Aesha Ash teaching at the School of American Ballet

Rosalie O'Connor, Courtesy SAB

Aesha Ash Is Bringing Her Boundary-Defying Spirit to SAB As Its First Black Female Full-Time Teacher

Aesha Ash is obsessed with movement. After training at the School of American Ballet and dancing with New York City Ballet, she traveled the world with Béjart Ballet Lausanne, Alonzo King's LINES Ballet and Morphoses/The Wheeldon Company. Ash spent that time watching, absorbing and growing. Continuing to be curious about what can be expressed and achieved through movement, she quietly began teaching, guesting at SAB's Workshop for Young Dancers in California beginning in 2016 and becoming the school's visiting faculty chair from 2018–20; in addition, she earned two Pilates certifications and, through her Swan Dreams Project, created a summer camp in her native Rochester, New York, in partnership with the city.

Ash also has plenty of experience dismantling the boxes that others have attempted to place her in. The latest such instance came in August, when it was announced that she would be joining SAB as the school's first Black female full-time faculty member. Although this news became public in the shadow of worldwide outrage and protests surrounding racial injustice and police brutality, her appointment was first announced to SAB faculty, staff and students in February. Dance Teacher spoke with Ash, a self-described "forever student," about her new position and what she hopes to offer the students of SAB.


​Congratulations on your appointment to full-time faculty at SAB! What does your hiring mean to you?

It's an incredible, full-circle moment for me. There's the weight of what this appointment means, because being hired as a full-time faculty member at SAB is, in and of itself, an honor. Adding to that is the weight of this historic moment that SAB has never had a Black female full-time teacher.

I feel this tremendous responsibility because it is a first. I think anyone who has experienced these sorts of firsts feels that weight on their shoulders. I'm honored and grateful for all the kindness and fanfare, but I have a job to do, and I'm really focused on wanting to give the students the best of me and to be the best teacher that I can for them.

​You've worked with Maurice Béjart, Alonzo King and Christopher Wheeldon, and have two Pilates certifications. How will these perspectives inform how you teach Balanchine technique?

I think my first "aha" moment was when I started working with Chris. After leaving Béjart and going to LINES (where I mostly danced in flat shoes), I went back to "ballet ballet" with Chris. I started to feel what all that knowledge felt like in my body. There was thinking about circles and expansiveness, not trying to hide yourself, and being creative from Alonzo. There were things that I learned watching the dancers in Béjart—for example, a woman from Paris Opéra who was so supple and grounded. You need that grounded earthiness to come up and be quick.

Aesha Ash smiles as she corrects a student's hip placement as they balance in sur le coup-de-pied en pointe at barre.

Aesha Ash teaching at School of American Ballet

Rosalie O'Connor, Courtesy SAB

Through my Pilates certifications I gained an understanding of that deeper connection with your core. You need to give in to the earth to ground in order to have that freedom and space within the joints, and a core connection to be able to achieve the speed needed for Balanchine.

I had to take my hand off that barre and lie flat on my back, and I had to sit in the studio watching other dancers from other backgrounds. It helps me to take a moment to chew on it, feel it and explore in a different way.

​How are you planning to impart other valuable lessons you've learned along your journey as a dancer and teacher?

I try to help my students enjoy the process and not constantly think, "Oh my god, Workshop. Oh my god, am I going to get in?" Thinking about that in every class, tendu, turn doesn't allow you to enjoy the moment. When you're not fully there, you're not getting any information. Being fully there could mean "Today sucks. It's raining. My body's hurting," and it's okay to be present in that. Maybe the leg doesn't go as high today. Explore what 45 degrees feels like on your body right now. What information are you getting from that? If my students can become more present, then all the other stuff fades away and, beyond the fact that they're gaining and learning more, they're getting a little bit more pleasure out of the work.

In your TEDx Talk you said, "If you put a wall before me, no matter how tall or wide, I was going to do everything in my power to see beyond its limitations." Yet again, you find yourself on the other side of another wall. What do you see in front of you?

The main thing is remembering myself as a student. I want to be there for any girl who is plagued with self-doubt, questioning if she belongs and struggling with her identity. This is an opportunity to, hopefully, lift up and encourage as many students as I can and remind them: "Don't let anyone place a box on you." I hope my students feel they can fall down, make mistakes and try things, like, "This is probably going to be totally ridiculous, but this is what my body's telling me right now, and I'm going to go for it!"

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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."

Abra Geiger, from the 2019 YAGP Season Finals. VAM Productions, Courtesy YAGP

YAGP Finals Kick Off in Tampa This Week—and You Can Watch Them Live!

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.

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Kaatsbaan Cultural Park artistic director Stella Abrera and executive director Sonja Kostich. Photo by Quinn Wharton, Courtesy Kaatsbaan Cultural Park

The Inaugural Kaatsbaan Spring Festival Brings Together Leading Figures in Dance

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.

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