Nao Sakuma: The bold and the beautiful

Every now and again, a young dancer comes along who elevates the art of classical ballet. John Percival speaks to Nao Sakuma, who seems to just take everything in her stride
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The Independent Culture

Nao Sakuma: if you have not yet come across her name, think in terms of Birmingham Royal Ballet's equivalent to Covent Garden's Tamara Rojo and Alina Cojocaru – evidence that really distinctive, exceptional young talent does still exist in classical ballet. At 25, Sakuma ranks only as a soloist but anyone in the BRB management knows that she is their Girl Most Likely To Succeed. And at the end of the busy fortnight just coming up for her, a lot more people are going to be eagerly watching her future career.

The company is playing a fortnight at Sadler's Wells during which she takes the lead in Swan Lake for the first time ("My Mum will come from Japan to see me"). And at other performances she doesn't just sit at home but is cast in the showpiece pas de trois in that ballet. Then in a second programme, featuring a premiere, The Seasons, together with Frederick Ashton's Dante Sonata and David Bintley's "Still Life" at the Penguin Café, she has roles in all three works.

Sakuma loves to be stretched like that; "I like to be busy," she says. Her work as a dancer is her great pleasure, ever since she was first taken to the ballet aged about three. Seeing her dance around in the intervals, her mother asked "Would you like to learn ballet?" and got a very emphatic Yes for answer. They lived in Fukuoka, in the very south of Japan, and found the Michiko Komori studio there (ruefully, Sakuma comments "Nobody in Japan has heard of me because I don't come from Tokyo"). She continued attending class in the evenings right through her schooldays, and finally her teachers encouraged her to enter the Prix de Lausanne competition for student dancers with the idea of continuing her studies abroad.

"I didn't get further than the semi-finals," she says, "but one of the jurors really liked my dancing and recommended me to Merle Park" – at that time directing the Royal Ballet School. So she went there straight away and for the first year couldn't talk to anyone (the English she learned at school wasn't much help – "all grammar and such" – although she is now very fluent and expressive). But in her second year she spent three months dancing in the corps de ballet with BRB, after which they asked her to join and she had no hesitation about accepting. "I really like this company, because we are kept so busy."

There was a time, however, after she had settled in but before she began getting roles, when she felt underworked, and had the bright idea of asking permission to enter the international ballet competition in Jackson, Mississippi (something that seems never to have occurred to any of the English dancers).

She had to offer six solos, and besides the predictable classical choices she picked on a jaunty extract from Kenneth MacMillan's Elite Syncopations and also asked one of the leading dancers, Yuri Zhukov, who was keen on choreography, to create a number specially for her. "I had no thought of winning," she says, "I just liked the challenge and the chance to see what other dancers were doing". But her expectations proved unduly modest and she returned with the Special Jury Prize.

Soon after that (but my guess is that it was pure coincidence) she got her first leading role, the Sugar Plum Fairy in The Nutcracker, which she danced beautifully with another debutant, Chi Cao (Britain's only dancer from mainland China), who has been her most frequent partner ever since. They go beautifully together, not only in appearance, both of them small and trim, but in style and musical sensitivity too, and The Seasons will see them leading the Spring section.

Starting early in 1999, the roles came thick and fast for Sakuma, partly because of the BRB director David Bintley's liking for her work, but accelerated because she is a quick learner and apparently unfazed by being thrust into big parts at short notice. It happened when she was given only two weeks to learn and prepare Swanilda in Coppelia because another dancer was pregnant; it happened again when she was asked only four days before the premiere to take over the lead in Twyla Tharp's In the Upper Room, replacing an injured colleague. And it is not a question of rising to the magic of the occasion, she says, like other dancers who welcome the extra adrenalin rush: "I don't like hyper-excitement, I like to feel really calm; that's when I dance best."

Of course she has had her share of roles in Bintley's ballets, including unexpectedly Guinevere in Arthur. "It has a lot of acting, and she is an older woman, about forty I suppose, so before I did it I thought a lot about how she might feel." When we spoke, Sakuma had come directly from the rehearsal where Bintley had just completed the choreography of The Seasons, and she enthused about what he had choreographed to go with Verdi's magnificent music – "four beautiful grand pas de deux, one in every section".

But the company's recent spate of Sir Frederick Ashton's ballets also brought her an impressive handful of new parts, including one that seems to be a special favourite: Lise in La Fille mal gardée. "It has acting, but it also has lots of really wonderful dancing" – and she says that with a definite glint in her eye. About the same time she also took one of Ashton's most demanding pure-dance roles, as the ballerina in Scènes de ballet, to spectacular acclaim. Other dancers have spoken of Ashton's roles as difficult because of the complex head and shoulder choreography, but she didn't agree that it need be a problem: "Once you get used to his movement style, which is in all his ballets even though each uses it differently."

The imminence of Swan Lake seems not to cause her undue concern, and she reveals that she actually danced parts of it with her school in Japan – the "Black Swan" from Act Three when she was only twelve or thirteen, and later Odette in Act Two. "Of course, being so young I just thought about the technique", and now in rehearsal they are working on all the other aspects of the ballet.

She has herself done some teaching at her old school when she goes home on holiday every year, and says as if thinking of it for the first time, "Perhaps that's what I'll do when my career is over: teach the kids. Yes, I enjoy that." But it should be quite a while before that stage is reached, and meanwhile she does not admit to any particular ambition for the future: "I'll just take it as it comes".

So is there anything she really does not want to do in future? This time the answer comes quickly, and again it concerns Swan Lake. Can't we all sympathise when she says firmly: "I shall be happy never to dance cygnets again."

Sadler's Wells Theatre, London N1, 5-15 Sept. National Indoor Arena, Birmingham, 20-22 Sept