina.
The Harvard Crimson (THC): Tell me about your transition from Japan to New York, before Boston.
Misa Kuranaga (MK): It was a little bit of a shock. It was definitely different. My training in Japan was very classical. Of course I knew [Balanchine’s, a famous choreographer’s] work, like Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux, Theme and Variations, the big stuff, but I had no idea how it should look, since I had never seen NYCB. I went first to San Francisco as an apprentice, and I got to learn “Rubies” and the “Emeralds corps” from Jewels, but I didn’t know how to be big, I didn’t know how to be dynamic, in the Balanchine way.
THC: How instrumental was the SAB in molding you into the versatile dancer that you are today?
MK: One of the teachers at San Francisco said to me, “You know, if you don’t know how to dance Balanchine, you will not get a job in this country. You will not survive, so you really have to change.” I decided to go to SAB to get the real training, and that was just a blessing. It changed me so much, how to use my feet, my turnout, the quickness, everything, and that was something that I needed at that point. I was really lucky that I didn’t get a job at first, because I really sat down and said, “I have to retrain myself.” When the teachers [at SAB] saw me, they probably thought, “Oh god, this girl is impossible.” They said “Ok, Misa, you really have to do this, and change that, you need to put the hair up and away,” I had bangs, and I just listened to them every day, and I tried to do what they said. I learned a lot from Suki [Schorer] and Suzy [Pilarre]. Suki used to call me “Sushi,” like “Miso, sushi!”
THC: Ballet competitions have played such an important role in your career—how did you approach them?
MK: I don’t think competitions are necessary, but for my life, they were. When you have this strong goal you have to work towards, you improve so much more. So many people think of a competition as competing with other people and being better: better extensions, more pirouettes, everything “more.” But to me a competition is like a gala. You show yourself, and you go out there, and you express yourself as you. That’s my biggest goal. Doing big full-length classical ballets, or not getting enough rehearsal for Balanchine, it’s almost more nerve-wrecking. But [in competition] you have a choice to be nervous or not to be, to compete with other people or not to. You always have control, and that’s important to me.
THC: What is the rehearsal process like for you at Boston Ballet?
MK: Everything depends on what you’re doing, how close to the performance it is. Sometimes I have to dance for six hours. That’s hard. I think the learning process is the hardest. You have to be standing and learning all day, so it’s a lot of brainwork. When I’m working on Balanchine, the stagers and ballet masters tell me, for example, “Use your hips more,” but I know now what the Balanchine ballets should look like, I have the vision, the image.
THC: What is your work and thought process like when you prepare roles?
MK: For Jewels, I watched Patricia McBride on tape. I usually watch it a couple of times so that I can have some idea of how the original cast did it and try to be as close to it as I can, but also bring some of myself into it. I used to be crazy about videos, watching them all the time. I’ve gotten to be a little bit better at that. When I did the lead in La Fille Mal Gardée, I had to watch the Royal Ballet [of London] tape every day. Every day. And I got to say, “Oh, I don’t like that,” or “I love that. Im going to take that.”
THC: What are your future plans?
MK: I definitely want to do all the classical ballets, and my dream role, Juliet. And I want to do [MacMillan’s] Manon… and John Neumeier’s Lady of the Camellias. So I have all these dream roles I want to do, and I would love to guest with NYCB again if I had the chance. I have been doing more galas in Japan, and maybe I will go to Europe. I’m thinking of projects.
THC: Favorite ice cream flavor?
MK: Green tea ice cream. And mango sorbet. I actually put that on my Facebook page today.