#AAPI TRAILBLAZER: Naomi Tanioka
Naomi Tanioka’s career path from her native Sapporo, Japan, to Kansas City Ballet might seem like a long and winding road, but in the context of today’s dance world it makes perfect sense. Her training at Chida Toshiko Ballet Studio was marked by a strong emphasis in classical ballet, which is the best start to any dance career anywhere.
“I grew up watching Svetlana Zakharova on television and on video,” Naomi said of the dazzling star of Russian ballet. “She and Natalia Osipova, with her ability to jump as high as any person, man or woman… were just mind-blowing.”
Naomi’s foundation in ballet served her well in her next home, in North America. A teacher recommended she continue her studies at Royal Winnipeg Ballet in Canada, which also featured a strong emphasis on classical ballet. She then started her professional career at Ballet Arizona in Phoenix, which Artistic Director (and former Balanchine star) Ib Andersen has made into a solid Neoclassical company. The emphasis on the Balanchine repertoire and style was a radical transition for Naomi, but she welcomed this logical next step.
I’m very much a classical ballet dancer,” she said. “But I do love every single Balanchine ballet that I’ve had a chance to do. It’s not my primary training, but it’s so much fun.” In 2016 she moved to Cincinnati Ballet, which featured a mixture of classical, Neoclassical, and contemporary repertoire. There she was able to dance in such works as Coppélia, Romeo and Juliet, The Sleeping Beauty, Rite of Spring, and Peter Pan. She also got to live in a milieu where Kansas City Ballet Artistic Director Devon Carney had spent part of his career: as ballet master and, later, as associate artistic director.
Thus, the leap to Kansas City in 2019 again felt like a logical move: to fresh yet somewhat familiar territory. Here Naomi has been able to expand her repertoire further and, most importantly, dance principal roles: in The Nutcracker (Sugar Plum, Snow Queen), Dracula (Lucy), and most recently, in Devon Carney’s acclaimed Cinderella.
These moments have allowed Naomi to start dreaming again. “When I was younger, I wanted to be a ballerina,” she said, “to do all the ballets and be the principal dancer. But at some point… I decided that just dancing was enough for me, that I felt fulfilled just being onstage.” Now she begins to see her original dream as within reach, and feels heartened by it. “Cinderella was such a big moment for me, and recently I’ve felt a passion for doing big roles again.”
If she has a word for younger dancers, it’s “Don’t take rejection personally.” While it’s true that “subconsciously or consciously, we are judged by our ‘look,’ so ethnicity does sometimes come into play. … And I do hope that people are open-minded, looking for ability and not just a look.” But in the end, a director might have concerns that a dancer can’t anticipate. “Sometimes companies are looking for shorter dancers, or they want tall guys because they have all these tall women. … So it’s what the director is looking for at the moment to ‘paint his whole picture.’ … Some things are out of your control, and all you can do is just dance your best every day.”
Naomi loves Kansas City Ballet for, among other things, its lack of hierarchy. “We have such a special group of dancers, who are so strong and different,” she said. “Every one of them can do principal roles, and in different ways, and have successful performances. That’s another reason I love it here: Every dancer is inspiring. I can look at each of them and take something for myself. It’s a wonderful thing.”
She also admires Devon’s attention to fairness, in works such as the variations of his The Nutcracker, which many choreographers today are reexamining toward eliminating ethnic stereotypes. “Devon did research into incorporating hand gestures, coming from genuine traditions of dance in China,” she said of the search for subtler touches in the Chinese (“Tea”) Variation. “He also wanted to change the makeup so that it did not include those exaggeratedly wide eyes and red cheeks.”
Kansas City has been an especially welcoming place for Naomi. “I do feel like I belong here. I feel ‘seen’ by Devon, and I love the ballets he brings. And I feel connected to every dancer. … Even the dance community here is very close: I’ve had more people come up to me after shows than ever. … I feel recognized here, at home, part of the community.”
Featured in the May 13, 2023 issue of The Independent.
By Paul Horsley
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