Rogers in Twyla Tharp's "The Princess and the Goblin." Photo by Kim Kenney, Courtesy Atlanta Ballet.

Can Acting Lessons Give Ballet Dancers an Edge?

This story originally appeared in the August/September 2016 issue of Pointe.

Five years after joining American Ballet Theatre, corps member Zhong-Jing Fang sustained a serious ankle injury. Not one to let a setback take her off course, Fang wondered: What other things can I do as an artist? She loved imitating movie actresses as a child, so she decided to try acting while she recovered. For two years, she went every Wednesday evening to a four-hour group class with acting coach Diaan Ainslee. There she learned to dissect a monologue, develop a character, listen and feel emotionally exposed. The experience thrust Fang out of her comfort zone and transformed her as an artist. “It's a different layer of becoming a person," Fang says, “and becoming much more real."

Acting classes, which often incorporate exercises aimed at self-exploration, can offer dancers tools to deepen their artistry. Even simple things, Fang notes, like working without mirrors, can inspire you to go beyond image and find a deeper sense of self. “There is a lot more to say, beyond just being able to dance," she says. Here, Fang and three other dancers explain how acting skills have made them better performers.



Ruud in "Giselle." Photo by Luke Isley, Courtesy Ballet West.

Discovering “You" in All Your Roles

Acting classes can help you find your voice both metaphorically and literally. “Actors are more involved with their egos than dancers are," says Ballet West corps member Gabrielle Salvatto, who was featured in the 2015 television series “Flesh and Bone." “They're taught that you really have to be 100 percent confident in yourself in order to be confident being someone else."

In an effort to achieve technical mastery, ballet dancers don't always have time to focus on their egos. Getting in touch with your identity can be a struggle, particularly in the early phases of your career, when a corps position requires looking like everyone else. Furthermore, choreographers can be very specific. “As a dancer, that can start to inhibit you," says Ballet West principal Christopher Ruud. “You're so concentrated on doing precisely what you've been asked to do that sometimes it can take away from what you're portraying."

In an acting environment, Salvatto finds that there are “different ways to say the same things." On set, for instance, she noticed that her directors were often not quite sure what they wanted the end result to be. “They're looking for you to provide that answer."

Ruud, who studied at the Actor Training Program at the University of Utah, notes that his dramatic training helped him learn important character-development skills. On portraying Prince Siegfried in Swan Lake, for example, Ruud says it's not enough to “just act like a teenager on his birthday. You have to delve in and realize that he's lived in this castle, he's been served his whole life—he's probably pretty lonely!"

However, relating to a character's complex and sometimes negative feelings can be difficult for a dancer who is used to making everything look effortless and beautiful. Fang recalls a dramatic exercise where, facing another actor, she had to rapidly call out each feeling she had as it washed over her. This helped her access “moment to moment, very bare, very raw" emotions, a skill she now uses to infuse both cheerful and despondent roles with a nuanced voice.


Fang in Alexei Ratmansky's "Nutcracker." Photo by Gene Schiavone, Courtesy American Ballet Theatre.

Overcoming Fear

One crucial emotion that theater allows dancers to explore in depth is fear. “I learned how to see my fears, how to be aware of them, and that it's okay to be scared," says Fang. In fact, her classes allowed her to recognize that being injured was a very fear-filled experience; she later channeled that feeling when she returned to the stage with ABT. For example, though initially intimidated to play a harlot in Romeo and Juliet, she soon recognized that the character was not simply “sexy." She was likely also scared and vulnerable.

While ballet dancers spend a lifetime trying to achieve perfection, Atlanta Ballet dancer Alessa Rogers found that the skills she learned from performing with an improvisational sketch-comedy group helped reduce her fear of mistakes. She describes her first training workshop with a local troupe, called Dad's Garage, to be almost therapeutic. In improv comedy exercises, which often involve unscripted, themed games, “there are no wrong answers," says Rogers. If one joke didn't work, she had to let it go and quickly move on to the next one. “You don't have time to question yourself. You just have to make a choice, any choice. Nothing bad is going to happen if you put yourself out there and you're really invested in what you're doing."


Salvatton and Alison DeBona in Jerome Robbins' "Fancy Free." Photo by Luke Isley, Courtesy Ballet West.

Succeeding with Today's Choreographers

Authentically expressing yourself is especially important today, as many visiting contemporary choreographers want to quickly learn who dancers are as artists. While making Games at Ballet West, choreographer Helen Pickett (who is also an actor) peppered Ruud with questions about his motivation. The ballet, a modern interpretation of Nijinsky's Jeux, depicts a complicated love triangle. “She was very interested in the choices we made," he says. “What choice are you going to make right here about this relationship between these people?"

Rogers found that some of the lessons she learned at Dad's Garage, particularly the “yes, and" principle, easily carried over to making new ballets. In improv comedy, she explains, “whatever somebody does onstage, you can't say no to them, and you can't just say yes but not further progress the story. You have to give them a 'yes, and.' " Though the phrase was new to her, the experience was not: She's used to taking a choreographer's material and building on it. “No dancer is going to say no to a choreographer—they're saying 'yes, and' all the time."

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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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