American National Ballet Fires Almost Half Its Dancers Only A Few Weeks Into The Season

Above, seven dancers who lost their jobs at ANB banded together to create a video to express their unity and strength.

The messages started coming in Monday evening. A concerned teacher was worried about several dancers she knew at American National Ballet—did we know what was going on? Later that night, more information started emerging on social media—and it was clear something was up at the Charleston, South Carolina–based company.

We've been interested in ANB since its debut was first announced in April—not only was it a brand new company, but one with close to 50 dancers, and some major names attached, like Rasta Thomas, Sara Michelle Murawski and Jessica Saund. The founders, Doug and Ashley Benefield, had few ballet credentials, but they made an encouraging promise to highlight diversity, hiring dancers of different body types and races. A story in Charleston's The Post & Courier reported that they had a strategic business plan to support the company through for-profit ventures such as a licensing enterprise, a dancewear line and an academy.

So what happened? Here's what we know so far:


Many Dancers Were Let Go on Monday

Beth Bogush, the company's chief operating officer, executive director and artistic adviser says that seven corps members and 10 second company members were laid off, although several sources, including The Post & Courier, have said the total number is 23 (11 company dancers and 12 apprentices and second company members). "The company was formed with a large amount of dancers," says Bogush. "But some of the commitments for funding fell through."

She says all the dancers let go have been encouraged to stay and train at the school, and have been invited to take company class for free. (However, the dancers we spoke to said the company class offer is only good for the next two weeks.) Some corps members were offered second company positions, which pay a stipend. Administrators are also trying to reach out to local contacts to see if they can set the dancers up with jobs teaching or guesting in Nutcracker productions.

A Merger Will Soon Be Announced

The main reason for the layoffs is that ANB is planning to merge with another company. Bogush says details on that will be made public in a couple of weeks.

"We had to let go some of the dancers who didn't meet the criteria for the new company, which will perform classical ballet, neoclassical ballet and musical theater," she says. According to Bogush, the company that ANB will merge with plans to relocate to Charleston, and the combined company will have about 30 dancers, including those that ANB has kept.

Company members were told of the merger on Friday and asked to sign a nondisclosure agreement. One dancer who spoke on condition of anonymity says that she didn't understand what the agreement was for. "We were under the impression that it was in regards to the company merge, but that was never confirmed," says the dancer, adding that she did not receive a signed copy back from management. A second young dancer, who also did not want to be identified, says she found the language vague and confusing, and adds that they were given the choice to sign or leave the room. "So everyone signed. I didn't understand a word it said."

Monday's announcement came as a surprise. "We knew in advance that there were going to be some changes made, but we weren't expecting a mass firing," says the first dancer. She added that those whose contracts were terminated were not offered severance pay.

There Has Been a Revolving Door of Artistic Directors

Unfortunately, this turnover isn't altogether surprising. Octavio Martin, a former principal with Cuban National Ballet and Sarasota Ballet, was originally named artistic director last spring. In August, however, ANB's website suddenly announced that Rasta Thomas would be artistic director, with Martin leading the second company. Both names were removed a few weeks later. Bogush says the new artistic director will come from the company that ANB is merging with, and Alexandre Proia will lead the second company.

Part of the reason that so many changes have happened so quickly is because there was a transition in management this summer, which Bogush says was due to personal issues. "The new management represents a new vision," she explains.

"The company was founded by a group of people with an idea in mind to highlight diversity, so we—close to 50 dancers—signed on for that," says former ANB dancer Christopher Charles McDaniel, who resigned earlier this month. "But between being hired in June and arriving in September, that group shifted. That left us dancers with new management that had never seen us, and were confused about what to do with us."

He adds that for the first pay period, the dancers were paid in cash. Their second check came from a company in New York City.

When we reached out to founding executive director Ashley Benefield, she told us that she has been out of state on maternity leave for the past few months and had limited contact with anyone at ANB—and only found out about the firings second-hand. "They have destroyed everything we worked to build, and I no longer want anything to do with the company," she says. "It makes me sick. My heart goes out to all these dancers."

Performance Plans Are Still In The Works

As of now, planned performances include a Salon Series next month and a gala at Charleston's Gaillard Center in December.

Bogush says choreographers including Broadway's Warren Carlyle, Complexions' Dwight Rhoden and the second company's artistic advisor Francesca Harper will be setting work on the ANB dancers in the new year. The company will also be working with the RKO Stage catalogue to produce musical theater works.

The Repercussions

On Tuesday night, principal dancer Sara Michelle Murawski, who has been the face of the company since its founding, shared her letter of resignation on social media.

For those who have been let go, many are trying to figure out their next step, in terms of finding work and breaking their leases. Both of the anonymous dancers we spoke with say that they believe management is assisting those with leases in an apartment complex that the company partners with.

"I really hope for those who are still here, that the new company can turn into something great," says the first dancer. "It was such a beautiful group."

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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."

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