Photographed by Nathan Sayers for Pointe.

Beyond Role Models: Straight Talk From Ashley Murphy, Ebony Williams and Misty Copeland

This is Pointe's June/July 2014 Cover Story. You can subscribe to the magazine here, or click here to purchase this issue.

Alicia Graf Mack tells the remarkable stories of three stars who have beaten ballet's odds, finding successful careers in the field they love.


Photo by Nathan Sayers for Pointe.


Ashley Murphy

As a young girl in Shreveport, Louisiana, Dance Theatre of Harlem's Ashley Murphy never dreamed of a career in ballet. “I didn't grow up hearing that being a professional dancer was a real job," she says. Ballet was just an extracurricular activity that she enjoyed, along with gymnastics and piano lessons.

Not until she attended summer programs at New York's Joffrey Ballet School, The Ailey School and DTH did Murphy begin to realize her own potential. Though she earned admission to Dillard University in Louisiana, she ultimately followed her heart and accepted a spot with DTH's junior company. Within a year, director Arthur Mitchell, noticing her air of quiet mystery, promoted her to the professional company.


Murphy found herself in her dream job. She enjoyed working amongst so many dancers of color, “striving toward this goal" of showing the world that a ballet company celebrating the diversity of American society could advance the art form. This was a place where she could pursue what she loved regardless of the color of her skin. In 2003, DTH experienced a successful touring year, and Ashley performed some of the greatest works of the neoclassical canon, including Balanchine's Serenade and Concerto Barocco, and the company's signature work, John Taras' Firebird.

“Sheer confusion" is how Murphy describes her thoughts after hearing the announcement, in 2004, that DTH was closing. “We were touring and performing to sold-out audiences, and the next week, I didn't have a job," she remembers. Murphy stayed in New York for a few months, auditioning for other ballet companies, but was forced to move back home when nothing worked out. The disappointment of unemployment after reaching such a high in the ballet world wore on her spirit and led her to question the role that race plays in dance. “To a certain extent, race affects us all, whether we are willing to admit it or not," she says.

From 2004 to 2012, Murphy made it her mission to inspire young people of color. She not only danced with the DTH Ensemble—the performing arm of the DTH School, which continued to operate during the company's hiatus—but also worked with DTH's educational outreach program, Dancing Through Barriers. “The biggest thing that we can do is to be an example to others," she says. “Not seeing people who looked like me is one of the reasons I never considered ballet as a profession growing up."

Today, the powerful yet elegant 29-year-old is at the forefront of Dance Theatre of Harlem's comeback as a full-fledged professional company. Murphy often wonders “why it can never just be, 'Oh, she is a beautiful dancer.' It has to be, 'She is a beautiful black dancer.' " Those kinds of assumptions have charged her to strengthen and develop her artistry, so that her talent is undeniable—devoid of labels. Her pursuit of excellence is not about being a standout black ballerina, but about being a standout artist. “That should be the larger issue," she says.


Photo by Nathan Sayers for Pointe.


Ebony Williams

Ebony Williams has worked with pop stars like Beyoncé and Rihanna, but the chameleonlike dancer's home is Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet. Cedar Lake's repertoire emphasizes the work of innovative European choreographers, and Williams, whose strong classical technique is complemented by an urban angularity, was drawn to its marriage of classical and contemporary. “I felt like I didn't have to just be a ballerina," she says.

For Williams, the dance world wasn't always a welcoming place. She started her classical training in elementary school through Boston Ballet's Citydance, an outreach program designed to bring dance to inner-city public schools. Soon Boston Ballet recognized Williams' prodigious talent and asked her to join the Boston Ballet School on full scholarship. As one of the only black girls at the school and on financial assistance, Williams often felt estranged.

“Everyone at Boston Ballet, the staff and teachers, was very good to me," she says. “It was really just the parents and the other girls. I remember one girl's mom grabbed me and told me that she was paying for me to be there, and I didn't deserve the roles I was getting. It was horrible." During her freshman year of high school, Williams began to retreat, skipping classes and eventually quitting ballet altogether. “It was no longer fun for me," she says.

Williams joined her high school's cheerleading squad, graduated and enrolled in college to study physical therapy. A former teacher saw her in Boston during a break and asked her why she was no longer dancing. “I felt like no one was letting me quit," Williams says. “Everyone knew me as Ebony the dancer." After a six-year hiatus from formal ballet training, she returned to her greatest passion, enrolling in The Boston Conservatory. “I started in the lowest ballet level, and by the second semester I was in the highest level."

In rediscovering ballet, Williams rediscovered herself, and ultimately found a new path at one of the dance world's most diverse companies. She loves that everyone in Cedar Lake is “from a different place in the world," she says. “It is important to the artistic direction to bring in individuals who have their own voices." Now she embraces the fact that while the color of her skin makes her special, it is her talent that sets her apart.


Photo by Nathan Sayers for Pointe.


Misty Copeland

Misty Copeland, American Ballet Theatre's first African-American soloist in over two decades, is one of the ballet world's most prominent role models. More than 250,000 fans follow her every move on social media. With a new memoir on sale, a documentary in the making and several commercial endorsements, Copeland is a force to be reckoned with.

But being in the spotlight also has its challenges. Copeland is no stranger to dealing with negative chatter and intense pressure. “As I climb the ranks of the ballet world, I've started to see more judgment from my audiences and peers," she says. “I just have to block it out and stay focused and weed out the negative. I have to be able to stand my ground."

Copeland began training in classical ballet at 13. Discovered by her teacher, Cynthia Bradley, at a Boys & Girls Club in San Pedro, California, Copeland was aware that her color could present a challenge, but she trained in a caring, insulated environment that allowed her to flourish as a young artist. Even after moving to New York City in 2000 to dance with ABT's Studio Company, she was not aware of the role that race would play later in her career.

In fact, it was not until Copeland's first year as an ABT corps member that she began to struggle. “In the beginning it was so difficult," she says. As one of the only black female dancers in ABT, she “felt really alone, and started to rebel. I was really hard on myself." She became increasingly frustrated with her casting, believing that her talent merited bigger opportunities.

Copeland attributes her change of attitude and sense of determination to conversations she had with Victoria Rowell, a former ballerina and actress who encouraged her to continue to fight for her place at ABT. Copeland says, “It was the first time that I had a black woman so positive and strong in my dance career. She said, You can do this. And that's what I needed to hear." Copeland found the courage to ask for what she wanted, and her career at ABT took an upward turn.

Today, Copeland is using her position with one of the world's premier ballet companies as a platform for bringing issues of racial inequality to the forefront of the ballet world. In following her own dreams, Copeland is paving the way for other women of color to do the same. “I am constantly saying that, to be a black ballet dancer, you have to be incredibly strong," she says. “I want to show people that it is possible."

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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."

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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Ballet West principal Katlyn Addison in a still from In The Balance. Courtesy Ballet West

Ballet West’s New Web Series Documents an Uncertain November

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.

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