The 44-year-old ballerina who can jump like she's 17

Catching up with Pacific Northwest Ballet's Kaori Nakamura, who will take her last bow in 'Giselle,' opening this weekend.
Catching up with Pacific Northwest Ballet's Kaori Nakamura, who will take her last bow in 'Giselle,' opening this weekend.

She is petite, strong, Japanese and a big fan of Hello Kitty.

But one of the most remarkable characteristics about Pacific Northwest Ballet’s Kaori Nakamura is her age: She’s 44. And even at 44, after hundreds of ballet classes, ballet rehearsals and ballet performances that have carved away and pounded at her body, Nakamura is, by many accounts, at the top of her game.

“Kaori is jumping like when she was 17 or 18. She’s jumping that high,” says PNB’s artistic director Peter Boal.

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Pacific Northwest Ballet principal dancer Kaori Nakamura with company dancers in Alexei Ratmansky’s Don Quixote. Photo: Angela Sterling.

“Usually your dancing has taken a beating as you’re getting older. But at 44, she’s in the best shape of her life,” says fellow dancer Jerome Tisserand.

“I tell her every year she gets better and younger,” says another PNB dancer, Jonathan Porretta. “She never looks sore. She never looks like she’s hurting. I still think there’s no reason for her to retire.”

But she is. After 17 years with PNB, Nakamura is about to dance her final performances at McCaw Hall. She’s scheduled to dance the lead role in two performances of the full-length ballet Giselle, which opens May 30. Then she’ll take the stage for a farewell rep on June 8.

She’s the oldest person in the company — likely one of the oldest, if not the oldest, principal ballerinas in the country. And the fact that her career is about to end, well, it’s just not something she’s thinking about too much.

“It’s getting really emotional,” she says. “I try not to think about my last show because it’s too much, you know? Every day it’s more and more like my heart is heavy and sad. And at the same time, I’m excited.”

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Pacific Northwest Ballet principal dancer Kaori Nakamura backstage before a performance of Ronald Hynd’s The Sleeping Beauty. Photo: Angela Sterling

She’s on a lunch break before rehearsal. Lunch is a container of watermelon. Her hair is pulled back. She wears a gray “Long Beach Ballet” hoodie. She carries a Louis Vuitton bag with a pink water bottle in it.

She had actually made up her mind to retire at the end of last season, not because she was injured but “I just don’t want to look bad on stage,” she explains. It’s every dancer’s worst nightmare.

But when she told Boal about her decision, he convinced her to hold off for one more year.

“Well, look at her,” Boal says. “You can’t retire too early when you’re dancing that well. Kaori takes such great care of herself. She’s so meticulous. She’s so professional. She doesn’t cut corners.”

For example, she never misses daily company class, which is optional. And at the end of class, when there are combinations of jumps to perform, Boal says Nakamura always performs them.

“A lot of veteran dancers will say, ‘I don’t need the jumps. I’m fine without them.’ Kaori does every combination and you know, it’s like you’re saying, ‘I’m going to only brush half my teeth.’ You have to brush them all. That’s how she approaches dancing.”

Porretta recalls joining the company 15 years ago and becoming “obsessed” after seeing Nakamura for the first time.

“She’s just this little powerhouse. I think she’s one of the greatest ballerinas I’ve ever met.”

That greatness is her physical prowess, he and others point out. But it’s also the way she can take on all kinds of roles: from the quintessential classical ballerina princess (“Sleeping Beauty”) to a quirky street kid (“Afternoon Ball”) to a total vamp (“Nine Sinatra Songs.”)

How I’ll always remember Nakamura is when she chopped off all her hair, sometime back in 2009. It made her even more striking, I thought, as she swam and knifed the air in “Petit Mort,” paired up with Lucien Postlewaite.

And then there was the exquisite “Romeo and Juliet,” this time with James Moore. Nakamura was delicate, she was in control, she was achingly coy.

There’s a quote attributed to the legendary dancer and choreographer Martha Graham that goes like this:  ''A dancer dies twice — once when they stop dancing, and this first death is the more painful.''

I don’t tell Nakamura this, but I run the quote past Boal, who retired in 2005 from the New York City Ballet after 22 years.

Crosscut archive image.“You can’t replace it, what it is to perform on stage. And even when you go back and perform in character roles, it’s not a replacement. There’s something about being at the epitome of your profession and taking it out to your audience. I can’t find any other thing that’s as rewarding. Not just physically, but also intellectual and emotionally rewarding.”

At right: An early childhood photo of Pacific Northwest Ballet principal dancer Kaori Nakamura. Photo courtesy of Kaori Nakamura

Every athlete, which includes dancers, knows the time will one day come when they can no longer do what they were born to do. Nakamura, who started dancing at age 7, says she wanted to make sure she was leaving before anyone could whisper, Eww, look at her. She’s no longer that good.

“As a ballet dancer, we do a lot of arabesques and my leg, it’s getting lower,” she laughs.

Her next career will be as a teacher at PNB’s school, which is of some comfort to her boss and her colleagues, who say they will at least get to see her regularly. But on a recent afternoon, Nakamura still had dancing to do. She slipped into her pointe shoes and a pink skirt. She took out a towel so she could later mop herself up. And as she rehearsed, taking on a flirty, fully-in-love Giselle, I watched an entire room of company dancers and ballet school children on the sidelines stop stretching, stop chatting, stop texting. Entirely absorbed.

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