Photo by Nisian Hughes for Pointe.

Grace Under Pressure: The Bolshoi Ballet's Alena Kovaleva

This is Pointe's December 2017/January 2018 Cover Story. You can subscribe to the magazine here, or click here to purchase this issue.

Few ballets are as unforgiving for a young dancer as Swan Lake. Both Odette's heartbreak and Odile's deceit of Siegfried demand the kind of dramatic commitment and maturity that often come with experience. At the same time, when a director entrusts an 18-year-old corps de ballet member with the double role, the implicit promise is clear: A special ballerina will emerge from that chrysalis.

So it was with Alena Kovaleva, who turned 19 shortly after her Swan Lake debut, last September, on the historical stage of the Bolshoi Ballet in Moscow. Barely a year after her graduation from the Vaganova Ballet Academy, Kovaleva isn't a full-fledged Swan Queen yet. At nearly 5' 10", she is so tall that her coltish limbs sometimes falter, and she was visibly tiring by Odette's final pleas.


Kovaleva in "Swan Lake." Photo by M. Logvinov, Courtesy Bolshoi Ballet.


Yet when she first appeared in the white act with an ample grand jeté, her arms stretching into a gorgeously lyrical wingspan, it was clear that Makhar Vaziev, the Bolshoi's ballet director who had thrown Kovaleva in the deep end, was on to something. Kovaleva's filigree Vaganova training shone through, her doll-like face alive with sadness.

Vaziev is no stranger to pushing young talent beyond their comfort zone. The Russian director came to the Bolshoi in 2016 after long spells at the helm of La Scala Ballet and the Mariinsky Ballet, where he jump-started the careers of ballerinas including Alina Somova and Olesya Novikova in similar fashion. At the Bolshoi, which favored slower rises through the ranks in recent years, his methods are leading to a change of the guard, with Kovaleva one of the fresh faces of his directorship.

"It doesn't matter to me if someone is young or not so young," Vaziev says. "If he or she is the best, they will dance." Last July, he even cast Kovaleva in "Diamonds" at Lincoln Center for the 50th anniversary of Balanchine's Jewels. Her New York City debut didn't go unnoticed, with the Observer's dance critic Robert Gottlieb raving about its "ravishing splendor."

In his Moscow office after Swan Lake, Vaziev declared himself satisfied with his young charge: "Today was just a step. I think she did—not bad." Kovaleva herself, poised despite the exhaustion, admitted in near-impeccable English that leading her first full-length ballet was no walk in the park. "You have to hold yourself, to find this energy inside you. But the energy comes from the character. Every movement needs to be part of the story."


Photo by Nisian Hughes for Pointe.

Growing Pains—and Gains

The height that gives her such breadth of movement onstage hasn't always been an advantage. When the St. Petersburg–born Kovaleva entered the Vaganova Academy, at age 7, she struggled to build up strength. "I was really weak for the first five years. My legs were just two sticks without muscles," she says with a laugh. "My teachers were always telling me: Eat pasta, pasta, pasta!"

Kovaleva had almost given up her spot at the Academy. When she auditioned on a teacher's suggestion, she was shocked by the anxious stage mothers waiting for their children and told her family, who was far removed from the dance world: "I don't want to go here. These people are not normal. Everybody was shouting, crying."

Still, she fell in love with the art form and thrived, completing three years of preparatory classes and the regular eight-year curriculum. "It's a really good school—it doesn't just make your technique, but also your character," she says. Kovaleva's final Vaganova teacher was Yulia Kasenkova, a former Mariinsky soloist who stood out for her technical strength and clarity of phrasing, and demanded the same of her students. "We were her very first class. She had just finished her career, so she remembered everything really well."


Photo by Nisian Hughes for Pointe.

Fully aware that her height might deter some companies, Kovaleva started thinking about the future early. In 2016, she entered the Prix de Lausanne, where she didn't make the finals with her two variations but relished the experience: "It was important for me to try contemporary dance, because I didn't have it at Vaganova, and I met so many people," she says.

The connections she made helped her bounce back when the Mariinsky Ballet, after some dithering, declined to hire her because she was too tall: "I understood that I probably wouldn't get there, so I tried to do as many auditions as I could." After Lausanne, she got offers from St. Petersburg's Mikhailovsky Ballet and Eifman Ballet, as well as scholarships from Béjart Ballet Lausanne and Dutch National Ballet.

In Moscow, around the same time, Vaziev got a phone call from reconstruction specialist Sergei Vikharev, who had noticed Kovaleva (and unfortunately passed away last June). "He told me there was a very capable girl graduating, but the Mariinsky wouldn't take her. I said, 'It means she's no good!' But he asked if I could watch her," Vaziev remembers.

Kovaleva went to Moscow to take class, and Vaziev was struck by her potential. "It was a shock for me that the Mariinsky didn't want her," he says.

Kovaleva didn't think twice before accepting his offer of a corps position. Despite the historical rivalry between St. Petersburg and Moscow, the young dancer was excited by the prospect of expanding her horizons. "When you graduate, a new adult life starts, and moving to another city made it more real," she says.


Kovaleva with her regular partner Jacopo Tissi, a young talent from Milan, in "Swan Lake." Photo by M. Logvinov, Courtesy Bolshoi Ballet.

A Swan Is Born

She had no time to worry: On her second day at the Bolshoi, Kovaleva was called to an impromptu rehearsal with Vaziev's wife, Olga Chenchikova, a former Mariinsky principal who is now her coach. "It was for 'Diamonds.' I couldn't believe it," Kovaleva says. Three weeks later, she was making her stage debut in Balanchine's ballet. "Even after the performance finished, I felt like I was dreaming," she remembers.

Other debuts have come thick and fast, from Myrtha to the grand pas from Raymonda and Études. While the Moscow style is notoriously more flamboyant than the reserved manner taught in St. Petersburg, Kovaleva doesn't want to stray too far from her roots. "I'm trying to stay who I am, like I was taught." Still, she looks up to the Bolshoi's prima ballerinas and appreciates the dancers' openness, both onstage and off: "I felt welcomed and supported. I have really friendly colleagues."


Photo by Nisian Hughes for Pointe.

Kovaleva is keen to improve her technique—"all my technique"—and often does exercises to strengthen her feet and core. Chenchikova, who used to coach the equally leggy Somova and Ekaterina Kondaurova in St. Petersburg, is also passing on some tricks. "She tells me you have to imagine that you're really small, and that you're moving your legs really fast," Kovaleva says.

For respite from her workload, Kovaleva generally turns to books, with Hemingway, Fitzgerald and Remarque among her favorites. She spent her vacation between Jewels in New York City and Swan Lake resting in the south of France, where her godmother lives, and explores Moscow whenever the Bolshoi's schedule allows.

For now, however, she is content to work hard and attempt to live up to Vaziev's expectations. Her director praises her intelligence and strong character; impressively, despite her young age, her Odette/Odile betrayed no anxiety at the pressure that has been heaped upon her. "You can't be afraid while you're dancing, because it's what you're killing yourself for in rehearsal," Kovaleva says. "The stage is my place, where I can open up for the world, for the audience." The Bolshoi's new swan is here to stay.

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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

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Here, pre-professional-program leaders share some practical advice for taking the next step in your dance training.

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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.

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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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