#OverACupOfTealeaves: Saho Kumagai of the Atlanta Ballet on The NutcrackerNov.09.2018
TEALEAVES Creates “Gifts of Time” Nutcracker Afternoon Tea Experiences for the Holidays: A Celebration of the Arts and True Craftsmanship
TEALEAVES curates experiences that support celebrating craft and spending quality time with others this festive season alongside afternoon tea, all tied to the classic Nutcracker fairy tale, and brings together top names in the culinary arts, performing arts, and horology.
#OverACupOfTealeaves: At TEALEAVES, we believe that the best “condiment” to any cup of TEALEAVES is a story to tell and wisdom to share. Our team had the opportunity to connect with Company dancer Saho Kumagai of Atlanta Ballet, and here is what we learned.
Under the new direction of Artistic Director Gennadi Nedvigin, Atlanta Ballet’s The Nutcracker is undergoing a reconstruction for the first time in 20 years. Nedvigin has put together a world-class creative team to produce a unique retelling of the beloved holiday classic. It is designed to surprise and delight all audiences, from the younger generations to Journey into a magical world of wonder,and Yuri Possokhov’s choreography and imaginative skills will make it one of a kind.
Kumagai began her journey as a dancer when she was nine, after watching a ballet performance on TV.
“I saw a TV series about a girl who was trying to be a musical star. There was a part where she had to take ballet classes, and the minute I saw that, I wanted to take a ballet class.”
She grew up in Japan, however Kumagai’s family moved to the United States in 2009 where she studied at the Boston Ballet School and Pacific Northwest Ballet School Professional Division. Since then, she has had career highlights playing Marya in The Nutcracker, Cupid in Don Quixote, and a duet in the world premiere of Craig Davidson’s Remember/ Hereafter.
Discover how Kumagai wants her audience to feel when they watch her dance, and why, even after 13 year of dancing, she thinks her échappé will never be perfect.
TEALEAVES: What are some iconic ballet moves, sequences, or techniques that you perform in your role in The Nutcracker ballet, and how many hours does it take to perfect them?
Kumagai: As a Doll in the battle scene, I performed a step called échappé; it means to escape. It’s an iconic move for female dancers to do in pointe shoes, and it’s one of the first steps to start in your training once you have your pointe shoes. I’ve been working on this step for more than 10 years, but like any other ballet moves, it’s still not perfect and probably will never be perfect.
It took me about 4-5 years to get the échappé I have right now, and I take a 1.5 hour ballet technique class 5-6 times a week, and rehearse for up to 6 hours a day to maintain my techniques.
TEALEAVES: Is it accurate to say that behind 5 minutes of performance, there are 30 hours of training?
Kumagai: This depends on what kind of performance it is; however, if we were to perform a 5 minute solo or duet, we generally rehearse it for 1 hour per day for one month.
TEALEAVES: How do you maximize your time as a ballerina to ensure you get the most out of rehearsals and practices?
Kumagai: I try to warm up myself accordingly before a class or rehearsal. I also go over the choreography and take notes on corrections during my off hours. I take care of my body by icing and rolling out at night to be ready for the next day.
TEALEAVES: How has your relationship with time changed as you’ve progressed in ballet?
Kumagai: I try to work more efficiently. Instead of always being on the move, I try to listen and/or watch and then move. This ends up saving time in a lot of cases because I have a better understanding of what I’m trying to accomplish. I also spend more time on conditioning than I used to.
TEALEAVES: How does your relationship with ballet change with time and as you dance more and learn new choreography?
Kumagai: I learned that I tend to get overly excited and I want to put in all of my energy when I’m performing, which most of the time doesn’t translate to a great performance. I’ve been trying to stay calm and almost take it easy, which helps me feel and see my surroundings, including the dancers I’m dancing with.
TEALEAVES: Why would you consider the The Nutcracker to be such an integral part of the ballet season?
Kumagai: From a dancer’s point of view, because we have so many shows of The Nutcracker, there is more opportunity for younger dancers to perform roles with bigger solos. This is how we get more experience. I grew up in Japan where The Nutcracker is not a holiday tradition like it is here. So, my first memory of The Nutcracker is my first time performing in The Nutcracker with Boston Ballet.
TEALEAVES: What’s the biggest challenge of performing this particular piece?
Kumagai: I think the biggest challenge is to stay healthy to perform all the shows. The Nutcracker normally runs for about 3 weeks and we can perform over 25 shows. There is always sickness and injury during the run of The Nutcracker. It can be hard to be the best version of myself to deliver the best performance to the audience.
TEALEAVES: There must be a lot of pressure in the world of ballet. How do you overcome these pressures and work through the emotional demands of ballet?
Kumagai: What works for me is to talk about it with other dancers. They’re either going through something similar or have gone through it and are able to give me some tips. It also helps that I now know that after that period of time that I was on an emotional rollercoaster, I always discover something new and feel that I learned so much. I think having a strict form also works well with my personality.
When I’m performing, I tend to get nervous on stage. I simply try to breathe. Also, I think a little bit of nervousness is actually a good thing.
TEALEAVES: How can/does ballet remain relevant and become more accessible and relatable to younger generations?
Kumagai: I think having a movie about ballet helps, like the new Disney’s The Nutcracker that is coming out soon. But I also wish there was more opportunity for the younger generations to see the live performance of ballet. I believe that’s where people connect to ballet the best.
TEALEAVES: What’s the most rewarding part about being a dancer?
Kumagai: When I can do something that I couldn’t do the day before. Also the sense of achievement after the show.
TEALEAVES: How do you put your own personality in your role to make that role your own?
Kumagai: I’m still working on this but I write down the line in words – like what I would say if I was using words to explain this feeling. I try to put my personality within what the choreographer and director want.
TEALEAVES: What message do you try to portray to the audience in your dance?
Kumagai: I hope that I can connect with the audience in a way that they feel inspired, and that they feel they can do anything. I feel that way when I watch my fellow dancers and it’s awesome. So I wish the audience members can feel a similar way when they see my dancing.
*Header and thumbnail images courtesy of Kim Kenny from Atlanta Ballet
Piece together your real-life Nutcracker fairytale and explore various ‘Gifts of Time’.