It’s taken Naomi Tanioka many years to feel secure in her professional career. Despite her exquisite technique, enviable lines, and charming stage presence, it always seemed she wasn’t celebrated for who she really was. That is, until she joined Kansas City Ballet.
Tanioka’s early dance training was primarily spent at a studio in Sapporo, Japan, called Chida Toshiko Ballet Studio. At 13, she decided to expand her training at a summer program at The Royal Winnipeg Ballet School in Canada. Tanioka enjoyed the experience so much that she decided, with the blessing of her parents, to grow out her adolescence at the school. “I didn’t speak any English at the time, but because I was so young, I wasn’t afraid of not knowing the language or getting made fun of,” she says. “I just wanted to do ballet in another country, and I really enjoyed my time in the dorms with the other dancers.” Most importantly, Tanioka says, her time at The Royal Winnipeg Ballet School gave her the strong classical base she was seeking.
At 19 years old, Tanioka landed her first professional job in the second company at Ballet Arizona. Though she was thrilled to be there, it didn’t quite feel like the right fit for her. The company did a lot of Balanchine rep, which was out of Tanioka’s wheelhouse as a dancer who had trained primarily in Japan and Canada. “It was good to be exposed to something so challenging and different, but I knew I wouldn’t be there forever,” she says.” Tanioka was promoted to the company after just one year there, but the position was unpaid. When the third contract came around without any financial improvements, Tanioka decided it was time for her to go elsewhere. Not long after, she took a paid second company position at Cincinnati Ballet. Though it was technically a demotion, Tanioka knew she needed to make smart financial decisions. Thankfully the gamble paid off, and just one year later, she was promoted to the main company. Still, she wasn’t totally satisfied. “From the beginning, it was clear to me that the director didn’t see the value in me,” Tanioka says. “My primary dance background was in classical technique, and Cincinnati Ballet is all about free expression and creativity. There isn’t much unity but, rather, many different individual sparks of color. I felt like I had to throw away everything that I had studied before in order to find my voice there, but, actually, I was just moving further away from who I really am.” According to Tanioka, she got lost trying to be what her director was looking for, which ultimately led to her being let go from the company.
Right before Tanioka’s dismissal, Cincinnati Ballet did Sleeping Beauty, choreographed by the artistic director at Kansas City Ballet, Devin Carney. He and Kansas City Ballet’s rehearsal director Kristi Capps came to set the work, and Tanioka had a wonderful experience working with them. “I was so impressed with the positive work environment they provided during their two weeks there,” she says. “Kristi is one of the smartest women I have ever met.” Sensing it was about time to move on, Tanioka reached out to Carney and asked if she could take an audition class. He said yes and flew her out for what would be the best audition of her life. “So many people were so kind and friendly there,” she says. “Some even came up to me and told me they thought I was a good fit, and that they hoped I could join the company. I had never had an experience like that before and it meant so much to me.” After a few months of waiting, Tanioka finally booked the job and made the move to Kansas (in 2019). “On my first day of work I immediately felt like I had found the place I was meant to be. This ballet company has some of the most hard-working people who really love this art form,” she says. “It’s really been a special experience to feel like I finally found my place, and now I can just enjoy ballet.”
Here, Tanioka shares the advice that has made all the difference, who her most influential teacher is, and a few sage words for up-and-coming performers.
The most helpful advice she’s ever received “After I was let go from Cincinnati Ballet in February, I didn’t receive a contract from Kansas City Ballet or anywhere else until June. That time was really hard for me, but a friend of mine, who was a star principal at Cincinnati Ballet at the time, told me something that really comforted me. He said that he used to be a dancer at a major ballet company, but was let go. He said it was crushing for him at the time, but things got better. He said that even the most talented dancers go through this, and that if you keep going and keep believing in your dreams, someone will see and value you for who you are. Boston Ballet didn’t keep him, but Cincinnati Ballet made him their star. The same thing proved to be true for me, as well. I found the right place for myself.”
Her most influential teacher and why “I have so many wonderful teachers, but if I had to highlight one, it would be my ballet teacher in Japan, Toshiko Chida. She really was the first person that made me feel like this could be my dream and I could make it happen. She has been a great supporter ever since I left the studio. She even flew all the way to watch my Cinderella performance last season, and was so happy to see me do a principal role. All of my teachers have had such an impact on me, but she is always in my heart and cheering me on.”
Her counsel for up-and-coming dancers “Always be humble, always be open, and believe in yourself. It’s hard work, and there will be ups and downs, but if you truly love it, just know that being onstage and hearing the audience is worth it. I know it’s hard, but keep pushing on.”
Her dreams for the future “I just want to give my all at every show, and to make whoever is watching feel something.”