A flyer showing Alberto Alonso, Fernando Alonso, Benjamin Steinberg and Alicia Alonso. Photo courtesy the author

My Memories of Alicia Before Alonso

Alicia has died. I walked around my apartment feeling her spirit, but knowing something had changed utterly.

My father, the late conductor Benjamin Steinberg, was the first music director of the Ballet de Cuba, as it was called then. I grew up in Vedado on la Calle 1ra y doce in a building called Vista al Mar. My family lived there from 1959 to 1963. My days were filled with watching Alicia teach class, rehearse and dance. She was everything: hilarious, serious, dramatic, passionate and elegiac. You lost yourself and found yourself when you loved her.

When Alicia realized then she was losing her sight, she left Ballet Theatre and returned to Cuba for a time in the early '40s. My mother told me that she stayed in a Cuban asylum for three days. As her sight declined, Alicia observed patients so anguished from trauma, their minds had blinded them to reality. This experience framed her interpretation of the mad scene in the first act of Giselle. She took those faces and layered them onto her own. You need a clear vision of the role to be fearless enough to do that. Alicia saw the world with many different sets of eyes.

Ballet de Cuba after a performance of Coppelia in Havana.

Courtesy the author

My father entered her life in 1945, when he became an assistant conductor of Ballet Theatre for the 1945, 1946 and 1947 seasons. In between performing at the Metropolitan Opera House and City Center, the company went on two international tours, promoted by Sol Hurok.

My father, Igor Youskevitch and Alicia became a trio. She never had to worry about Igor being there when she jumped into his arms. She also never had to worry about tempo. My father followed her to the tenth of a second. When a dancer ends a series of quick steps, and she looks as if she is late at the on the final landing, it is not her fault. It is the conductor's fault.

The body does not work like a metronome. Someone has to know you and love you to make that orchestra play imperceptibly faster or slower in the last two bars. The conductor has to be able to anticipate what the dancer is going to do, based on an analysis of the performance he is conducting. When he can do that, the dancer can finish a quick set of movements exactly on time. The audience is none the wiser. That is what my father did for Alicia. In his own way, he partnered her, too.

That means that many ballets, especially the second act of Giselle, were conducted in many tempi. The tempi Adolphe Adam indicated in the score were only partially relevant, because the music was there to fit her. In Giselle's solo adagio at the beginning of the second act, the first arabesque is accompanied by a clarinet solo. Alicia stretched that arabesque into a split. Her skirt made a perfect half circle. Her torso went to the middle of her body, creating right angles that divided her legs evenly. She chose a slower adagio tempo than most.

However, when she did the entrechats at the end of the second-act pas de deux with Albrecht, to this day I think no one has ever done them faster. They were exact, accurate, brilliant. She ended the sequence of steps with a series of quick chainé turns, ending with an arabesque on pointe, and she held it. Today, many dancers end chainé turns with a floor pose, because there is less risk. Not her. Never her. She brought the house down every time.

Alonso at the airport on tour

Courtesy the author

During the 1945 tour of South America, Alicia found out that Fernando had been fooling around with a corps member. She left their bed to go sleep with my mother, ordering my father to go sleep with Fernando. I could just see my poor father, bewildered in his pajamas, slippers and glasses, opening the door to Fernando's bedroom.

I don't think there has ever been a tradition of female ballet dancers standing up to powerful men the way she did, but Alicia was timeless. Back at Ballet Theatre, there is the famous story about Alicia facing Antony Tudor, who was known for bullying dancers, and saying, "Mr. Tudor, you can't ever make me cry."

In an interview with the Balanchine Foundation, she recounted working with Balanchine as he choreographed Theme and Variations for her and Igor in 1947. Balanchine wanted her to do five steps to four beats. Balanchine was always known for putting music first. To Alicia, combining breath and movement was at the center of her dancing. The score to Tchaikovsky's Theme and Variations was marked 120 beats to the quarter. It was already difficult for her to breathe doing all Balanchine wanted at that speed.

In one rehearsal, Balanchine started conducting the piece faster to push her. She had no peripheral vision. They had to put lights in the wings around the stage, so she would know where she was. Alicia was not going to accept anyone who might create a situation where her disability would be revealed to the audience. She needed people who were going to support her. So she had left a heavy wood baton on the podium at the next rehearsal—so heavy he couldn't conduct any faster. Balanchine got the message.

My mother is the only source of what happened next: Alicia met with Lucia Chase and said, "Only Benny." That is how my father came to conduct the premiere of Theme and Variations in 1947 instead of Balanchine. Alicia didn't like Balanchine very much. She always thought he only cared about himself, when ballet was a team effort.

The author in front of the theater, 1962

Courtesy the author

After American Ballet theatre, she returned to Cuba to establish the Ballet Alicia Alonso in 1948 and took another tour of South America. In August 1949 she was stuck in Santiago de Chile and had to ask the Cuban Government for money. They sent $2000 and then $5000, but she still owed 35,000 Chilean pesos. She also owed the transportation company the cost of 35 tickets plus baggage to get from Santiago de Chile to Buenos Aires, where she debuted the company with Coppelia.

She couldn't pay for the cost of the hotels in Buenos Aires. A deal with the Teatro Municipal gave her 15,000 Argentinian pesos weekly, but the daily box office revenue had to go to the transportation company. She had to ask for money from the Cuban Government again. The Ministry of Education gave her $12,000 for the year, which would have to last her until June 30, 1950. She was hoping her company would go on even if she did not get more funding from the Cuban government. Her dancers were superb, which compensated for the economic failure.

Yet Ballet Alicia Alonso closed owing to lack of funding in 1956. She was still a legend. The world just didn't know large a legend she was yet.

When Fidel Castro came to power two years later, Fernando asked for $100,000. Fidel gave them $200,000. Alicia was a "Fidelista" for the rest of her life. He was her hero and her friend. Politics might have fractured abroad, but she found it incomprehensible that anyone would think she had to apologize for anything. Fidel set her free, and she built.

The packed stadium balcony when Alicia Alonso came back to Cuba after Fidel Castro gave her the money to launch Ballet de Cuba

Courtesy the author

She went to orphanages to find talented students. She cut sugar cane in the fields with the rest of the company for the Revolution. In 1959, my father, mother and I joined her.

I saw her dance every day. My childhood was a fairy tale of swans and Swanilda. I would dance in the aisles of the Gran Teatro during rehearsals.

When Kennedy's boats came during the Bay of Pigs, we could see them from our wraparound porch through a telescope. The guns were facing us.

Kennedy's assassination was announced during an orchestra rehearsal. My parents were dumbstruck, but no one else cared. I remember not caring.

My father took us back to New York when his contract ended in 1963. Our time with Alicia was over, but a childhood like that doesn't leave you. It shapes you, even if you are in America and have no way to explain it to anyone else.

Why couldn't he have stayed in Cuba with Alicia? I don't know, but I will never stop asking God.

That she has left this earth does not mean she is gone. She just passed into eternity. Now, we will have to dance for her.

"Quínta! Quínta!"

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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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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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