Rochelle Mendoza-Axle, Courtesy Stiskin

Why Versatility Is Everything, According to 5 Joffrey Ballet School Directors

In today's dance world, versatility is key. It's not enough to be a master of one style—even when they specialize in one area, dancers are frequently asked to fuse multiple genres, or step out of their comfort zone for specific projects. With their wide variety of summer programs, Joffrey Ballet School aims to prepare dancers for the demands of a professional career. We asked five faculty members to share how they do this:


Josie Walsh

Director​, Joffrey​ West LA, San Francisco and NYC Ballet

Jody Q Kasch, Courtesy Walsh

Though the three programs Josie Walsh runs have different focuses, there's one thing they all have in common: daily ballet technique. "The core of Joffrey is to have a solid classical foundation, which sets dancers apart," Walsh says. "You really need to have that, there's no shortcut." From there, however, the programs go in different directions. West LA is a fusion program, offering contemporary, jazz, hip hop, musical theater, ballroom, Afro-Caribbean and Latin fusion classes, among others. San Francisco is more concert dance-focused, combining classical ballet and pointe with contemporary, modern and improv techniques. NYC has a more classical focus, but still includes contemporary or modern training every day. Walsh, who danced with the Joffrey Ballet and in Europe and choreographs for her own company, is well aware of the importance of staying current. She knows that classical dancers need to be able to tackle contemporary choreography, and commercial dancers need classical training. She brings in working artists as her faculty members, and even in the more classical NYC program, students have new work created on them. It's all part of "not losing sight of where things are going, and being at the forefront," she says.

Maximilien Baud

Co-director, Musical Theater NYC, London Musical Theater, Las Vegas Jazz & Contemporary, Vegas Cirque Arts

Courtesy Baud

"Long gone are the days of being a one-trick pony," says Maximilien Baud. "Directors of ballet companies with a vast repertoire need versatile dancers who can dance multiple types of roles during a grueling season. Broadway choreographers need dancers who can do ballet, jazz, hip hop, tap, and more." Baud himself trained at the School of American Ballet. But when he auditioned for the national tour of Billy Elliot, "I had no idea what an audition songbook was, or how to tap. These were just things that as a student at SAB we never imagined needing," he says. "At Joffrey, we open the door of curiosity for performers who might consider themselves strictly a one-style dancer and give them the tools to be more versatile." Much of this is exemplified in the new Cirque du Soleil program. "Cirque is always looking for cutting-edge dancers who are versatile and able to do more than just dance," says Baud. During the program, students work directly with Cirque performers, learn about a facet of the dance world they might not have considered and are connected with potential employers who are looking for dancers that have a range of skills.

Angelica Stiskin

Director, NYC Jazz & Contemporary

Rochelle Mendoza-Axle, Courtesy Stiskin

Angelica Stiskin, who's done everything from assisting choreographer Mia Michaels to performing with Justin Bieber, started her career as a tap dancer. "My curiosity for musicality, rhythm and attention to detail all stemmed from this training," she says. "I quickly realized that I had formed a foundation that was easily applied to all of my other techniques and classes. My success was built on excelling through diversity." In the NYC Jazz & Contemporary program, Stiskin brings that sensibility, as well as a knowledge of what's expected of dancers today, into her programming. "A dancer needs to adapt to any room or movement vocabulary with absolute confidence and grace," she says. "My goal is to bridge the gap between commercial and concert dance. More options lead to more successful careers." Students take ballet and modern, along with contemporary, jazz, hip hop, street jazz, and improv. Extracurriculars expose them to New York City's dance culture, and the experience culminates in a professional-grade performance at Symphony Space.

Matthew Prescott

Co-director, Musical Theater NYC, London Musical Theater, Las Vegas Jazz & Contemporary, Vegas Cirque Arts 

Courtesy Prescott

For Matthew Prescott, the key word is integration. Nowadays, he sees more connections between different parts of the dance world that used to be more distinct. "When I first started dancing professionally, you could just be a ballet dancer," he says, "because there were lots of options for you to have a career that was financially stable—you had 32, 34 weeks of work consistently. Those sort of companies don't exist so much anymore." Though programs in musical theater or circus arts might sound very specific, Prescott encourages dancers of all styles to try them and broaden their idea of what they can do with their training. "Ballet has been a huge part of musical theater history," he says. "People like Agnes de Mille and Jerome Robbins, and now Christopher Wheeldon and Justin Peck. There are opportunities as a tap dancer on Broadway, there are opportunities as a hip-hop dancer with shows like Hamilton." The locations of the JBS programs themselves are an education, too. For instance, the new Cirque program, which partners with Tiffany Baker, dance supervisor for the Michael Jackson One show in Las Vegas, will help dancers learn about the Vegas entertainment scene. "Let's explore where they fit, and how they can integrate into the dance community," says Prescott.

Yusha Sorzano

Director, Joffrey Southwest Dallas, has also taught at JBS programs in New York, LA, and San Francisco

Eric Politzer, Courtesy Sorzano

To Yusha Sorzano, who's danced with Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, Complexions Contemporary Ballet, and Camille A. Brown and Dancers, among others, while a ballet base is essential for today's concert dancers, there's another foundational technique that sometimes gets neglected: modern. She plans to offer both ballet and modern every day as the new artistic director of JBS' Dallas-based fusion program (previously directed by Desmond Richardson). A Trinidad native, Sorzano also grew up dancing socially, and plans to introduce her students to a variety of styles outside of traditional concert dance. "Even before I was doing ballet, I knew how to groove and to dance in a social setting," she says. Elements of jazz, street styles, contemporary, improv, Latin jazz and Afro-based movement are included in her program's curriculum, along with information about the history of each style. The type of career she imagines her dancers entering is multifaceted, with opportunities in concert dance, commercial dance, Broadway and beyond. Training dancers for this kind of career includes preparing them for both the physical and mental demands of today's dance world. "We're training our bodies at a high level," she says. "I think it's really important to slow students down and teach them how to care for their bodies and themselves."

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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."

Students of International City School of Ballet in Marietta, Georgia. Karl Hoffman Photography, Courtesy International City Ballet

A Ballet Student’s Guide to Researching Pre-Professional Training Programs

Many dancers have goals of taking their training to the next level by attending full-time pre-professional programs next fall. But it's hard to get to know the organizations without physically experiencing them first. Even when the world isn't practicing social distancing, visiting a school or attending its summer program isn't always possible. So, what can students and their families do to research programs and know what might work best for them? Who do you reach out to, and what are the questions you and your parents should be asking?

Here, pre-professional-program leaders share some practical advice for taking the next step in your dance training.

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American Ballet Theatre corps member Rachel Richardson. NYC Dance Project, Courtesy Rachel Richardson

ABT’s Rachel Richardson on Performing With Her Hometown Company, Eugene Ballet

When I signed my first professional contract with Eugene Ballet, one of the last things I anticipated was the opportunity to dance beside a member of American Ballet Theatre. Flash forward to the start of our spring season this year, and suddenly I'm chatting in the hallway and rehearsing the Cinderella fairy variations next to luminous ABT corps member Rachel Richardson. When ABT announced it was canceling live performances for the 2020–21 season, Richardson traveled back home to Eugene, Oregon, to be with her family—and this spring joined the company as a guest artist.

Growing up, Richardson trained locally in Eugene before moving to The Rock School for Dance Education's year-round program in Philadelphia. After securing a spot in the ABT Studio Company in 2013, she was promoted to corps de ballet in 2015. This unconventional year marks her sixth season with the main company.

After having the privilege of dancing with her this spring, I sat down with Richardson to discuss her recent guesting experience, how the pandemic has helped her grow and her advice for young dancers.

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