Nutnaree Pipit-Suksun rehearsing Balanchine's Divertimento No.15 © Erik Tomasson
Born in Bangkok, Thailand, Nutnaree Pipit-Suksun joined SF Ballet as a soloist in 2004. She quickly took on lead roles in a variety of works, including Myrtha in Giselle and the pas de deux from Bintley's The Dance House. She has been praised by critics for her musicality, long fluid lines, and captivating stage presence. In the following interview, Pipit-Suksun talks about leaving her native Thailand, making the jump from ballet student to soloist, and her hidden musical talent.
Listen to a podcast of this interview.
Backstage: What was it like growing up in Thailand, a country renowned for its natural beauty and vibrant culture?
I've heard a lot about Thailand, but growing up there I didn't get to see much of the natural beauty because I was constantly at home and school doing my work until I left home at 15. But recently, when I went back for vacation and started to go to places more, I thought, "Wow! This is really quite amazing!" I haven't been to the south, but I went up to the north with my grandmother, who lives there, to Chiang Mai. I think it is quite a tourist place, so it was beautiful.
How did you begin your dance training? Did you receive support from your family and friends?
I started off with friends from the normal school. We just started off as an activity after school, so it was just for fun.
How old were you when you started?
Seven years old.
Did you know right away that it was something you wanted to pursue as a professional career?
Not at that time, but I did have fun. And I had a dream that I wanted to be a ballerina and a business woman.
Both at the same time?
Yes! It was just a dream really.
What was it like leaving your family at such a young age to train at the Royal Ballet School in London?
Most people expected me to be homesick, but my parents and my brother [visited] the States when he was eleven. Both of [my parents] had been out of the country at age 17. I was really excited, not to get out of the country, but to be exposed to other places. I always wanted to go abroad as well. It's something in the family.
How would you compare the style of training at the Royal Ballet School to what you had learned in Thailand?
At home in Thailand I learned the RAD (Royal Academy of Dance), so basically that's English too. It's not that different, really.
How would you contrast that with what you've experienced here at San Francisco Ballet?
Well over there, with the English style, we definitely emphasize the port de bras, and everything is clean. But Americans are definitely faster than us, and I like that. It's not as boring. I think it's a good mix; you have to have clean technique, but also the excitement in the show. You definitely need to have both.
It is quite rare for a dancer to be given a soloist contract directly out of school. How did you first make contact with SF Ballet, and what did the process look like?
In the graduate school at the Royal Ballet School my class went to Stuttgart on tour for seven shows, and I remember one of the shows [Artistic Director] Helgi [Tomasson] came to watch. I didn't think anything of it; I was just introduced by our assistant director. Then during Easter break I came to America—to Houston Ballet and ABT [American Ballet Theatre]—just to take class with them because I didn't really know what to do with the contracts. I couldn't decide. [SF Ballet] called me up and said, "Look, San Francisco Ballet wants you to come and take class." So, I came here and did all the classes, and Helgi was like, "Okay, let's go get changed and then we can talk about it." He said, "How about a soloist contract?" I think I said, "No!" I was in shock! I never expected it before, but it's a great experience. I'm still in shock, actually; it feels like a dream.
It must have been quite an adjustment to move to America and make the transition to being a professional dancer all at once. What were you thinking as you arrived in San Francisco?
The first night when I arrived I thought, "This is horrible! I don't even know where to get food!" I was really sad when I left London. The good thing is, I can speak English now, so at least I can communicate and ask people for directions. But it's definitely a big transition from being in school, where you're being pampered by the teachers, and then you come here and they treat you like an adult and it's like, "Whoa, okay!" Plus, being a soloist, I never really got to make friends with people in the corps and be in rehearsal with them. I remember being in a rehearsal with a principal and thinking, "Oh my god, what am I doing here? I don't belong here!" It took a while for me to gain my confidence back.
Is there a certain style of dance that you find most rewarding?
I really like neoclassical, for example 7 for Eight. Recently when we did The Sleeping Beauty, I really appreciated classical more. I think I have more confidence in classical now, and I enjoy it more.
What do you feel have been your greatest challenges and accomplishments since coming to SF Ballet?
Finally, I feel that I've found my place in the Company, where I get to know everybody and it feels like a home. It's not necessarily about dancing alone. I feel comfy now, like I can really go for it!
Your friends call you Ommi. Where does that nickname come from?
Well, Thai people have very long names, so everyone has a nickname over there. It doesn't necessarily have to relate to your first name. I think it means the rain in the winter.
I've heard you playing the piano during breaks in rehearsal and backstage at the Opera House. How did you become such an accomplished pianist? Are there any other hidden talents?
I actually started piano before ballet, but then once I started ballet I became more interested in dance. I wasn't really into piano as much, but I still kept playing. Hidden talent? I think I'm very good at listening to a piece of music that I like, and I can sit down and figure it out and play it myself without the music. I'm terrible at reading music, but I think I have a good ear for that.
What roles are you most looking forward to performing for the rest of the season?
Symphony in C, second movement, definitely! I did Symphony in C with the Royal when I was a student there, just in the corps de ballet. Now, to get to do one of the principal roles, I'm very honored.