When Misa Kuranaga left Japan for a one -year apprenticeship at the San Francisco Ballet, in 2001, her goal was to one day become a principal ballerina. But she soon discovered that realizing this dream would require studying not only ballet but English, too.
Raised in Osaka, Kuranaga, 35, began ballet lessons at age 7. She was so talented that her teachers were convinced that she had been trained before. At age 10, Russian choreographer Yuri Grigorovich spotted her talent and invited her to perform at the Moscow International Ballet Competition at the Bolshoi Theatre.
Kuranaga also caught the eyes of judges in Japan, thanks to her rigorous regime of training five times a week. She won every domestic ballet competition before winning a professional scholarship at the Prix de Lausanne in Switzerland.
Her destination was the San Francisco Ballet: the first professional ballet company in the United States and among the world’s leading dance companies. She was excited, but her lack of English ability soon dampened her spirits. Like most students in Japan, Kuranaga had studied English for years, but found it unfit for her purposes. “The teachers taught us grammar but that’s like teaching math problems — you never use it when you grow up,” she explained, adding that she had no experience of hearing “real” English spoken by a native speaker before she landed in California.
“At first, everything sounded like sounds, not words, and sentences sounded like the wind,” she said.
Though the other dancers were kind and patient, Kuranaga learned little English. She lived in a long-term hotel provided for the foreign dancers, so heard more Asian and European languages than English and relied on the large local community of Japanese-Americans for daily life. This meant she struggled in her lessons.
“In the studio I could catch only the ballet words. I was so useless. The ballet mistress would say ‘go left’ and I would go right. Companies can’t use those kind of dancers; everyone has to understand the instructions,” she said.
Though most of her peers joined companies after completing their apprenticeships, Kuranaga opted for what she describes as “a career detour.” She joined the School of American Ballet in New York, where both academic and ballet classes were compulsory. From 8 a.m. to 11 a.m. every day she studied English, history and math, graduating at U.S. high school level. “It was a school for professional performing artists, but I really didn’t want to go,” she said. However, looking back, she admits that it was the “best thing” she could have done. Not only did it help her understand the ballet lessons, but it set the groundwork for her diverse and international career.
Since 2009, Kuranaga has been principal ballerina for the Boston Ballet, a role she attributes, in part, to her English ability. Due to the speed with which season move in prestigious companies, dancers are expected to learn very quickly, and she has been able to not simply keep up but excel. Her performances, including the lead in Sleeping Beauty, The Nutcracker and Romeo and Juliet, have drawn a following from far and wide, giving her the opportunity to compete and perform as a guest ballerina around the world. Her latest triumph was her nomination for best female dancer at the Prix Benois de la Danse awards in Moscow — the highest global honor in ballet — in May 2017. Keen on self-improvement, she has completed online university courses to learn how to be her own agent. She does everything herself for her guest performances, from contracts to scheduling to promotion in English, which she describes as challenging and rewarding.
“I have learned so much English. And, English is a most useful tool. It helps me with what I’m interested in — connecting with people,” she said. Her efforts have paid off. She has appeared as a visiting ballerina abroad in Helsinki; Taipei; Moscow; Dortmund, Germany; and Tokyo. She uses English, the global language of ballet.
Kuranaga’s advice to others: “If someone is pushing you to learn English, you never will, but as long as it is you who wants to learn, you will. You don’t need to speak perfect English. Always try, always do your best.”
Words to live by