Dancing through a pandemic has its plethora of challenges, but lucky for us, Pacific Northwest Ballet has a fully digital season in the works to share with subscribers. Not only are we back in action at the ballet, but we are also thrilled to welcome a new dancer, Kuu Sakuragi, to the Corps de Ballet. During this pandemic, burn out has been real and widespread. The unknown could be suffocating, but the time has also given a chance to gain perspective. For Kuu, looking forward to the 20/21 virtual season, his goal is to reignite his passion for dance.
“During this pandemic… my goals kind of went away. I was figuring out other things in my life, like what I am interested in besides dance. I kind of let my passion for dance dim down a bit. I don’t think it was a bad thing… it was happening all around the world. For this season, I just want to get back into it and light up that passion for dance. I feel like I might find some new things about me that I didn’t know in the past because my perspective has changed now because I haven’t danced in a while.”
Kuu is local to the PNW. He grew up in Bellevue, WA, and started his dance journey on scholarship at Pacific Northwest Ballet School, through the DanceChance program. “When I first started I didn’t like ballet whatsoever. I didn’t understand the art form. When I got a scholarship, my Mom made me do it.” It wasn’t until he started performing in Kent Stowell’s Nutcracker that he realized there was a reason why he was training every day. “Being around other professional dancers when I was kid made me feel at home. When I watched other people dance, I felt like I could do this [professionally]. It wasn’t like ‘I want to be a ballet dancer’ after I saw my first show. It was more like my Mom kept dragging me to the PNB shows and now it all makes sense. I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for my Mom.”
Kuu grew through the levels at PNBS and spent 2 years in the Professional Division before launching his career with Alberta Ballet in 2017. He looks back fondly at his time as a PD student and considers performing in Next Step a highlight of his early career. “One show is all you got. Everything right there. Whether you mess up or not, it doesn’t matter because you just have to perform.” Kuu was selected for the Principal role in George Balanchine’s Valse Fantaisie as a part of PNB School Performance in 2017. He loved the versatility of the role and the opportunity to interpret it in his own way. “I watched a bunch of old Balanchine videos and how one person does it versus another. Someone on Instagram posted Peter Boal doing the solo and I loved watching how different his energy was. When I watched myself perform, it was my version!” Kuu is the type of dancer that goes all in at 110%. He’s had to “learn to control when [he] goes too crazy. Sometimes you need to go 90%, and chill out, and save yourself for the end. Valse Fantaisie was a good lesson for me to pace myself, and then in the finale go 110%, be Kuu.”
Now, 3 years later, his return to PNB brings him home to the Seattle area. From local pubs to parks and hiking trails, “Seattle has a lot to offer! I am really into hiking now. It’s like the new gym! I love the trails, hiking spots and scenery. Sometimes I forget because I’ve lived here my whole life, we live in a rainforest. Everywhere around us there are trees and to me that is still mind blowing. Living in Canada, it was more dry and the air wasn’t as fresh and crisp.”
Not only does he get to return to his home city, but Kuu considers PNB his home and is anxious to find his place again. “I know everyone here [at PNB], but now it’s more about finding my place. At Alberta Ballet it took maybe a year to feel like I was welcome. I had a place when I was a PD, but that was a few years ago and I feel like I’m a bit different [now]. I believe everyone changes every day, and when I was last here 3 years ago, I wasn’t immature but I thought I knew dance. I thought I knew what I wanted. I thought I was doing my best. Now coming back into it, I’m completely different in my mind set.”
This season is far from “normal” and that is a lot to navigate coming in as a new dancer to the company. The Pandemic brings many more protocols to follow and this season will be unusually different. Kuu doesn’t have any expectations. “I’m not expecting this to be that. I am not expecting to be totally in shape on the first day of class.” The only thing he’s expecting is a roller coaster!
Watch for Kuu in Eva Stone’s F O I L in Rep 1 of PNB’s Dance Happens Everywhere Digital Season. Kuu has known Eva since he was a kid and is thrilled to be starting out the season working with her. “Ms. Stone was always very nice to me. Very open and constructive with what she wanted. When I was younger, I was super athletic and I just wanted to jump and turn around with super high energy! I remember one class she kind of yelled at me… ‘Kuu stop looking down, why are you doing this movement?!’ At the time I didn’t know why she was mad, but now it makes sense. I thought I was just doing cool movements and that’s all I needed to do. But there’s so much more. What’s the intention behind the movement?”
Looking into the future for Kuu, he has a few dream roles in mind. “When I was a student at PNBS I remember watching 9 Sinatra Songs, a Twyla Tharp piece. I thought it was kind of cheesy, cliche, romantic dancing, but I’ve always wanted to dance that and throw a girl around! And Prodigal Son. I feel a connection to the rebellious emotion. I can picture myself doing something like that. It is one of my favorite Balanchine story ballets.” He also has goals to explore more opportunities in contemporary and modern works. “It’s not that I’ve hit a dead end, but in Classical Ballet there is a limit compared to contemporary and modern. In ballet it is more about your technique and how it looks to the audience. You can still perform and act while you are dancing the steps, but modern is more personal. There are endless opportunities to explore yourself. I remember Ms. Stone said, ‘What I am telling you is just a suggestion. You can listen to it, take it, or don’t take it.’ That was empowering to me as a student. In life you are always taking suggestions… other people’s tips, teacher’s corrections… you can take it or not, but it’s best to take it and interpret it in your own way to help you. Everyone’s suggestions aren’t going to work for you because everyone is different.”
Interviewed and written by PNB dancer Abby Jayne DeAngelo.
Photos: Kuu Sakuragi in George Balanchine’s Valse Fantaisie at the PNB School Student Performance in 2017. Photos © Lindsay Thomas.