Alice Topp in rehearsal for her work Little Atlas. Kate Longley, Courtesy The Australian Ballet.

How The Australian Ballet's Alice Topp Went From Coryphée To Resident Choreographer

Though Australian Ballet coryphée Alice Topp has been dancing since she was four, when it comes to choreographing, she's just getting started. Topp created her first piece, Trace, on a whim in 2010 as part of The Australian Ballet's annual Bodytorque program. Since then, she has gone on to make several main stage works for the company, as well as music videos for artists like Ben Folds and Megan Washington; in 2018 she was named one of the The Australian Ballet's resident choreographers.

Topp plays what she calls "a fine Tetris" to balance her responsibilities as both dancer and choreographer. Yet despite her jet lag and packed schedule of rehearsals and sightseeing, she was bursting with energy when we met in New York during The Australian Ballet's visit to the Joyce Theater last month, where her ballet Aurum was given its US premiere. "This is the first time my work is being performed overseas," she says. "To be able to bring it to New York, which is my favorite city in the world—what a debut!"

The Australian Ballet's Kevin Jackson and Leanne Stojmenov in Topp's Aurum

Jeff Busby, Courtesy The Australian Ballet

Ahead, Topp shares how she got her choreographic start, why she feels the ballet world doesn't have enough female choreographers and what is inspiring her for future projects

Lightning Strikes … Sort Of

"We have a choreographic season called Bodytorque at The Australian Ballet to encourage dancers to delve into creating. The year I started, the only female who was meant to be choreographing that season became pregnant and backed out. Our artistic director asked me if I would be interested in doing it, because our musical director Nicolette Fraillon had suggested that I would be a good option. I'd never considered choreographing before because I always thought you would have this lightning bolt strike you, and it would be a calling. I was in the corps at the time, and all the other choreographers were principal males, so I just felt like a wildcard. Our artistic director gave me a couple of days to decide, and I've got friends who had applied for grants and were really struggling to make projects. I just thought, 'I've been handed this opportunity, I've got to give it a go.' So I did, and I had the time of my life and just knew this is what I want to do with my life from now on."

Perfecting Her Process

"Each project has had its own unique journey, and I've learned a lot every time, every step of the way. The first time I was choreographing, I had no idea what I was doing. I surrounded myself with a really great team of people, and it was a collaboration, so I didn't feel so alone. Then, because the first piece was received well, I think I was more nervous for the second piece because there was expectation.

"I plan a structure and develop the concept with my creative team. From there, once I've got the music, set design, lighting, and costumes in my head and have a vision for it, I get in the studio with the dancers and create the material. I don't come in the studio and go, 'This is it, learn it.' I get a couple of ideas that I want to explore, but quite often they don't work out, and that's when the best things happen. It's a collaborative process for me, which might be a little bit more time consuming, but I'm very much inspired and informed by the dancers. It's really important that the dancers inject their creative voices because they're such extraordinary artists, and this is their time. Being able to give them permission to be themselves and have their say and express their ideas means that we can create something that's bespoke. Then the final product is something we all feel passionate about."

Mastering Different Choreographic Mediums

"I really enjoy dance on film. When you're viewing a show onstage, you're seeing it up on a platform and you're seeing one side of it from the auditorium. But to be able to film, you get a birds-eye view. If you're dancing with a partner, you can film inside that partnership and around it, and even underneath it. That helps invite the audience into your world and your experience as a dancer—the way you look at your partner, or what your view is like when they lift you. That fascinates me; to be able to share that experience with people who don't know what it would feel like to be a ballet dancer. And being able to collaborate with extraordinary musicians and artists is also always a rewarding experience.

Topp in the studio

Kate Longley, Courtesy The Australian Ballet

"I have a few projects up my sleeve for the future, but I want to do it all—I just want to continue making art, and more, and more, and more of it. I'm inspired by so many different mediums, and I'd love to explore it all. I'd like to do more film, more music videos, more productions all over the world with different companies. I'm looking forward to continuing to develop my artistic voice and expand my choreographic vocabulary, to continuing learning, creating, and collaborating."

How The Ballet World Can Create More Leadership Opportunities For Women

"I think the lack of female choreographers in ballet comes down to a combination of things, and I can only share this from my own experience. It's not necessarily that the women work a lot harder, but we tend to be there until the end of the night in a lot of those big classical ballets. In Swan Lake, the guys are done after Act III, and we're there at the very end—it's the same with Giselle and the Willis and La Bayadère with the Kingdom of the Shades. I think it can be more demanding as a corps.

"Another big thing is just the nature of the work doesn't lend itself to the individual artistic voice, so you never really nurture that. Those big scenes—the swans, shades, snowflakes, flowers—are about the women dancing in unison, and the guys don't do as much of that. I think the guys tend to get away with a bit more individualism, and if they've got a bit of chutzpah and cowboy attitude, they stand out and it's rewarded. Whereas women are taught to conform and to fit in, and not to stand out for the wrong reasons. Your goal for the first few years in the company is about fitting in—if you're one of 24 swans and you spend all day, every day, thinking, 'Is my arm higher than the other person?,' or 'I'm not on the red mark,' you're not exploring and exercising that creative part of your brain that's making different artistic choices.

"I do think it's improving though. I think a lot of my friends have seen my journey and see that choreographing or trying something new isn't this great big scary beast of a thing. It can be fun and playful, even if you give it a go and decide it's not your jam. It's imperative to have that platform like our choreographic season, though, where people can take a risk without that loaded pressure of a main stage."

What She's Listening To For Inspiration

"When I choreograph, even though I've settled on my music, I tend to play cafe music in the studio to create movement. I don't want the dancers to get tired of the music, I want it to be fresh. I also find that I get locked down towards counting and limited by steps, so if I just put on jazz or blues in the background, we get into a groove and just come up with a lot of movement. Playing music that relaxes you and helps free up the mind and body helps you to not be restricted and stay inspired."

Topp's Top Artists:

  • Ludovico Einaudi
  • Max Richter
  • Marlon Williams
  • Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings
  • Rolling Stones
  • Charles Bradley

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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."

Louisville Ballet in Andrea Schermoly's Rite of Spring. Sam English, Courtesy Louisville Ballet.

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Schermoly is also no stranger to film, having created a digital short called In Passing for the Ashley Bouder Project in 2015. But her most recent film project for Louisville Ballet, a new version of the iconic Rite of Spring, breaks ground—or, rather, ice—with its fresh, arctic take on the Stravinsky masterwork.

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