Interview

Archive: Nao Sakuma interview

It's Wednesday lunchtime, when we meet Japanese-born Nao Sakuma. The night before, she danced the lead role in the Company's opening performance of Romeo and Juliet at Birmingham Hippodrome. But despite another six virtually sold-out performances scheduled for the rest of the week, she won't be dancing the role again.

'It's quite common because there's so many of us playing the part,' she explains. 'For Nutcracker in particular it happens quite often, because we have so many girls dancing the Sugar Plum Fairy. Even if there's seven shows in a week you only get to do it once. And this season we've got seven Juliets.'

It's a popular role, and Romeo is just as sought after, with each Juliet being partnered by a different male dancer. Nao herself is deliberately avoiding too many rehearsals.

'I usually like a lot of time to really prepare myself for each new ballet,' she reveals. 'But for Romeo and Juliet I'd rather not rehearse too much. Juliet is a bit of a tricky role for me, because apart from a few moments it's not technically or physically that demanding. It's much harder for Romeo but not hard for Juliet! What's important is the spontaneity. If you do too many shows in a row you can lose the feeling of freshness. In fact, yesterday's performance was the first time that I'd danced the third act since our summer performances in Cardiff, and it felt really good.'

'For Romeo and Juliet I'd rather not rehearse too much. What's important is the spontaneity.'

It's slightly odd to think of someone feeling good having just played the part of Juliet. Needless to say, the events depicted in Kenneth MacMillan's classical masterpiece do not go swimmingly for our heroine. When portraying such a dramatic role, some dancers might turn to powerful memories from their own lives, in an attempt to muster up the necessary emotion.

'That never works for me,' says Nao. 'For me, it works when I'm actually trying to be that character. I just imagine what it would be like if I was Juliet, and that's always enough. There's enough passion and tragedy in the story. When everything goes wrong for her in Act III, I'm thinking as if I was Juliet.'

This immersive technique means that Nao has little time to relax once the show has begun. 'Usually, even during the best show you've ever done, you don't have time to reflect on your performance,' she says. 'There's no time to think "Oh my gosh I'm really on form tonight!" or "this show is really something special!"'

It is only during the curtain call that she feels calm enough to stop and start thinking as Nao Sakuma again, rather than Juliet Capulet. As well as her own thoughts on the show, it is also the moment when she can measure the audience's reaction. 'When I feel that appreciation from the audience, I know that all of that effort was worth it, and that always encourages me for the next show', she says. 'During the ballet the lights on the stage are so bright, but it's pitch black out in the auditorium, so we can't see anything in the darkness. That's why I appreciate British audiences, because they respond throughout the show and you feel comfortable with them. For comedies like La Fille mal gardée, the audience always laughs throughout the piece so you know they're enjoying it. You get excited hearing that, and it's important to you as a dancer.'

While Nao is comfortable dancing in front of large numbers of people, she confesses that one other type of public performance fills her with dread. 'Sometimes I get asked to make speeches in front of people. I've only done it a few times but I am always so nervous! I've been dancing in front of people since I was five years old, and even now I always make sure I have enough time to rehearse and to prepare. But to stand up and speak in front of a room full of people? That's not something that I usually do, and I never feel comfortable!'

'These days I think in English'

It's something that Nao was asked to do this summer. 'I was asked to be a ballet competition judge during the summer holiday', she explains. 'On the day of the competition, with half an hour to go, they told me that they'd decided to have all the judges give short speeches, and I thought "OH NO!"' Nao gamely agreed, although being in her native Japan offered no advantage. 'These days I think in English', says Nao.

'I speak Japanese fluently, and still speak to my family quite regularly, but I don't necessarily think about the formality of my language. And I was scared I was going to freeze up or not be able to think of anything to say! I had to apologise first and explain that I was out of practise and to please forgive me if I failed to explain myself properly!'

Thankfully Nao's concerns were unfounded, and her speech went down just as well as her performance as Juliet last night. 'They really liked my speech and even the other judges said it was really touching. I almost made them cry!'