Joffrey Ballet dancer Hyuma Kiyosawa on set during the shoot for Interim Avoidance. Michael Kettenbeil, Courtesy Action Lines.

Action Lines' Digital Art Installation, Starring Joffrey Dancers, Brings Virtual Ballet to the Chicago Public

This past year, dance has taken a flying leap into the world of virtual performance, with dancer-led enterprises emerging along the way. Laptops and television screens have hence erupted as leading performance venues. But for the new Chicago-based production company Action Lines, co-founded by Joffrey Ballet artists Xavier "Xavi" Núñez and Dylan Gutierrez, and film producer Eric Grant, dance has found another home: a 3,300-square-foot media-installation wall in downtown Chicago.

Now through April 30, 150 Media Stream, a digital art installation platform housed in the lobby of the 150 North Riverside skyscraper, hosts Action Lines' Interim Avoidance, a new project featuring six dancers from The Joffrey Ballet. Dylan Gutierrez, Hyuma Kiyosawa, Dara Holmes, Olivia Duryea, Edson Barbosa and Jeraldine Mendoza pirouette, saut de chat and cabriole across the building's lobby in this massive, seven-minute looping media stream. Designed as a reflection on dance in divided space, Interim Avoidance marks Action Lines' first step into curated work.

We spoke with Núñez, Gutierrez and Grant about their first commission.

In the glass lobby of a building, a panel of LED blades stretches along the wall and features a film showing the images of four female dancers from the waist up.

Joffrey Ballet dancers Dara Holmes and Jeraldine Mendoza in Interim Avoidance on the 150 Media Stream installation in downtown Chicago.

Olivia Duryea, Courtesy Action Lines

Action Lines is a very new company. How did you get started?

Xavier Núñez: It was about a year in the making. The three of us got together and decided to make a short film; it was more nonchalant—this was all before the pandemic. We realized then in making our first video, "Circles," that we worked really well together. Then once quarantine hit, we found ourselves still wanting to make things.

Dylan Gutierrez: When we all sat down together in the middle of summer, we felt that it was the perfect time to start it.

XN: Action Lines officially became a company in early November, and then a week later we were contracted to do the 150 Media Stream project. We jumped right into it!

That's a quick transition! How did Action Lines get involved with 150 Media Stream?

DG: I was introduced to the curator of 150 Media Stream, Yuge Zhou, by a mutual friend. We began discussing our new company and how we wanted to get started on some projects. We pitched the idea that [virtual performances] are where dance is going to exist this year because the Joffrey had had to cancel its winter program. Once she heard the idea, she bought it right away, and we got to work.

The pandemic has affected the way we all work as artists. What was your creative process like for this project?

Eric Grant: Where Xavi and Dylan have a keen eye for visuals and dance in storytelling, I bring the visual language of film. In a lot of our meetings, they come in with a certain set of skills and I say, "Okay, how can we take what you want to do and make it make sense for a viewer of a film, rather than a stage production?"

DG: What's great is that Eric will give us a suggestion movement-wise, and it will be something absolutely valid. While it may not have been something Xavi and I might have thought of, I think that adds to our creativity as a whole.

XN: There was a lot of pre-production planning that went into this. Initially, the stream was just going to be dancers in slow motion in a black void, but then it evolved. We added color to it because we knew it would be the dead of winter, and we wanted to do something really bright so it would pop. We filmed in Joffrey's Gerald Arpino studio, which is basically a black-box theater, so we had complete control of the lighting. We also outsourced our director of photography with a company called Big Foot Media. Tim Whalen and Michael Kettenbeil handled the videography portion. Because we knew the dancers, we were then able to direct them and say, "This is the kind of angle we're looking for here."

Jeraldine Mendoza, wearing a brown bra-top and briefs and pointe shoes, stands in tendu devant en face on her left leg. Her arms reach straight down with flexed hands as light from above pools around her on the darkened stage.

Jeraldine Mendoza performs a section of Interim Avoidance while a cameraman shoots from the side.

Michale Kettenbeil, Courtesy Action Lines.

How did you navigate filming during the pandemic?

XN: The Joffrey has really strict pandemic rules within the studios, so each dancer had to be filmed independently of each other.

DG: Each of them had a 45-minute block, then there'd be a 15-minute airing-out period. Then the next person had to start on the dot. It was really scheduled.

EG: I was so impressed with Joffrey's COVID restrictions. They already knew how the airflow was going to work, and it influenced how we constructed the story. We said, "How do we now create a story where we're filming everybody individually and cutting it to make it look like they're together again?"

XN: We're used to filming one video at a time. Because of the epic size of this installation, it was more like filming four separate videos into one and having the shots interact with each other. There are times when they're layered over each other, and it makes it seem like the dancers are in the same room together.

DG: The editing was so involved. But that's why the project looks so incredible. Especially with the slow motion, you actually have time to see everything that's happening.

Hyuma Kiyosawa wears nude booty shorts and stands in front of a pink backdrop with his arms crossed at his bare chest. He watches Xavier N\u00fa\u00f1ez, who is in front of him in street clothes and lunges ardently onto his left leg. He has a camera looped around his chest and looks over his right shoulder towards Kiyosawa.

Xavier Núñez (right) offers direction to Hyuma Kiyosawa during the shoot.

Courtesy Action Lines

What is the concept behind the piece?

DG: We're using the media wall as if it's a living thing⁠—like it's the only place these dancers can exist. At first they're kind of confused why they're there, but then they realize that it's their space to dance. Then they disappear before it repeats again. It's this looping dream…the only place we can do what we want to do at the moment.

How did this process differ from working on a choreographic project designed for the theater?

XN: There was a lot we didn't know about planning and logistics. As dancers, we rarely think about how many people are involved in making something happen—from the crew to PR and marketing. It's really opened our eyes to be able to see the full picture, as opposed to just the art itself.

Looking to the future, do you have any plans or visions for where you'd like Action Lines to go?

XN: Once I'm done dancing, I want to be able to say that we have something we can transition into full-time—something that we all love to do.

DG: I think we're in a really privileged position to be able to start this right now, because the opportunity to do good work is huge when you're starting out. We have a fresh perspective, but also one that's relatable beyond dancers. We want everyone to see themselves in our work. I see big things for us in the future.

For more information and access to an adapted online version of Interim Avoidance, check out the 150 Media Stream website.

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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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