A Day In The Life Of Carlos Acosta

When Carlos Acosta sees me backstage, he walks toward me smiling, his arms open wide. We met briefly the night before at a reception, but he embraces me and kisses me on both cheeks like we’re old friends. It’s 11:15 am one morning in mid-March, and he’s warming up onstage, preparing for the 11:30 class. He rose early. After walking the grounds of his host, he had fruit for breakfast and read, enjoying the Texas sun. “It was such a beautiful morning,” he says.

Acosta is in Fort Worth to dance Le Corsaire Pas de Deux with the National Ballet of China’s Zhang Jian at Bass Hall. He’s danced with her before. This time, it’s part of a Texas Ballet Theater mixed-rep program called Stars and Premieres, with a three-performance run. Tomorrow is opening night, and he’s only been in town a few days.

Acosta began dancing at age 9 at the National Ballet School of Cuba. Even before graduating in 1991, he began touring and guesting worldwide. In 1993, he met Ben Stevenson, then–artistic director of Houston Ballet, who currently heads TBT. Stevenson invited Acosta to join Houston Ballet as a principal, and Acosta remained there for five years.

Acosta credits Stevenson for paving the way for his success, including being a principal at The Royal Ballet and American Ballet Theatre, as well as performing all over the world, appearing on British television and in two films, and receiving numerous awards.

With Acosta spending most of his time dancing in London, New York and Paris, it may seem odd that he’d come to Fort Worth to dance one short piece for three nights. Put that question to Acosta and his answer is simple and immediate: “There is something called appreciation,” he says. “I feel very grateful to Ben. He means a lot to me. This is a way to pay him back for what he’s done for me.”

Preparing for class, Acosta stretches alongside the other dancers. He pounds his thighs with his fists and then sits, crossing his legs to rub his feet. Then he stands to stretch his legs on the barre.

His stature is striking; his dark skin and wild, curly hair add to his allure. He’s wholly aware of his surroundings and completely rapt in what he’s doing, sometimes stopping to smile at me between exercises as I sit on the apron of the stage; other times he’s lost in the combinations.

By 12:10 pm, the class moves on to center work. Acosta loosens his spine, collapsing backward over a barre in the wings, chatting with the dancers. He returns to the stage with his group—turning, leaping, soaring through the space. In each combination, his speed, accuracy and technical skills are as grand as during any performance.

Class lasts only an hour, and because he’s not due back for the tech rehearsal until after 3, he suggests we grab lunch. “Something light, of course. Maybe a salad,” he says. We walk to a restaurant and get a table outside.

Latin music plays, and Acosta dances in his chair. “We could dance Corsaire to this,” he jokes. We talk about his career, about how people recognize him in New York, about his buying a home in London. “The realtor knew more about me than me,” he says. “There were lots of bids on the house, but I got it because the owner’s wife is a ballet fan.” He shakes his head, laughing.

The conversation turns to his age, and he grins. “I’m 34. I’m a dinosaur.”

“How could you possibly say that?” I ask.

“You should have seen me this morning, limping and shuffling to the bathroom,” he teases. “I’m becoming a fossil. I don’t know how much longer I can do all these shows and tours.”

Acosta muses about wanting a family of his own one day, of how much he is enjoying this time in his career, of how he values all that he has. “I have freedom. And freedom is the most precious thing.”

As for his future plans, he says he’s already writing his autobiography. After that? “It all depends, because I want to enjoy my children,” he says, speaking of the ones he hopes to have one day. “I know I can do many things. I don’t see myself in a ballet classroom teaching.”

He talks about Cuba. His voice full of love and respect—for the country and its people. “In Cuba, it’s all about human contact. Here, it’s all computers, no connection. In [London], I don’t even know my neighbors, and I’ve been there five years. If we don’t pay attention, we’re all going to be robots,” he says. “In the end, that’s what life should be all about—sharing experiences.”

Growing up in the barrio and leaving school at an early age provided Acosta with little formal education. His father enrolled him in ballet school to keep him out of trouble. “I started reading because I wanted to tell my story,” he says. “I wasn’t very good at school. I got kicked out, and I regret it. I didn’t know anything about anything. Someone once said, ‘You can’t be a doctor if you only know medicine.’ Same applies. I feel more free knowing about more than just ballet.”

At 3:20, after spending only a few moments warming up in the wings, Acosta’s onstage for the tech rehearsal. It’s primarily for lights, cues and staging, so Acosta and Zhang mark much of the choreography—a relief, as an ongoing injury in his foot and ankle are hurting him badly.

He’s not due onstage again until after 8 pm for the evening’s dress rehearsal. He heads to his dressing room to ice his injury. He then heads for his host’s home to read and nap. His focus onstage demands time for meditation off of it.

It’s an odd day for Acosta, filled more with waiting than dancing. The one piece he’s performing is only nine minutes long, but Acosta doesn’t appear to mind. He seems happy for the ease with which the day is unfolding.

At 7:25, Acosta is in costume backstage, warming up at the barre. Thirty minutes later, he returns to his dressing room for one final look in the mirror. He details Corsaire for me, explaining the plot and his role as slave. He acts out the scene, gesturing with graceful bows and sweeping arms. His eyes are pleading, and his movements are as dramatic as any stage performance.

He returns to the wings at 8:12. Minutes later he’s onstage, dancing full out at this dress rehearsal for the next three nights’ performances. His colleagues in the wings stop to watch. Their faces register awe. The audience for the rehearsal is small, just company members and press photographers, but Acosta’s performance draws cheers and applause that belie the tiny number of occupied seats.

What seems like an instant later, Acosta is rehearsing his bows. He stops to mark a few steps onstage and speaks to the pianist about the tempo of the piece. Then he dashes into his dressing room to gather his things. Second later he slips out, kisses me on both checks, and says, “I’ll see you tomorrow.” 

Twenty-four hours later, after watching his opening-night performance, I can see the sheer joy on his face. As I hear the audience clap and cheer and watch everyone rise to their feet, I can’t help but remember something Acosta said about the passing of Ibrahim Ferrer, a musician he greatly loved and admired: “When you live in someone else’s heart, that’s the best way to live.”

Jenny Block writes for a variety of regional and national publications. Her latest work appears in the new anthology It’s a Girl: Women Writers on Raising Daughters.

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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."

Tanya Howard in rehearsal Trase Pa. Photo by Karolina Kuras, Courtesy of NBoC.

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Students of Canada's National Ballet School. Bruce Zinger, Courtesy Ballet Unleashed.

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To any pre-professional dancer vying for a company position, auditions are a familiar and often dreaded scene: Hundreds of hopeful young graduates flock to an audition site, pin a paper number to their dance clothes and try their luck. But only a few will receive full-time contracts with companies—the rest will go home disappointed, potentially facing a gap year as they try to figure out next steps.

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