Eyes gravitate to Kumiko Tsuji -- even when she isn't leaping lighter than air.
In repose, this Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre dancer looks willowy. There is an endearing gentleness in her personality that colors pensive moments and elegant gestures.
She's also a dynamo who's never hyper on stage. It seems mere exuberance stretches her leaps and intensity speeds her spins. Her smile is so irresistible, it warms the snowy stage of "The Nutcracker." But her dance, for all its spontaneous feeling, is so scrupulously prepared that virtually any moment of a performance is picture perfect.
Onstage and off, Kumiko Tsuji, 24, is having a picture-perfect year.
This summer, she advanced to principal dancer with the Pittsburgh Ballet, which she joined in 2003. On her birthday -- Nov. 1 -- she became engaged to fellow principal dancer Daisuke Takeuchi. She made the cover of this month's issue of Dance Magazine as one of "25 to watch" -- its prediction of "who's great in '08."
The honor "feels a little weird," says Tsuji, who flew to New York City in November for the cover photo session. "Since I was little, I saw those magazines with the big stars doing covers, so many great stars. Now I'm one of them?"
"I think she's fabulous," says Dance Magazine editor in chief Wendy Perron. "There's a paradox in her dancing -- it's very physical, and highly technical -- but she has this uncanny serenity. It's a riddle, even when she's jumping or turning and doing very difficult things. Usually you see the drive and effort on the face of a physically high-powered dancer, but with her there's an all- knowing calm."
The magazine's annual "25 to watch" are not usually principal dancers.
"If someone was a principal in New York City Ballet or American Ballet Theatre, they'd be too far along, but Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre doesn't get around that much, and she was made principal this year," Perron says. "After this, she'll have a national profile."
Born in Tokyo, Tsuji was 6 and already studying piano and singing in school when she saw her first ballet on television. She doesn't remember which ballet it was.
"But the ballerina's costume was pretty, with tutu and tiara," says Tsuji, whose English remains cautious nine years after leaving Japan, but it's American in accent and colloquialisms. "She looked like a princess. I told my mom, 'I want to wear those costumes.' "
"Here she goes again," was her mom's reply, but after a couple of months of persistence little Kumiko was allowed to began dance classes.
Dance schools in Japan were small when Tsuji was a child. She applied to and was accepted by the Royal Ballet School in London, and after graduating junior high school, she left Japan.
Studying dance in Japan was a question of "how many pirouettes you could do," she says, but in London she received a strong grounding in "basic stuff, starting with how you stand."
After two years in London, Tsuji knew it was time to move on. She began dancing professionally in 2002 as a member of the Hong Kong Ballet's corps de ballet. Two seasons later, she felt ready to send an audition tape to Terrence Orr, artistic director of Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre.
"I saw an incredible kind of talent -- bubbling personality, incredibly beautiful legs and feet and strong technique," Orr says.
The bushels of auditions tapes received by the ballet every year are reviewed by Orr and company ballet master Steven Annegarn and ballet mistress Marianna Tcherkassky.
"I remember her audition video," Tcherkassky says. "As I was watching, I said in my mind, 'she could be a ballerina.' It doesn't happen often. She definitely came with innate talent."
Tsuji, who moved to Pittsburgh at the age of 19, has blossomed while working and living here for the past four years.
"I know I was a …