SHE has delighted audiences for more than two decades but on June 30 Nao Sakuma takes her final bow with Birmingham Royal Ballet.
It’s more than the end of an era too – for the final curtain on BRB’s production of Romeo and Juliet also closes the career of her long term dancing partner and foil Chi Cao.
And if that all sounds a bit Japanese and Chinese, that’s because it is; these two stars from the Far East have blazed a 23 year trail across the Second City and embellished its name across the globe.
It also means their final performance together promises to be a night never to be forgotten.
Nao was just 17 when she arrived at the Royal Ballet School from her home town of Fukuoka in Japan.
Two years later, in 1995 she joined Birmingham Royal Ballet, at the same time as BRB director David Bintley.
Now she and her husband, first soloist Yasuo Atsuji, live “about ten seconds away from him,” she said.
“I suppose at the time I was a determined young lady, and I’m still the same, but I just love to dance and act on stage – that’s what’s always driven me – I never really thought of it as hard work.”
That attitude paid off too as she quickly became a BRB principal and with it came the greatest roles in the ballet repertoire.
“Right from the start the company has suited me, it’s like a family, I’ve never thought of moving and of course I have done so many amazing roles.
“I love the work of people like (Kenneth) Macmillan and (Frederick) Ashton and David Bintley makes great ballet.
“You also get good coaching from (assistant director) Marian Tait – she knows the repertoire back to front.
“I’m not very keen on contemporary dance, but I’ve always loved classical ballet – I guess I’m just the same as I was 25 years ago.”
She fights shy of naming a favourite role, but admits she has a soft spot for Swan Lake, the ballet which, coincidentally, came close to destroying her career.
“I’ve been lucky with injuries, but I did tear three ligaments in my foot once.
“I’d been cast for the first time as the lead in Swan Lake and didn’t want to miss the opportunity, so I ignored the injury.
“Then the physio found out about it and stopped me – I was very upset – but she said if I’d carried on it would have ended my career.”
Nao met her husband Yasuo at BRB and together the couple have a daughter, Karen, now aged three.
With Yasuo’s career blossoming the couple intend to stay in Birmingham for the time being before eventually returning to Japan.
“We are not sure yet but I’d like to open our own ballet school in the future,” she said.
“In Japan ballet is very popular, both Russian and English styles, so we will see.”
In the meantime she has that final performance looming this Saturday.
“I’m excited and looking forward to dancing with Chi,” said Nao.
“I have danced with him for 23 years – we were in ballet school together – and it’s our farewell performance.
“It’s kind of sad, but it has to end.”
Shakespeare’s tragedy Romeo and Juliet, with music By Sergei Prokofiev, is at the Birmingham Hippodrome all this week.
Tickets cost from £20 for Saturday on https://www.brb.org.uk or call the Birmingham Hippodrome on 0844 338 5000.