Paris Opéra Ballet's Letizia Galloni. Photo by Anne Ray, Courtesy POB.

The 2016 Stars of the Corps: 10 Young Dancers Turning Heads

This story originally appeared in the August/September 2016 issue of Pointe.

Every corps de ballet has a few bright standouts. Here are 10 young dancers on the rise.

Norika Matsuyama in "Don Quixote." Photo by Erik Tomasson, Courtesy SFB.

Norika Matsuyama

San Francisco Ballet

Norika Matsuyama recently finished her second year in San Francisco Ballet's corps, but her repertoire already looks like a veteran soloist's: Cupid in Don Quixote, a solo Wili and Shade, Balanchine's Theme and Variations and Forsythe's Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude. She capped off the 2016 season with her debut as Olga in John Cranko's Onegin, one of her dream roles.

For someone so accomplished, the 22-year-old is exceptionally humble. “I never expected I would get to do these roles," she says. “When I saw my name on the rehearsal schedule for Olga, I was so excited. I'm super-grateful."

Matsuyama started training at age 2 in her hometown of Chiba, Japan, and moved to Southern California at 13 to study at Palos Verdes Ballet and South Bay Ballet. After a year at the SFB School and another as a trainee, she apprenticed for only a few days before being taken into the corps. Her star has risen steadily since then, as has the crisp quality of her technique.

That evolution was apparent in her debut as Spinner in Balanchine's Coppélia this season. “I was really nervous!" she admits. “It's very technical." But from the precise hops on pointe to the balances in attitude, she showed nothing but relaxed confidence, along with a megawatt smile that's sure to light up the stage for years to come. —Claudia Bauer

Claire Kretzschmar in Balanchine's "Movements for Piano and Orchestra." Photo by Paul Kolnik, Courtesy NYCB.

Claire Kretzschmar

New York City Ballet

You can't miss Claire Kretzschmar onstage, even in a crowd of dancers. Her uplifted face catches the light almost hungrily; she dances as if nothing else in the world matters. And when she's given an opportunity to prove herself, watch out! In the spring season, she stepped into a role in Alexei Ratmansky's Pictures at an Exhibition, opposite company principal Andrew Veyette. It's a challenging part, full of bold, sudden movements and drops to the floor. “We didn't have much rehearsal," she says, “so it sort of allowed me to really go for it, without inhibition."

Kretzschmar is unique in other ways: She's rangy and long-limbed, with a striking aquiline profile reminiscent of Wendy Whelan's. And she's extraordinarily responsive to music. She grew up in North Carolina and credits a musical household and early hip-hop lessons for teaching her how to really dig into the movement.

Since joining NYCB in 2010, Kretzschmar has had a few big breaks, including a leading role in Peter Martins' Mes Oiseaux. Last December, she danced her first Sugarplum Fairy, “one of the most magical experiences I've ever had," she gushes. However, she has suffered a few injuries along the way. “I need to be better at moderation," she says. A valuable lesson to learn early on. —Marina Harss

Wald performing Jessica Lang's "The Calling." Photo by Angela Sterling, Courtesy PNB.

Dylan Wald

Pacific Northwest Ballet

When Dylan Wald took the stage last November in Jessica Lang's solo The Calling, the audience let out a collective gasp. Bare-chested, in a diaphanous white skirt, Wald melded a confident masculinity with elegant technique. That performance emphatically declared this first-year company member as one to watch.

Wald started dancing at age 3, but the 20-year-old Minneapolis-area native didn't get serious about ballet until he was 14. That's when he saw a video of former New York City Ballet principal Peter Boal. “I was so inspired by the way he danced," he says.

Wald attended summer intensives at The Juilliard School, School of American Ballet and Hubbard Street Dance Chicago. He apprenticed with Minnesota Dance Theatre at 16 before ultimately entering Pacific Northwest Ballet's Professional Division, where Boal is director. “He ran the company," says Wald. “I was like, 'I gotta go there!' "

After a year in the school, Wald was hired as an apprentice. He received a corps contract in 2015. In the past year, Wald has shown an aptitude for everything from princely classical roles to William Forsythe's demanding choreography. His dream is to learn the title role in Balanchine's Apollo from Boal himself. “I love that part," Wald says. “I think it would be amazing to be coached by the one and only!" —Marcie Sillman

Galloni in a scene from "La Fille mal gardée." Photo by Benoite Fanton, Courtesy POB.

Letizia Galloni

Paris Opéra Ballet

When Letizia Galloni was first given the Chosen One's red dress in Pina Bausch's Rite of Spring onstage last December, she was overwhelmed by emotion. “I didn't expect it to be this intense, and I knew I had to get it together to finish the ballet," she says. She committed to every step, her contained urgency harrowing to watch.

At 24, Galloni's uncanny ability to move between classical and contemporary repertoire has made her a standout at the Paris Opéra Ballet. Under former director Benjamin Millepied, she received roles ranging from La Fille mal gardée to Rite of Spring and in one of his own creations, Clear, Loud, Bright, Forward. While Galloni often caught the eye of choreographers before Millepied's arrival, she credits him with giving her opportunities as a coryphée, a higher rank within the corps de ballet: “It gave me more self-confidence, especially in the classical repertoire."

Galloni is also one of only a handful of black dancers in the 154-strong POB, and one of the few to dance leading roles with the French company. Born in Rome, she trained at the Paris Opéra Ballet School and joined the company in 2009. While many expected Galloni to be promoted to sujet (demi-soloist) in 2015, she just missed the mark at POB's internal competition; her main goal is to make the cut this year. She is working with former étoile Carole Arbo to make it happen. —Laura Cappelle

Haskins as Madame de Tourvel in "Dangerous Liaisons." Photo by Lauren Loria Photography, Courtesy GRB.

Grace Haskins

Grand Rapids Ballet

A swell of mascara-filled tears streamed down Grace Haskins' face as she desperately clung to her partner's leg. As Madame de Tourvel in Annabelle Lopez Ochoa's Dangerous Liaisons, the young Grand Rapids Ballet dancer had just been brutally thrown to the floor; the jolting scene heralded Haskins' budding star quality. The 21-year-old, whose deft acting skills belie her age, says she likes dancing ballets with strong characters and emotional ups and downs. “I just go for it," says Haskins. “I think that is something that defines me as a dancer."

Born in Reno, Nevada, Haskins grew up in Seattle and trained at the Pacific Northwest Ballet School. She studied summers at the School of American Ballet, Canada's National Ballet School and Boston Ballet, all on full scholarship, before joining GRB last year as an apprentice. Since then, she's put her considerable skills to use in other standout roles, dancing “Arabian" in Val Caniparoli's The Nutcracker and as a stepsister in Bruce Wells' Cinderella. Haskins says she loves the variety of GRB's repertoire, as well as working with her hero, artistic director Patricia Barker. “My biggest goal now is to learn as much as possible." —Steve Sucato

McCann performing "In the middle, somewhat elevated." Photo by Aimee DiAndrea, Courtesy PBT.

Jessica McCann

Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre

Few dancers have had as auspicious a professional debut as Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre's Jessica McCann. In her first production with the company last season, she was cast as the lead in William Forsythe's In the middle, somewhat elevated. “I've always been comfortable with contemporary repertory," says McCann. “I grew up naturally having that movement in me."

The 26-year-old native of Palmdale, California, trained at Antelope Valley Ballet and the Alonzo King LINES Ballet Training Program before enrolling in Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre School's Graduate Program. While contemporary work comes easily to her, she admits that she's had to work hard for her classical technique. “I feel like I've gotten better," she says, “and if I can continue to improve, I might have a shot at better roles."

Beyond McCann's critically acclaimed debut, she displayed a cogent stage presence as a sassy pirate woman in Le Corsaire and as a sympathetic friend in Antony Tudor's Jardin aux Lilas. “I feel completely exposed and vulnerable onstage," says McCann. “It awakens every part of me. I want the audience to see who I am and give them an experience." —Steve Sucato

Tapp soars in "Swan Lake." Photo by Gene Schiavone, Courtesy BB.

Addie Tapp

Boston Ballet

At 5' 10", Addie Tapp has mastered a facility that would daunt any lesser dancer. In stillness alone, she commands attention. But when she moves, Tapp embodies a level of grace and control almost unheard of in the tall-girl ranks. And it hasn't gone unnoticed. Now starting her third year at Boston Ballet, she has consistently thrived in featured roles, including Dew Drop in The Nutcracker, Swan Lake's pas de cinq, and her favorite, Balanchine's Kammermusik No. 2.

After beginning her training at the Glenwood Dance Academy in Glenwood Springs, Colorado, Tapp enrolled at the School of American Ballet. “They move so quickly that it helped me get control of my limbs," she says. While there she earned the Mae L. Wien Award for outstanding promise. She went straight into Boston Ballet's corps after graduation and has been nominated for a Princess Grace Award twice.

Having studied Balanchine, Tapp says the learning curve for contemporary and classical works has been intense, but she loves it. “After class, I'll find an open studio and take my own time to work on the small details," she says. And she works hard to maintain her superhuman control with swimming (to build stamina for lead roles) and Pilates. “If you have a strong core, everything stays together." —Ashley Rivers

Courts and Connor Walsh in "West Side Story Suite." Photo by Amitava Sarkar, Courtesy Houston Ballet.

Kaleigh Courts

Houston Ballet

Kaleigh Courts bestowed lightness and innocence as Maria in Jerome Robbins' West Side Story Suite—so much so that audience members were scrambling through their programs to learn more about this homegrown Houston Ballet dancer. “It was such a surprise to be singled out for a lead role," recalls Courts, who is starting her second year in the corps. “It was so cool to be dancing with principal Connor Walsh, too. He kept me calm."

Born in Conroe, Texas, Courts trained at North Harris Performing Arts (a top contemporary studio) and Houston Ballet Academy. After joining HB II, she rose steadily to company apprentice, then corps de ballet. “I love it here," says Courts. “It's such an honor to be among such hard workers." This season she's looking forward to the company's new production of The Nutcracker, choreographed by artistic director Stanton Welch, as well as reprising La Bayadère. “I love being a Shade," she says. “It's one of the most meaningful roles for a corps member." —Nancy Wozny

Photo by Aleksander Antonijevic, Courtesy NBoC.

Meghan Pugh

National Ballet of Canada

As the soon-to-be-jilted Effie in La Sylphide, Meghan Pugh radiates a glow of expectation as she executes Bournonville's fast, tricky steps. Wrenching off her bridal crown, she deflates into poignant heartbreak; her body crumples in shudders and tears as James runs off into the forest.

Contrast this performance with Pugh's elegant poise as a lead fairy in The Sleeping Beauty or her mischievous Pussycat in the same ballet, and it's clear that she's a dancer of notable versatility and dramatic intelligence.

Ottawa-born Pugh was hooked on ballet after seeing her first live performance, The Nutcracker, at age 9. “I just knew I had to be a dancer," she says. She successfully auditioned for the full-time professional program at Canada's National Ballet School in Toronto. Upon completing a post-secondary year at the school and graduating in 2012, Pugh “auditioned around" but was happy to be chosen as a National Ballet apprentice, joining the corps two years later. “This is where I really want to be," she says. Small but significant featured roles soon came her way, and as her repertoire expands, Pugh dreams of one day having the chance to dance Juliet.

Proud hometown family and friends were out in force to see Pugh reprise Effie at Ottawa's National Arts Centre in April. Says 22-year-old Pugh: “It's the first role I've had with so much depth of character and emotion. That performance was probably my most memorable so far." —Michael Crabb

Maloney in class. Photo by Rosalie O'Connor, Courtesy ABT.

Tyler Maloney

American Ballet Theatre

American Ballet Theatre corps member Tyler Maloney laughs when reminded that his path to a professional career may not be so unique. “Like lots of guys, I followed an older sister to ballet class," he says. “But I stuck with it because I loved it." After wolfing down lessons in jazz, modern, contemporary and hip hop, studying ballet at the YMCA in Wyckoff, New Jersey, was about the only discipline left for a 10-year-old boy to conquer. After a teacher urged him to consider training more seriously, his father found ABT's summer intensive. Maloney settled into a demanding routine that consumed his energy and became his life.

Four years at ABT's Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School were followed by two in the Studio Company. “You don't often find a student so coordinated with such a strong presence," says Kate Lydon, the Studio Company's artistic director. His cool mastery of the solos of Birbanto and Ali in Le Corsaire led to an apprenticeship, then acceptance into ABT's corps last season. At 5' 9" and classically handsome, 19-year-old Maloney soon scored one enviable triumph: Alexei Ratmansky cast him as one of seven men in his latest work, Serenade After Plato's Symposium. —Harris Green

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Chisako Oga photographed for Pointe by Jayme Thornton

Chisako Oga Is Soaring to New Heights at Boston Ballet

Chisako Oga is a dancer on the move—in more ways than one. From childhood training in Texas, California and Japan to a San Francisco Ballet apprenticeship to her first professional post with Cincinnati Ballet, where she quickly rose to principal dancer, she has rarely stood still for long.

But now the 24-year-old ballerina is right where she wants to be, as one of the most promising soloists at Boston Ballet. In 2019, Oga left her principal contract to join the company as a second soloist, rising to soloist the following year. "I knew I would have to take a step down to join a company of a different caliber, and Boston Ballet is one of the best companies in the country," she says. "The repertoire—Kylián, Forysthe, all the full-length ballets—is so appealing to me."

And the company has offered her major opportunities from the start. She danced the title role in Giselle in her very first performances with Boston Ballet, transforming a playful innocent into a woman haunted by betrayal with dramatic conviction and technical aplomb. But she also is making her mark in contemporary work. The last ballet she performed onstage before the pandemic hit was William Forsythe's demanding In the middle, somewhat elevated, which she says was a dream to perform. "The style really clicked, felt really comfortable. Bill drew something new out of me every rehearsal. As hard as it was, it was so much fun."

"Chisako is a very natural mover, pliable and strong," says artistic director Mikko Nissinen. "Dancing seems to come very easy for her. Not many have that quality. She's like a diamond—I'm curious to see how much we can polish that talent."

Chisako Oga, an Asian-American ballerina, does a pench\u00e9 on pointe towards the camera with her arms held out to the side and her long hair flying. Smiling confidently, she wears a blue leotard and a black and white ombr\u00e9 tutu.

Jayme Thornton for Pointe

A Life-Changing Opportunity

Oga began dancing at the age of 3. Born in Dallas, she and her family moved around to follow her father's job in IT. Before settling in Carlsbad, California, they landed in Japan for several years, where Oga began to take ballet very seriously. "I like the simplicity of ballet, the structure and the clear vocabulary," she says. "Dances that portray a story or have a message really drew me in. One of my favorite parts of a story ballet is diving into the role and becoming the character, putting it in my perspective."

In California, Oga studied with Victor and Tatiana Kasatsky and Maxim Tchernychev. Her teachers encouraged her to enter competitions, which she says broadened her outlook and fed her love of performing in front of an audience. Though highly motivated, she says she came to realize that winning medals wasn't everything. "Honestly, I feel like the times I got close and didn't place gave me perspective, made me realize being a dancer doesn't define you and helped me become the person and the dancer I am today."

At 15, Oga was a semifinalist at the Prix de Lausanne, resulting in a "life-changing" scholarship to the San Francisco Ballet School. There she trained with two of her most influential teachers, Tina LeBlanc and Patrick Armand. "She came in straightaway with strong basics," Armand recalls, "and working with her for two years, I realized how clever she is. She's super-smart, thoughtful, driven, always working."

She became a company apprentice in 2016. Then came the disappointing news—she was let go a few months later. Pushing 5' 2", she was simply too short for the company's needs, she was told. "It was really, really hard," says Oga. "I felt like I was on a good track, so to be let go was very shocking, especially since my height was not something I could improve or change."

Jayme Thornton for Pointe

Moving On and Up

Ironically, Oga's height proved an advantage in auditioning for Cincinnati Ballet, which was looking for a talented partner for some of their shorter men. She joined the company in 2016, was quickly promoted to soloist, and became a principal dancer for the 2017–18 season, garnering major roles like Swanilda and Juliet during her three years with the company. "There were times I felt insignificant and insecure, like I don't deserve this," Oga says about these early opportunities. "But I was mostly thrilled to be put in those shoes."

She was also thriving in contemporary work, like choreographer-in-residence Jennifer Archibald's MYOHO. Archibald cites her warmth, playfulness and sensitivity, adding, "There's also a powerful presence about her, and I was amazed at how fast she was at picking up choreography, able to find the transitions quickly. She's definitely a special talent. Boston Ballet will give her more exposure on a national level."

Chisako Oga, an Asian-American ballerina, poses in attitude derriere crois\u00e9 on her right leg, with her right arm out to the side and her left hand grazing her left shoulder. She smiles happily towards the camera, her black hair blowing in the breeze, and wears a blue leotard, black-and-white ombre tutu, and skin-colored pointe shoes.

Jayme Thornton for Pointe

That was Oga's plan. She knew going in that Cincinnati was more stepping-stone than final destination. She had her sights on a bigger company with a broader repertoire, and Boston Ballet seemed ideal.

As she continues to spread her wings at the company, Oga has developed a seemingly effortless artistic partnership with one of Boston Ballet's most dynamic male principals, Derek Dunn, who Oga calls "a kind-hearted, open person, so supportive when I've been hard on myself. He's taught me to believe in myself and trust that I'm capable of doing whatever the choreography needs." The two have developed an easy bond in the studio she likens to "a good conversation, back and forth."

Dunn agrees. "I knew the first time we danced together we had a special connection," he says. "She really takes on the artistic side of a role, which makes the connection really strong when we're dancing onstage. It's like being in a different world."

He adds, "She came into the company and a lot was thrown at her, which could have been daunting. She handled it with such grace and confidence."

Derek Dunn, shirtless and in blue tights, lunges slightly on his right leg and holds Chisako Oga's hand as she balances on her left leg on pointe with her right leg flicking behind her. She wears a yellow halter-top leotard and they dance onstage in front of a bright orange backdrop.

Oga with Derek Dunn in Helen Pickett's Petal

Liza Voll, Courtesy Boston Ballet

Perspective in a Pandemic

The pair were heading into Boston Ballet's busy spring season when the pandemic hit. "It was really a bummer," Oga says. "I was really looking forward to Swan Lake, Bella Figura, some new world premieres. When we found out the whole season was canceled, it was hard news to take in."

But she quickly determined to make the most of her time out of the studio and physically rest her body. "All the performances take a toll. Of course, I did stretches and exercised, but we never give ourselves enough time to rest as dancers."

She also resumed college courses toward a second career. Oga is one of many Boston Ballet dancers taking advantage of a special partnership with Northeastern University to help them earn bachelor's degrees. Focusing on finance and accounting, Oga upped her classes in economics, algebra, business and marketing. She also joined Boston Ballet's Color Our Future Mentoring Program to raise awareness and support diversity, equity and inclusion. "I am trying to have my voice inspire the next generation," she says.

Jayme Thornton for Pointe

One pandemic silver lining has been spending more time with her husband, Grand Rapids Ballet dancer James Cunningham. The two met at Cincinnati Ballet, dancing together in Adam Hougland's Cut to the Chase just after Oga's arrival, and got married shortly before her move to Boston. Cunningham took a position in Grand Rapids, so they've been navigating a long-distance marriage ever since. They spend a lot of time texting and on FaceTime, connecting in person during layoffs. "It's really hard," Oga admits, but adds, "We are both very passionate about the art form, so it's easy to support each other's goals."

Oga's best advice for young dancers? "Don't take any moment for granted," she says without hesitation. "It doesn't matter what rank you are, just do everything to the fullest—people will see the hard work you put in. Don't settle for anything less. Knowing [yourself] is also very important, not holding yourself to another's standards. No two paths are going to be the same."

And for the foreseeable future, Oga's path is to live life to the fullest, inside and outside ballet. "The pandemic put things in perspective. Dancing is my passion. I want to do it as long as I can, but it's only one portion of my life. I truly believe a healthy balance between social and work life is good for your mental health and helps me be a better dancer."

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