Explore Washington D.C.

My Washington: Maki Onuki

This star of The Washington Ballet chats about the 10th anniversary “Nutcracker,” dealing with wayward props and traveling in stylish comfort.

Raised just outside of Tokyo, Onuki moved to D.C. in 2003 to join Septime Webre’s acclaimed troupe, The Washington Ballet. She’s known for a fearless approach that pairs exceptional technique with supple grace, attributes that no doubt helped her claim the bronze medal at the 2010 International Ballet Competition and the 2011 MetroDC Dance Award for Outstanding Individual Performance. For the 10th anniversary of TWB’s D.C.-set “Nutcracker,” at Warner Theatre December 4-28, she dances the Sugar Plum Fairy, the Snow Queen, Dew Drop and the Elegant Mother. 

At what age did you know you wanted to be a professional dancer?

At around 10. I started classes at age 4, but at 10, I started competing and attending guest seminars, and I really responded to them.

Do you have any pre-performance rituals or superstitions?

I tend to stay away from those. I know that if I’m calm and focused, I’ll enjoy the moment.

Maki Onuki
Maki Onuki (Steve Vaccariello, Courtesy The Washington Ballet)

What’s your favorite ballet?

“Giselle,” absolutely. Giselle is one role that you really need to dance with your heart and soul. Physically, it’s not the most difficult, but every step, every expression, every action is so important. After each show, I’m drained from giving it everything emotionally, and I’ve never felt like that with any other role. It’s an amazing feeling.

Do you ever have stage fright?

I used to, but not so much anymore. Sometimes there’s a lot of pressure, and the body naturally gets stiff, but if I enjoy the moment, the stage fright naturally goes away.

Can you share a memorable on-stage moment?

During an intimate studio performance a few years back, we had to collectively breathe, and one dancer got something in his throat and started coughing. It was so out of place, we all started to laugh. Also I panicked once in a main stage performance of “Don Quixote.” I had a fan as a prop, and in my first move, it flew out of my hands and hit the ground hard. I just had to keep performing without the fan. When I was close to stage left, someone handed it to me without the audience seeing. In those moments, you just have to keep going and do your best.

You’ve been with TWB for 11 years. What keeps you here?

I absolutely love this city, and the repertoire at TWB is such a brilliant mix of classical and contemporary. Every year, the company gets stronger, and the repertoire gets better. It’s exciting to be part of a ballet organization that continues to do only great things.

Ariel Breitman and Maki Onuki
Ariel Breitman and Maki Onuki in “The Nutcracker” (Dean Alexander, Courtesy The Washington Ballet)

What can audiences expect from the 10th-anniversary production of “The Nutcracker”?

There will be some special surprises like new characters—Harriet Tubman and Thomas Jefferson—and some cool walk-on roles from local celebrities. You’ll have to check out the show to see!

What were your first impressions of D.C.?

I loved how pretty everything was. I lived first in Adams Morgan, where the people are really hip. For the first year, I was very quiet, then opened up and made many great friends. The city’s fairly big but calmer than Tokyo, so I was able to adjust quickly.

Can you recommend some must-do activities for visitors to the D.C. area?

The National Mall museums, which, of course, are free. I especially like the Natural History Museum and the National Gallery of Art. I also really enjoy the Smithsonian strip, just walking around with a good group of friends on a day with great weather.

Kennedy Center
The Kennedy Center (Courtesy Destination DC)

What’s your favorite D.C.-area vista?

I love the view from the roof terrace at the Kennedy Center. It’s a gorgeous panorama, especially at sunset.

What’s your idea of the perfect travel outfit?

It’s all about being comfortable first, then playing up a funky side and mixing textures. I like to have fun with style. Some looks are clean; others mix prints. And you can’t go wrong with pink.

Where are you headed next?

Mexico, Fiji and Tahiti are all on the short list.


Read about Onuki’s perfect day in D.C.