Just in time for their Met season, American Ballet Theatre is launching its own iPhone app. I just downloaded it yesterday and am already addicted. You can browse through all of the company’s upcoming performances and learn who’s dancing which night. Contact the box office, add the show to your calendar and let all of your Facebook friends and Twitter followers know when you’re going. All of the company’s latest news is right at your fingertips, along with a continually updated archive of choreographers, composers, designers and ballets since ABT’s founding in 1940. Be in the know, even when you’re on the go. There’s also a beautiful gallery of intimate backstage shots by corps member Renata Pavam. It’s just $1.99 in the iTunes Store. For more details, go to abt.org/mobile.
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."
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.
If the story of a ballet company presenting performances amidst a global pandemic, a divisive presidential election, and uprisings for justice sounds like it was made for TV, Ballet West has a series for you. In The Balance: Ballet for a Lost Year is a nine-episode documentary about BW's November 2020 performances, which took place at Salt Lake City's Capitol Theatre. The series premieres Friday, May 7, on Ballet West's social media channels, with a new episode released every Friday. (Viewers can also unlock all nine episodes on Ballet West's website starting May 7.)
For a month filmmakers Diana Whitten and Tyler Measom of Skyscape Studios had unlimited access to company class (divided into pods to abide by COVID-19 restrictions), rehearsals for new ballets by Jennifer Archibald and Nicolo Fonte, and interviews with artists and administrators. Some of the series' most fascinating insights come from people's different ways of navigating uncertainty, and how this connects to the arts.
In the trailer, BW's artistic director Adam Sklute talks about ballet as something to "take people away from COVID-19," while Archibald speaks of the arts as a path through hardship.
"The series reveals the vulnerability, the passion, the pressure. What was happening in the world politically weighed on us," said Archibald in an interview last month. "You don't always get a chance to see what choreographers are going through before they walk into a studio. Creating movement is such an honest, revealing, and truthful process. It's not my vibe to let people see that."
Whitten and Measom are known for gripping documentaries for mainstream audiences (Measom recently co-directed Netflix's Murder Among the Mormons). To tell the story of BW's season, they focus on four dancers: principals Katlyn Addison, Beckanne Sisk and Chase O'Connell, and corps dancer Vinicius Lima.
Intimate views of the featured dancers' homes and relationships enrich the series, debunking stereotypes of ballet dancers as unthinking, apolitical or uncritical. These four also represent different backgrounds, ages and identities, giving audiences a glimpse of BW's diversity and the obstacles these dancers have overcome.
While most television shows and movies about ballet skew towards scandalous or sensational extremes, In The Balance does not need to manufacture suspense. The decision to move forward with an in-person season presented potentially fatal outcomes. It's a testament to the company's precautions and planning that there were no COVID-19 cases among artists, staff and crew during the fall season. BW worked extensively with county and state health officials and abided by union health regulations to provide a safe experience. Also, Utah had less stringent COVID-19 restrictions than in other places, which allowed the company to host in-person performances.
Utah's political realities make BW an anomaly: 20 percent of BW dancers are BIPOC while Utah is 90 percent white, and Salt Lake City is considered LGBTQ-friendly in an otherwise religiously conservative state. The docuseries includes poignant moments when Lima reflects on his sexuality, and the barriers he's faced. In Archibald's ballet Tides we see Lima and his partner, Dominic Ballard, partnering one another in a gorgeous duet. These moments amplify ballet as a path to social change, illuminating ways of being together that dominant cultures may not yet accept or approve of.
Because of pandemic restrictions, "Only dancers living together could partner," says Archibald. "Dancers had to enter stage left and exit stage right. Distance had to be maintained between dancers onstage. It was challenging. And added to this, the altitude and aridity of Salt Lake City made it difficult to breathe even without a mask. So, seeing where my choreography for Tides comes from, and the emotional impact of this time, is really valuable."
While the artists' perseverance, resilience and tenacity are exceptional, there are awkward moments. Fonte's outburst about lighting design is one example, and important to the series. The pandemic stretched everyone's capacity for calm responses, and In The Balance does not shy away from tense exchanges.
Such moments are balanced with levity. For Halloween, Lima and Ballard dress up as the couple in George Balanchine's Tarantella for company class. "I'm obsessed with Patricia McBride and Edward Villella," says Lima. "My boyfriend made our costumes and we had so much fun. We all need to keep seeking joy."
The series cost approximately $250,000, with primary funding coming from the Utah Office of Tourism and Create in Utah. According to BW communications director Joshua Jones, Whitten and Measom heavily discounted their normal rate "because of their passion for ballet and the arts."
The docuseries reveals the investment, struggles and commitment of ballet dancers and choreographers. "It's important for audiences to not always see the polished, perfect performances," says Archibald. "To appreciate this beauty, it's important to see the creative process, the laying of bricks, so to speak."