Christine Shevchenko and Devon Teuscher, photographed for Pointe by Jayme Thornton

Christine Shevchenko and Devon Teuscher: ABT's Dazzling New Generation of Star Power

This is Pointe's December/January 2018 Cover Story. You can subscribe to the magazine here, or click here to purchase this issue.

Christine Shevchenko and Devon Teuscher have spent practically half their lives with each other. Both dancers joined American Ballet Theatre's Studio Company in 2006. The following year, they graduated into the main troupe as apprentices, again together. They've sat next to each other in every dressing room they've ever occupied, and shared hotel rooms on the road. And in September 2017, at the age of 28, they became the company's two youngest female principal dancers—on the same day. If they weren't such good friends, they would probably be sick of each other.


It's particularly remarkable because they're such different dancers. Shevchenko, who started out in Odessa, Ukraine, as an aspiring rhythmic gymnast, and later studied at The Rock School for Dance Education in Philadelphia, has an amazing facility and an enviably confident demeanor onstage. She sailed through her debut as Kitri in Don Quixote, her first leading role at ABT, as if it were nothing, with soaring jumps and grand battements so limber that it seemed she might bop herself in the head. (She didn't.) The following week, she was thrown into Le Corsaire after another dancer got injured; same thing. She is as comfortable as Myrtha in Giselle as she is as the bubbly Mademoiselle Marianne Chartreuse in Alexei Ratmansky's comic ballet Whipped Cream. Her aplomb seems to arise from a mixture of temperament, training—she did lots of competitions—and a fierce work ethic. "She's one of the hardest workers I've ever met," says Teuscher.

"There's something similar that drives each of us, but there's also a way we can stand back and admire what the other one does," says Teuscher. Jayme Thornton for Pointe.

Teuscher is cut from different cloth. She initially trained at smaller schools in Illinois and Vermont before coming to ABT's Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School at the age of 15. Before becoming a principal, she had already begun to specialize in dramatic roles. One of the first times she caught the audience's attention was in Antony Tudor's psychological ballet Pillar of Fire, where she played a young woman tormented by insecurity and forbidden desires. Teuscher gave a searing performance, intense but utterly lacking in exaggeration. She is an icy Myrtha in Giselle, a benevolent and glowing Lilac Fairy in The Sleeping Beauty, a tragic, even heroic Nikiya in La Bayadère. (Her nemesis Gamzatti was played by, you guessed it, Shevchenko.) And Ratmansky, ABT's choreographer in residence, created a unique role for her in his 2016 Serenade after Plato's Symposium. In this ballet about philosophical dialogue, she was a commanding presence, the only woman among seven men.

I caught up with the two dancers as they were gearing up for the start of ABT's fall season. Together, they took stock of their first year as principals.

You've spent so much of your career side by side, and you're also friends. Do you think the fact that you're such different dancers played a part in cementing your friendship?

Devon Teuscher: We realize how different we are and that we're going to produce very different results. There's something similar that drives each of us, but there's also a way we can stand back and admire what the other one does.

Christine Shevchenko: Devon lights this spark inside of me. I always admire how cleanly she works. Her technique is so pure. She's good for me.

Teuscher and Shevchenko as Nikiya and Gamzatti in "La Bayadère." Rosalie O'Connor, Courtesy ABT.

Was there a big shift for you after you became principal dancers?

DT: Huge.

CS: In the corps, you're sort of protected from your flaws. But now, as a principal, you're laying everything out there for everyone to see. There's nothing to shield you. I'm used to people saying "Do this," or "It should look like this." Now you have all this freedom to try different things. And it's about choosing what fits you…

DT: …which is hard. I remember starting to work on Swan Lake, and my coach, Irina Kolpakova, asked, What do you want to do at this moment? And I was like, What do you mean? You tell me what to do! [laughs]

What has been the hardest thing about being a principal, so far?

CS: For me it was the intensity of my first Met season as a principal. I was just not prepared for the fact that I would need to put whole full-length ballets together in just a few days. I thought that when you got promoted to principal you'd get all this time to work on each role, really fix everything, all the details. And literally I had less time to put roles together than when I was a soloist.

DT: We would finish a ballet on Thursday and premiere a new role the following Tuesday or Wednesday. Of course, we had worked on it earlier in the year. You had to really trust yourself and think: I did all that work throughout the year; it's in there somewhere. You have to be able to pull it out and put it onstage.

Devon Teuscher and Christine Shevchenko: Behind the Scenes with Our Dec/Jan Cover Stars www.youtube.com

How do you prepare for a big new role?

CS: I usually start with watching thousands of videos, watching everyone else's take on that role and figuring out a version that's suited for me. The most important thing is to find how you want to play a certain role, how each step can say what you want it to say. It's more than dancing. I'm constantly thinking about what the role means, how to get the character across.

DT: It can be difficult sometimes. I've attempted both starting from the steps and from the dramatic side. When I did Swan Lake, I went directly to Byam Stevens, an acting coach who's worked with several ABT dancers, before I started any studio rehearsals. We worked up a story about the overarching truths I wanted to get across. Then I went to the studio and worked on the steps and tried to mesh the two. I've also done the opposite. For La Bayadère, I didn't work with Byam at all. It's such a Russian masterpiece —I wanted to simply go with what Natalia Makarova [who set the ballet] and Irina Kolpakova said and make that work for me.

What feels more exciting to you now, digging into the canon, or having something created on you?

CS: For me it's dancing these ballets that I've always wanted to do and getting to explore them. They're all still new to us. And there's so much work to do, it never ends—the acting and the dancing. It's about building more and more into each role.

DT: I feel similarly. We get to make them relevant for us now. When I got promoted to principal I had a rehearsal with Alexei Ratmansky and he gave me great advice. He said that now is the really exciting time because this is when you get to see what you can do, not what someone else wants you to do.

Shevchenko as Kitri in "Don Quixote." Photo by Gene Schiavone, Courtesy ABT.

Have you had mentors in the company?

DT: We were lucky to join at the same time, along with Katherine Williams. We really stuck together.

CS: It was mostly the three of us helping each other navigate things.

DT: There were a few senior corps girls who gave us advice, but generally we were on our own.

How have things changed now that there are fewer guest stars parachuting in to do lead roles?

DT: The morale of the company is better because there's more hope. You can go from apprentice to principal. And you can do all the ballets. Before, you saw all these people coming in and it was like, Well, I don't know if I'll ever get to dance that.

CS: Maybe it's also this new generation and this new way of working together. I've tried to interact more with the younger dancers.

Has the #MeToo movement affected the company's culture?

CS: I've never had a situation that felt inappropriate to me, so I haven't felt a huge shift or change. Maybe people talk about it more, but nothing has changed in the way that we work.

DT: I think we're lucky. I've never experienced something I was uncomfortable with. I think that comes from Kevin McKenzie being such a great director and respectful man. It starts at the top, I think. We do have a Code of Conduct, and we had a meeting and talked about the guidelines.

"As a principal, you're laying everything out there for everyone to see," says Shevchenko. "There's nothing to shield you." Jayme Thornton for Pointe.

"Those brief moments onstage—it feels like that's where I'm supposed to be," says Teuscher. "That's where I feel most at home." Jayme Thornton for Pointe.


What's your relationship to social media?

CS: I try to post every day. It's almost a second job. Sometimes it gets in my head, like I should be posting more, getting myself out there, but it takes time and energy. Mentally, it can be exhausting.

DT: I think it can also become a distraction from the actual work. I can't tell you how many rehearsals I've seen where for the last half hour dancers will be taking photos and videos because they need something to post on their social media instead of using the time to rehearse. I would never want to take away from that time.

Devon, your partner in life is fellow ABT principal Cory Stearns. What is it like to be in a relationship with someone you work with?

DT: I remember when we did Swan Lake together earlier this year. We approached it very professionally. It's interesting because it forces you to stay more invested than you would be normally. It's not that you don't care about a regular partner, but there's so much more care for a person you're with. I remember him saying that, during the White Swan variation, he was watching from the side as usual, but he was exerting so much more energy because he was so excited about watching and really caring about how I was doing.

Teuscher and Cory Stearns in "Swan Lake." Photo by Rosalie O'Connor, Courtesy ABT.

How did you and Christine first become friends?

CS: I remember rooming with you in New Orleans. I think that was the first time we became close.

DT: She's very quiet and keeps to herself, so it took a while.

CS: Yeah, I'm not a talker. When I was a kid, I was really shy.

DT: And I'm fairly reserved and quiet as well. But Christine is one of the most positive people I've met in my life. I love having that around. It makes me a more positive person.

Do you discuss roles?

CS: We don't talk so much about roles, we just talk.

What do you love the most about dancing?

CS: For me, it's always been about bringing happiness to the people who come to see these stories. It's about making people happy—I've always been a people pleaser. [laughs]

DT: I think the performing aspect is the thing I love the most. Those brief moments onstage—it feels like that's where I'm supposed to be. It's an almost intimate feeling. That's where I feel most at home.

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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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