OKC Ballet Principal Dancer Miki Kawamura retiring from stage with ‘La Sylphide’

By Brandy Mcdonnell

Final bow

Oklahoma City Ballet Principal Dancer Miki Kawamura retiring with ‘La Sylphide’

In the Oklahoma City Ballet studios, Principal Dancer Miki Kawamura is rehearsing some fancy footwork that is new to her but as old as classical ballet itself.

“The energy kind of changes there. … It could be a place on the body where you reflect the emotions,” said Artistic Ballet Robert Mills told her as he watched the rehearsal, adding, “In this role, if she’s not in the air, she’s on the tips of her shoes. … It is extremely classical. This is really hard. It’s a style also that we don’t do a lot any longer in ballet. Like many endeavors of the human body, whether it’s figure skating or Olympic gymnastics, it’s evolved.”

Even at the end of her dancing career, Kawamura is still learning, in this case, August Bournonville’s intricate choreography for the tragic ballet “La Sylphide.”

“It’s a challenge. … I was excited that this one will be my last ballet, but then as we rehearsed, I was like, ‘This is hard,’” she said. “I’ve only seen this ballet once live. I don’t think it’s commonly done, so it’s hard to study. … But it’s just a beautiful ballet that people don’t know.”

After nine years with Oklahoma City Ballet, she will retire from the stage during the company’s production of “La Sylphide” Friday through Feb. 24 at the Civic Center Music Hall. The Oklahoma City Philharmonic will perform Herman Severin Lovenskiold’s captivating score live.

Kawamura will give her final performance as principal dancer Saturday night.

“For me, we’re losing our ballerina,” Mills said. “In classical ballet, there’s the ranking of principal dancer, but really above that is the ranking for a ballerina who’s a premier dancer, when you go back to kind of the historic origins of the structure of ballet companies in the opera houses of Europe. Although I don’t have that extra billing above principal, to me she’s always been our ballerina. She’s been not just a principal dancer … but the face of the organization.”

Oklahoma City Ballet principal dancer Miki Kawamura, center, preforms an act from “Swan Lake” after a press conference at the Susan E. Brackett Dance Center on Monday, Oct. 16, 2017. Photo by Chris Landsberger, The Oklahoman Archives

Oklahoma City Ballet principal dancer Miki Kawamura, center, preforms an act from “Swan Lake” after a press conference at the Susan E. Brackett Dance Center on Monday, Oct. 16, 2017. Photo by Chris Landsberger, The Oklahoman Archives

Fan favorite

Kawamura began her dance training at age 10 in her hometown of Sapporo, Japan, then continued at Pacific Dance Arts in Vancouver, Canada. She danced professionally for nine years with Eugene Ballet/Ballet Idaho, City Ballet of San Diego and Charleston Ballet Theatre before joining Oklahoma City Ballet in 2010.

She joined OKC Ballet just two years after Mills was hired as artistic director and tasked with putting the once struggling, newly reinvented company firmly on its feet again.

“When you look back at what’s happened with us in the past 11 years, there have been milestones. We’re responsible for the first time in this company’s history to do a full-length ‘Swan Lake’ with orchestra; Miki was there. We did the first ‘Sleeping Beauty’ full length … Miki was there. The first time we did a (Jiri) Kylian work, Miki was there. And there are many others,” Mills said. “She’s been there for just about every milestone that we’ve had as an organization. … She’s been there every step of the way.”

With her strength, technical capability and artistic expressiveness, Kawamura became a clear star and a fan favorite.

“She’s done all of it, and she’s done it all so well. She’s versatile. When I was with the company before and I choreographed ballets … I would choose Miki because of her versatility of acting and dancing.”  said Jacob Sparso, the company’s former ballet master, who is staging “La Sylphide.”

“To me, this is a beautiful way to retire. … It’s a ballet that has not been seen in a long time, and it’s not a ballet that you usually see in the United States.”

With Oklahoma City Ballet, Kawamura has previously performed the principal roles in “The Phantom of the Opera,” “Coppelia,” “Swan Lake,” “The Nutcracker,” “The Little Mermaid” and “The Sleeping Beauty,” along with the title roles in “Paquita,” “Carmen,” “Cinderella,” “Romeo & Juliet,” “Scheherezade – 1001 Arabian Nights” and “Giselle.” She also has danced in contemporary works by esteemed choreographers like Twyla Tharp, Stanton Welch and Kylian.

“I did a lot with this company. Robert let me do every possible classical role and all the well-known choreographers’ pieces,” she said. “I did pretty much every possible major classical ballet. I don’t know how many dancers can say that throughout their career. … I did everything, and I did ‘Swan Lake twice. Who can say that, right? And (Kylian’s) ‘Petite Morte’ was like my dream ballet, and I got to do that.”

Altered focus

When she was a younger dancer, Kawamura said her attitude was that she wouldn’t do anything related to ballet once she retired from the stage.

“I’ve completely changed. I believe it is the organization and the community. I invested myself, just was fully devoted as a dancer and committed myself and wanted to make this company better. I was in it, as a dancer,” she said. “Now, the role has shifted, but I just want to make this company better and community better. When we have good arts, the city gets better.”

When Sparso left OKC Ballet almost three years ago, Mills assigned Kawamura and Ronnie Underwood the dual roles of ballet masters and principal dancers. As ballet masters, they were tasked with coaching the dancers, running rehearsals and setting choreography.

“Particularly this season, it was really hard for me to do dancing and ballet master. … I was torn between ‘I’m still dancing but they need a ballet master, they need more.’ … And I just came to the point that I couldn’t ignore that. And I really enjoy coaching them and rehearsing them. That won over my dancing,” said Kawamura, who informed Mills of her decision to retire from the stage at the end of last year.

“I did not think I would get to this point because I loved being on stage and everything. But I will not miss that as much as I thought.”

Still, she said she is happy to be taking her final bow as principal dancer the title role in “La Sylphide,” one of the world’s oldest surviving ballets. Mills said it has never been performed by OKC Ballet and was last performed in the state by Tulsa Ballet in 1993.

Considered the first major ballet of the Romantic era, it centers on a young Scotsman who falls in love with a sylph, an enchanting forest fairy, on the eve of his wedding day. His conundrum attracts the attention of a wicked witch.

“When I think about the audience, I am sure I will miss it. I mean, we have great audiences at every show,” said Kawamura, who added that in the future she might appear on stage occasionally in small character roles. “But we have a lot of good dancers. I don’t really have to be dancing. I did enough, and we have a lot of good talent here. And I shouldn’t be the one doing everything anymore. They should be dancing. … I am ready to be behind the scenes.”