A great ballerina always looks as if she could dance forever, and such is the case with Pacific Northwest Ballet principal dancer Kaori Nakamura, who at nearly 43 is still dancing with the same impeccable lightness and gentle strength that she brought upon her arrival at the company 17 years ago.

But time stands still only in fairy tales, and Nakamura will retire at the end of this season — the company’s production of “Sleeping Beauty” (opening Friday) will be her fifth time in the leading role of Princess Aurora, and her last.

“I’ve had a great, long career,” said Nakamura, between rehearsals last week. “I think it’s time.” Though she’s been fortunate to have had few absences from the stage (most notably, before and after the birth of her daughter Maya, three years ago), she’s beginning to notice that certain roles are becoming more difficult.

“A lot of ballets I can still dance,” she said. “But I don’t want to keep dancing until I look bad.”

Nakamura considered retiring last year, but PNB artistic director Peter Boal asked her to stay. “She’s brought it (retirement) up a couple of times, and I kept saying, not yet,” Boal said. “She could probably do another three years dancing at this level.”

But the timing, he agreed, “felt right” this time, and he thought “Sleeping Beauty” would be a nice near-finale. “I’ve always loved her Aurora, and who can do a beautiful Aurora at that point in their career? She’s one of the few that could.”

He calls Nakamura “ the consummate professional.

“She goes over every single detail,” he said. “She’s so thorough, and at the same time, she doesn’t lose the element of spontaneity that we want for stage … I think there’s no better role model for our company than Kaori.”

A native of Gumma, Japan, Nakamura trained at the prestigious School of American Ballet in New York, and spent seven years at Royal Winnipeg Ballet before joining PNB in 1997. She quickly made her mark as a versatile performer, particularly in full-length narrative ballets — think of the gentle rapture of her Juliette in “Roméo et Juliette,” her bewitching Odette/Odile in “Swan Lake,” her sweetly playful Swanilda in “Coppélia.”

Speaking hesitantly (Nakamura’s softly accented English is graceful and fluent, but this artist is clearly more accustomed to letting her dancing do the talking), she explained why she loves the story ballets. “I found, like … different me,” she said of Juliette. She’s looking forward to her last “Sleeping Beauty” — the most challenging, she said, of the narrative roles.

It’s the latest in a series of goodbyes for Nakamura, who says that for the past year or so, “every time when I finish one ballet, it’s like, OK, I check off list, I’m done, never again.” Particularly sad was this year’s final “Nutcracker” performance — she’s danced it every season for 16 years — and one last “Roméo et Juliette” in New York last year, with real tears at the end. (That ballet, too, brings back memories of another goodbye: her beloved partner Lucien Postlewaite — “my best friend” — who left the company in 2012.)

But as the curtain goes down, a door opens: Nakamura is on the brink of a new career, as a faculty member at the PNB School. “I really, really enjoyed it,” she said, of her stint teaching summer school last year. “PNB School has such great students, and they work so hard.”

Boal described her as “a phenomenal teacher. She’d walk into the studio in pointe shoes and full ballet attire, demonstrating everything full-out in front of the room — the students’ jaws would drop.”

For now, Nakamura is determined to enjoy the rest of the season as it goes by “too quickly!” She’s scheduled to appear in “Take Five,” “Midsummer Night’s Dream” and “Giselle” and will be the focus of a special Season Encore performance in June — to say goodbye to PNB audiences, which Nakamura has found “always so warm.”

And will she continue to take daily class? “I don’t know,” she said. “It’s just an everyday routine, my whole life. Morning, wake up, come here, take class every day. Just a routine. I don’t know if I can just stop, after my last show.” She smiles, thinking about a new way of life. “It’s a weird feeling.”

Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or mmacdonald@seattletimes.com