Meet the 6 Ballet Dancers From Dance Magazine's 2021 "25 to Watch" List

Our friends at Dance Magazine announced their annual "25 to Watch" list on January 1, and we can't think of a better way to ring in 2021. The round-up of emerging talent features dancers, choreographers and companies you should know, spanning multiple dance genres. And, of course, we can't help but feel excited about the six young ballet dancers on the list (you may even recognize one from our 2020 Stars of the Corps). Read on to learn more about them, then be sure to read the full "25 to Watch" list here.

Laura Morton

Laura Morton, a young white woman dressed in a leotard matching her skin tone, poses in retir\u00e9, supporting leg in pli\u00e9. She arches side over the working leg, arms gracefully imitating the angles of her legs.

Daylilies Photography, Courtesy Terminus Modern Ballet Theatre

In a visceral solo in Ana Maria Lucaciu's Long Ago and Only Once, Laura Morton advances across the floor, energy streaming from her core as she scoops her limbs upward, retreats and pivots, arms swiping as if wresting herself from confinement. In George Staib's starkly contemporary fence, she propels her body across the stage with openhearted abandon, her intensity at once hyperalert and serenely calm.

"She has an uncanny way of imprinting herself into the space," says Staib. "Nothing is forced. It feels organic, and that comes from a lot of self-discovery—not residing in one interpretation, but knowing that everything can shift in a matter of milliseconds."

Morton trained with Appalachian Ballet Company and Houston Ballet before finding the wider scope she craved as a Fellowship student at Atlanta Ballet, then led by John McFall. Her apprentice year brought featured roles in works by Gemma Bond, Liam Scarlett and David Bintley. But then-incoming artistic director Gennadi Nedvigin's more classically restrained approach wasn't a fit for Morton—her full-body expressiveness couldn't be reined in.

Immediately, Atlanta's Terminus Modern Ballet Theatre snapped up Morton, who also joined staibdance a year later. Staib's collaborative methods, which involve interplay between tension and release and deep personal inquiry, have freed her to discover a softer and more pliable core, which now drives her expansive reach. Morton is gaining traction in Atlanta's contemporary ballet scene as quickly as the troupes themselves. —Cynthia Bond Perry

Vincenzo Di Primo

Vincenzo Di Primo, a tanned male dancer wearing black trousers, seems to float against a white background, head inclined toward his left leg as it bends in a slight attitude.

Mitchell Jordan, Courtesy Sin Gogolak PR

It can be hard for a dancer to stand out at Complexions Contemporary Ballet, where everything is more. The costumes are more dramatic, the music is louder, the dancers' legs soar higher, and they perform bigger, faster, further. It can be even more challenging for a dancer to stand out in their first season, as they adjust. But amidst the calculated chaos, Vincenzo Di Primo is a steadying presence. His power is measured—calm, uninterrupted and mature. Nothing in his dancing is forced as he shifts seamlessly from balletic movement to striking lines.

His versatility stems from experience. Di Primo's first exposure to dance was ballroom. He later studied hip hop, and then contemporary, before being introduced to ballet. Di Primo graduated from the Vienna State Opera ballet academy, and, after competing in the Prix de Lausanne, joined The Royal Ballet as an apprentice.

There, he worked with Crystal Pite and Wayne McGregor, before moving on to companies in Dublin and Athens, and performing on an Italian TV competition called "Amici." But now, he's found a perfect fit for his talents at Complexions. —Cadence Neenan

Bianca Scudamore

Bianca Scudamore, a pale white woman dressed in a white Romantic tutu and pointe shoes, balances in an extended first arabesque line, torso diving towards the floor. Behind her, a corps of identically dressed women pose in neat lines in B-plus, hands crossed at the wrist.

Scudamore in Giselle

Yonathan Kellerman, Courtesy POB

After the Paris Opéra Ballet School's annual performances in 2017, one student's name was on everyone's lips: Bianca Scudamore, who sailed through Forsythe's Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude with astonishing technical facility and the joyful ease of a seasoned soloist. Born in Brisbane, the long-legged dancer had realized her dream of earning a spot at the French school in 2015. Upon joining the Paris Opéra Ballet after graduation, she was quickly nicknamed the "baby ballerina" to follow.

She hasn't disappointed. In soloist roles, including the peasant pas de deux in Giselle and Olympia in John Neumeier's Lady of the Camellias, as well as successful appearances on the local gala circuit, the 21-year-old has found a balance between youthful virtuosity and the polished restraint prized by French ballet insiders. While foreigners are still in the minority at POB, Scudamore was promoted two years in a row at the internal concours de promotion, rising to the rank of sujet (demi-soloist) in 2019, and finished second in the Varna International Ballet Competition's juniors category that same year. With a little help from POB's artistic team, a charmed career beckons. —Laura Cappelle

Amanda Morgan

Amanda Morgan, a caramel skinned Black woman wearing a pale leotard and pointe shoes that match her skin tone, balances in sous-sus, arms at her sides, looking over her shoulder toward her back foot.

Lindsay Thomas, Courtesy PNB

Amanda Morgan will be heard. The Pacific Northwest Ballet corps member's long limbs paint through space with a gentleness that contrasts with the strength of her voice as a creator and leader. She founded The Seattle Project, an interdisciplinary artists' collective dedicated to creating and presenting community-accessible work, in 2019. The Project—whose collaborators have included dancers from PNB and Spectrum Dance Theater—held its first presentation, "The How of it Sped," at Northwest Film Forum last February. As the COVID-19 pandemic took hold, Morgan and fellow PNB dancer Cecilia Iliesiu founded a mentorship program to connect PNB School students with company members. Last summer, she spoke out against racism and police brutality at protests following the death of George Floyd.

Morgan's community advocacy and delicate yet striking contemporary movement came together in "Musings," the digital work she created alongside Nia-Amina Minor for Seattle Dance Collective last summer, exploring spatial injustice against Black and brown people.

In the fall, PNB commissioned Morgan, who made pieces for the company's Next Step choreographic showcase in 2018 and 2019, to create a site-specific work as bonus content for its first-ever digital season. "Society may have tried to silence the voices of the marginalized, but you will never silence me," she proclaimed at a June demonstration.

The dance world is listening. —Lydia Murray

Kennedy Brown

Kennedy Brown, a young white woman dressed in trunks and a bra top, smiles slightly as her legs extend to a side split, the male dancer partnering her gripping her extended arms above the elbow to provide a counterbalance.

Brown as Stella in Annabelle Lopez Ochoa's A Streetcar Named Desire

Heather Thorne, Courtesy Nashville Ballet

In 2019, choreographer Annabelle Lopez Ochoa cast an apprentice in the lead role of Stella in A Streetcar Named Desire at Nashville Ballet. Displaying a potent mixture of sensuality and vulnerability alongside sleek technique, Kennedy Brown's performances more than substantiated Lopez Ochoa's faith in her.

The former competition dancer from Indiana capped her early training with Magaly Suarez at the Art of Classical Ballet in Florida. She was a Top 30 dancer on Season 14 of "So You Think You Can Dance" before joining Nashville Ballet 2 in 2017.

"There is a real warmth about her, about the way she moves and communicates out to the audience that I really like," says artistic director Paul Vasterling. "She is incredibly ambitious and focused, which is what it takes to be a leading dancer." With girl-next-door charm and a world-conquering stage presence, Brown, now a full company member, is well on her way. —Steve Sucato

Maria Coelho

Maria Coelho, a Latina woman, balances in retir\u00e9 at the barre with other dancers, wearing black socks, sweatpants, a long-sleeved shirt and a puffy vest.

Courtesy Tulsa Ballet

Making an instant impression is Maria Coelho's superpower. The 22-year-old's stage presence is awash with charisma, which she pairs with an exceptional attack-driven technique. "Every choreographer that comes in immediately notices her," says Tulsa Ballet artistic director Marcello Angelini. "She has a very particular physicality, powerful and commanding. Every time there is one of those strong female roles in our repertory, she is considered for it." Case in point: As a first-year corps member, Coelho was chosen by Annabelle Lopez Ochoa to dance the lead role of Rosalia in the second cast of Vendetta, A Mafia Story. (Performances were subsequently postponed due to the coronavirus.)

A native of Rio de Janeiro, Coelho studied dance at Balletarrj Escola de Dança and American Ballet Theatre's Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School before joining Tulsa Ballet II in 2016. She was offered a place in the main company as an apprentice in 2019, and was promoted to the corps de ballet in 2020. "She has been chosen by dance rather than her choosing to dance," Angelini says. Of the strong female roles Coelho has yet to perform, she says Kitri from Don Quixote is at the top of her wish list. No doubt she is destined to get there soon. —Steve Sucato

Header photo credits, left to right, top to bottom: Melissa Blackall, Courtesy Boston Dance Theater; Daylilies Photography, Courtesy Terminus Modern Ballet Theatre; David DeSilva, Courtesy Axis Dance Company; Kevin Calixte, Courtesy Désir; Yonathan Kellerman, Courtesy POB; Ian Teraoka, Courtesy Project Home; Beatrix Molnar, Courtesy Comitre; Vanessa Fortin, Courtesy Margolick; Heather Thorne, Courtesy Nashville Ballet; Quinn Wharton; Erin Baiano, Courtesy Flores; Jayme Thornton; Courtesy Tulsa Ballet; Mitchell Jordan, Courtesy Sin Gogolak PR; Amanda Gentile, Courtesy Sandoval; Rachel Neville, Courtesy Bhargava; James Jin, Courtesy Diaz; Tina Ruisinger/Rolex, Courtesy Touré; Natalie Tsui, with creative consultation by Marco Farroni, Courtesy J. Bouey; Daphne Jaramillo, Courtesy Davis; Ta Nycia Wooden, Courtesy Raianna Brown; Bogliasco Foundation, Courtesy Greene; Lindsay Thomas, Courtesy PNB; Florian Thévenard, Courtesy Doherty; Devin Marie Muñoz/Muñoz Motions, Courtesy Minor; Saadat Maksat, Courtesy Yang

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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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