This is a follow up to the interview by Jackie Stewart done in October. I was lucky to connect and spend an afternoon with Noriko at the home of Cirque du Soleil’s KA in February.
In the years when the Japanese were just beginning, and brought hundreds of athletes to our National Championships to train, one of the most memorable students I ever worked with was Noriko. It was one of those experiences when a coach wonders why an athlete would ever choose to work with her. However it happened, Noriko was as gracious as ever and I was beyond thrilled to see her. Twirling makes our world a smaller place.
Las Vegas! A city of endless vibration, a pulsing beat, dazzling lights and colorful people. In the buzzing food court of the MGM Grand, tiny Noriko crosses the hallway with a graceful walk and petite presence. Immediately, our faces light up at the sight of each other and her traditional Japanese bow gives way to an American hug. I am thrilled to see her with the years disappearing and anxious to catch up with this twirling legend.
Noriko has made Cirque du Soleil home for more than 8 years. Prior to its opening, she spent months in preparation in Montreal for the creation and final product that would find a home at the MGM in Las Vegas. There is no doubt, she is a star. Her face graces merchandise. She is the image on the DVD about the making of KA and is even the graceful lines of a tunic for sale in the gift shop. Though she has a feature role in the amazing production, it is absolutely “star quality” and her graceful image that capture the intrigue of producers and audience. Noriko has brief appearances on stage until her feature in the middle of the production. With little risk of error, she flows and moves with an air of elegance and the unfolding of a story. Unlike competition, it is not the difficulty of what she does (though a couple catches are certainly edgy). It is the grace, style and portrayal of our craft that complements and adds to the show.
We are blessed with a backstage tour when Noriko graciously asks if we are interested. If you have ever seen the show, being backstage multiplies the wonder and thrill of what goes on in front by hundreds. The stage is an engineering masterpiece. With the equipment being heavier than a loaded 747 aircraft, it lifts and spins to create visual images never seen before. The artists travel like a piece in a Plinko game up and down the vertical plane with choreography that spins around projected arrows and drops over 50 feet to nets below stage view.
Noriko shows us the costume room. Wigs in different stages of readiness are waiting, while the wigmaker enthusiastically shares the tricks of his trade. Shoes, made to look like bare feet sit like dolls and mannequins of costumes stand sentry all over the room.
The training room is, no doubt, a favorite of Noriko’s. With her diligent work ethic, she spends hours there. Adjacent to that; the physical therapy room stands with people and equipment available to tend to the artists. With the specific needs of each Cirque show, different types of therapy are offered. (i.e., water shows have different demands than aerial or acrobatic based shows).
Twirling is respected, appreciated, featured and necessary for this production. When our sport can be lonely and commands little respect in some circles; this venue provides incredible validation for a performer, an athlete, a sport and a community of people who have followed a passion. Noriko and her contemporaries set a standard for the sport. Though she traveled alone, across the world to spend her life making this magic for audiences every night; she has an entire population of twirlers who want to hang on that star and know that twirling deserves this time in the spotlight. We can thank her for that and hope that her sacrifice and talent produce the stars of tomorrow. Train, practice, sacrifice and know that the most unexpected opportunities can come from your most ordinary life.