Elisabeth Beyer, Elwince Magbitang and Jake Roxander in Le Corsaire Suite. Avery Brunkus, Courtesy ABT.

After Fall "Bubble" Residency, ABT Studio Company Gets Ready to Present Its Winter Virtual Program

The dominant narrative of how a young ballet dancer gets into a professional company generally goes something like this: You're accepted into a prestigious summer session at a company school, and then get invited to stay year-round. You perform a bit with the company for The Nutcracker and, if you're lucky, in a few other programs. You hope for a leading role in the student showcase performance, which helps you land an apprenticeship. After a year, you get invited to join the corps.

And then there's ABT Studio Company, which turns that narrative up a notch—to an altogether more glamorous wattage. Studio Company members tour extensively all over the country and world, almost all year long, and perform in American Ballet Theatre's Nutcracker in California, each year. World-class choreographers create new works on them. Increasingly, "StuCo," as it's affectionately called, has become the direct pipeline into ABT. (Almost 80 percent of company members spent some time there.) Its dancers, ages 17 to 21, are some of the most talented of their generation. And certainly, they are among the most fortunate.

But then came COVID-19, which abruptly sent all of the dancers home in March 2020. And home they've remained ever since, except for a seven-week fall "bubble" during which they briefly reunited and put together a virtual program. The resulting performance, ABT Studio Company Winter Festival, will premiere in two parts on February 9 and 10 on ABT's YouTube channel.

Rewind to March 2020: The 2019–20 cohort's touring schedule had been jam-packed. They'd performed in the Philippines, Los Angeles, Orange County, upstate New York, Massachusetts, New Jersey and North Carolina. They were soon to fly to London for the International Draft Works festival hosted by The Royal Opera House. Choreographer and New York City Ballet principal Lauren Lovette had just created a new piece on them, and she hit the finish line not an hour too soon. After wrapping up rehearsal on Friday, March 13—one day after Broadway was shut down, and the same day that then-President Trump declared a national emergency—the dancers were told to fly home as soon as possible.

"I caught them just in the nick of time," Lovette says. Her La Follia Variations was meant to premiere a month later at the Ailey Citigroup Theater. Instead, the dancers—many of whom hadn't lived at home with their parents for years—were back in their family living rooms taking class together on Zoom, not knowing when or if they'd make it back to New York City.

Kyra Coco, a light skinned-Black ballet dancer, performs a sissone in second onto her left leg on pointe. Wearing a black spaghetti strap leotard and black skirt, she looks out over her right hand, which is stretched out to the side.

Kyra Coco in Sascha Radetsky's Class Concert

Avery Brunkus, ABT

For Sascha Radetsky, ABT Studio Company's artistic director, getting the dancers back together quickly became an imperative. He hatched the idea of the fall bubble with Studio Company manager Claire Florian as soon as it became clear that reconvening in New York City would not happen any time soon. His wife, Stella Abrera—an ABT principal until this past summer—had recently become artistic director of Kaatsbaan Cultural Park in Tivoli, New York. Sitting on 153 acres, the center had everything they needed: space, studios and living accommodations.

But first there was the question of quarantining. After flying back to New York City in late September, the dancers were loaded into extra-large shuttle buses that allowed for social distancing, and driven to Goodspeed Musicals, a performing arts center in East Haddam, Connecticut. For two weeks, they quarantined and trained in single bedrooms—on carpeted floors—before they finally got back into the studio. They spent a week rehearsing at Goodspeed before heading to Kaatsbaan.

"It was electric," says Tristan Brosnan, who joined Studio Company in September 2019. "All these connections hadn't been sparked since March, but they were suddenly there. You're seeing people without a face mask, you're touching them, dancing with them. Everyone had so much energy, and extra reserves of motivation, because it defied everything that our lives had become for the past eight or nine months."

Over five weeks at Goodspeed and Kaatsbaan, they prepared nine pieces for filming, including a new work by Hope Boykin entitled For What Is It All Worth? The piece, says Boykin, is inspired by "young people who are able to stand up for what they know is right."

The bubble also served as a glint of hope against a backdrop of desperation. For Studio Company dancers, the brutal economic reality of the ballet world, which has been frozen in time by the pandemic and resulted in wide-scale hiring freezes, is all too real.

A large group of male and female dancers in black leggings, white T-shits and jean jackets do a sissone with their left legs in front and their arms thrown back. They jump in front of a red backdrop, cocking their heads towards the audience with big smiles.

ABT Studio Company dancers in Hope Boykin's For What Is It All Worth?

Avery Brunkus, Courtesy ABT

For Boykin, however, there is reason for them to be optimistic: "This bubble has raised the bar of what they know they're capable of." She views the quarantine as a metaphor for all the sacrifices they've been willing to make to keep dancing since COVID began, and she's confident they'll come out all the stronger for it. "They just need to have patience," she says. "It's not going to be easy, but they've got to remember they're still on an upward trajectory."

Lovette sees this moment as a time that's ripe for nurturing assertiveness and exploration. "What's cool about right now is that it's a direct cutoff from the way things have always gone," she says. "I don't think the old way of 'waiting to be asked' is how things are going to go anymore. I keep telling young dancers, this is the time to connect to who you are and to explore: If you're interested in costume design, now's the time to play. If you've thought about choreographing, now's the time to play."

Kotomi Yamada, a young Asian ballet dancer, performs a piqu\u00e9 attitude on pointe on her right leg and looks up toward her raised right arm. She wears a black camisole leotard and white practice tutu and dances on a black box stage in front of a blue backdrop.

Kotomi Yamada in Le Corsaire Suite

Avery Brunkus, Courtesy ABT

Radetsky, who is currently co-planning a spring bubble for the Studio Company, sees another silver lining, which is the emergence of an artistic maturity that teenage dancers are normally years away from cultivating.

"These dancers have matured a lot in a short amount of time," he says. "They've gone through a mini crucible—like an injury. It's grief, not being able to do what you love to do."

"To have what you love most taken away from you is something that happens to all dancers eventually, but they've been hit with this trial run at a very young age," Radetsky adds. "That fosters life experience. It can deepen your artistry, as it galvanizes your hunger to get back out there."

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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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