Good news for all aspiring ABT dancers: The company just annouced a new apprentice program. Each year, it will prepare six talented dancers to become apprentices with the corps de ballet under the guidance of ABT Studio Company artistic associate (and Pointe editor at large!) Kate Lydon and ABT ballet master Clinton Luckett. The dancers will train intensively for 10 weeks beginning in September, then dance as apprentices during The Nutcracker, and ABT's spring season at the Metropolitan Opera House. They'll take a daily technique class with Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School principal Franco De Vita and ABT artistic staff, plus variations and pas de deux classes. Additionally, ABT staff will give them tutorials in ABT repertoire (covering ballet story lines, history, style and mime) and seminars in hair, makeup and company etiquette. The dancers will also recieve one-on-one attention from physical therapists and Pilates instructors to get personalized cross-training recommendations. for more, see abt.org.
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."
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."
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."
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."
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.
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."
In a hopeful sign that things may be slowly getting back to normal, Youth America Grand Prix is hosting its 2021 Season Finals live and in person this week in Tampa, Florida. Approximately 800 young dancers will perform at the annual scholarship audition, held May 10–16 at the Straz Center for the Performing Arts. Over $400,000 in scholarships will be awarded, with school directors from all over the world adjudicating both in person and online. The entire event will be livestreamed on YAGP's website, YouTube channel and Facebook page.
Last spring, the pandemic had forced the competition to pivot to a virtual finals format. But through strict health and safety measures, such as mask wearing, weekly COVID-19 testing and timed performance slots, YAGP was able to resume live semifinals in 26 locations between November and April, without any reported coronavirus cases. Dancers were more than eager to take part—according to the competition, 10,000 students participated in the semifinals. (Those in the U.S., Canada and the Asia Pacific region who were not ready or were unable to perform live were allowed to audition virtually.)
Of course, it wouldn't be YAGP without a star-studded gala. This year, to account for social distancing at the Straz Center's Morsani Hall, the annual Stars of Today Meet the Stars of Tomorrow gala will be presented as a two-part series: the first, on May 13, featuring Junior Division finalists, and the second, on May 16, showcasing Senior Division finalists. Both performances will also star YAGP alumni such as American Ballet Theatre's Skylar Brandt and Aran Bell, San Francisco Ballet's WanTing Zao and Benjamin Freemantle, and Broadway's Giuseppe Bausilio. The gala will also feature world premieres by Alonzo King (danced by LINES Ballet's Adji Cissoko) and ABT principal Calvin Royal III. Don't worry if you can't make it—a virtual edition will be made available on Sunday, May 23.
For information on the finals' competition schedule, click here. And stay tuned as we bring more exciting news about this year's scholarship winners.
The rollout of vaccinations is helping the U.S. turn a corner during this coronavirus pandemic, and artists and audience members alike are looking forward to enjoying live performances once again. It couldn't be more perfect timing, then, for the inaugural Kaatsbaan Spring Festival, which will feature 16 presentations on two outdoor stages in New York's Hudson Valley. Taking place May 20–23 and May 27–30, the festival brings together luminaries from multiple disciplines, including dance, music, poetry, sculpture and the culinary arts.
"During a challenging year such as this, we really wanted to provide artists from various genres opportunities for support and work," says Sonja Kostich, Kaatsbaan Cultural Park's executive director.
Dance fans will enjoy two world premieres from American Ballet Theatre choreographed by Helen Pickett and James Whiteside, as well as performances from Dorrance Dance, Mark Morris Dance Group, Martha Graham Dance Company, Yannick Lebrun of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, and New York City Ballet's Maria Kowroski, Ask la Cour and Gonzalo Garcia, who will all be celebrating their final seasons with the company.
The festival will operate at less than 3 percent capacity to promote safety. Tickets for the performances are now available on Kaatsbaan.org and advance registration for free digital offerings is available (with donations welcome) throughout the month of May.
Maria Kowroski and Ask la Cour in Christopher Wheeldon's After the Rain
Paul Kolnik, Courtesy Kaatsbaan Cultural Park
A Series of Firsts
For Kowroski, this will be her first time performing onstage in front of a live audience since the pandemic began.
"These moments onstage are so cherished, especially now," says Kowroski, whose farewell performance with NYCB is scheduled for October 17. "It's sacred time. You can't compare anything to performing."
Kowroski's performances during the spring festival include Christopher Wheeldon's After the Rain, with la Cour, and a George Balanchine solo entitled Pavane.
"It will be my first time dancing Pavane," says Kowroski. "It's a solo I have wanted to cross off my bucket list for a long time."
For Pickett, the spring festival marks her first time working at Kaatsbaan and her first time choreographing for ABT. Pickett received a call from artistic director Kevin McKenzie inviting her to create a piece on the company. He had been following her work for some time and experienced her full-length ballet The Crucible with Scottish Ballet.
Set to new music by composer Peter Salem, Pickett's ballet will feature five dancers (two women and three men) and highlights the "energies within human beings and how society shapes those energies inwards and outwards," she says. "It will also draw on some of the societal themes present within Gustave Flaubert's novel Madame Bovary."
Helen PIckett (third from left) with American Ballet Theatre dancers Erica Lall, Blaine Hoven, Carlos Gonzalez, Joo Won Ahn and Zimmi Coker on the grounds of Kaatsbaan Cultural Park
Courtesy Kaatsbaan Cultural Park
Keeping Art Alive
With all of the challenges over the past year, it's hard to believe that Kaatsbaan's artistic director, former ABT principal Stella Abrera, has only been in her role since January 2020. Last year she oversaw the successful Kaatsbaan Summer Festival, which was a direct response to the challenges the dance industry was facing in the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.
"I feel I could write a novel with all I have learned so far," quips Abrera. "Sonja has guided me and has been so encouraging and supportive. I am thrilled to still be part of the dance world and support my fellow artists from this side."
Kowroski, Abrera's long-time friend, says, "I am so proud of Stella for opening Kaatsbaan to artists during this past year. She has really shined."
The return of live performances heralds a renewed hope and enthusiasm for the arts.
"I remember as I was watching a dress rehearsal for our first show during the pandemic," recalls Abrera. "It just reaffirmed my love for the art form again."
"Art always thrives out of times of great hardship," adds Pickett.