Annabelle Lopez Ochoa (far right) and Joffrey Ballet dancer Xavier Nuñez, who will be doing much of the filming, watch as Dylan Gutierrez and Jeraldine Mendoza rehearse over Zoom.

Courtesy Lopez Ochoa

Annabelle Lopez Ochoa Has Been Choreographing Up a Storm on Zoom and Learning How to Create Dance on Film

"Can you caress the wall?," Annabelle Lopez Ochoa said, frowning to get a better sense of the dancers' living room on her screen. It was April, and the contemporary ballet choreographer was trying something new. Together with two dancers from the Norwegian National Ballet, Julie Gardette and François Rousseau, she was creating a piece entirely over Zoom—the first of what she now calls "a video diary of what dancers do inside."

What was originally a one-off celebration for Rousseau, whose stage farewell was cancelled due to the pandemic, has turned into a larger creative project for Ochoa. Since then, from her house in Amsterdam, she has taken to creating dance films, all three to five minutes in length, with performers around the world. Dancers from Tulsa Ballet, Joffrey Ballet, Dutch National Ballet and more have already taken part, with others scheduled in the coming months.


Ochoa had to rush to fly out of Tulsa in March, where she had been re-staging her ballet Vendetta, just before international travel was banned. Being stuck at home instead of going from commission to commission prompted some soul-searching. "We're all forced to go back to point zero. It made me reflect not just on the pieces that I've made, but on the artist that I am," she says. Working with dancers again proved energizing. "What do I like in choreography? I noticed, being on Zoom, that it's the interaction."

The early sessions were bumpy. Gardette and Rousseau had to alternate between leaning in close to their screen to see corrections and dancing from enough distance for Ochoa to see the bigger picture. The music proved the biggest hurdle, however. "It was delayed, so I would hear 1, 2, 3, and they would hear pause… 1, 2, 3," the choreographer says.

She figured out a way to share music that causes less delay (although Ochoa says synchronization is still an issue). One hour on Zoom is now enough for her to craft one minute of choreography, and the dancers she asked to participate generally jumped at the chance to do more than staying in shape while sheltering in place. "It's not the same just doing ballet class at home: you don't have that collaboration energy of learning choreography," Maine Kawashima, a soloist with Tulsa Ballet, says.

Ochoa reached out to Kawashima and her boyfriend Sasha Chernjavsky, who were both cast in Vendetta, to make The Chicken or the Egg, a humorous film that came out in late July. The dancers collaborated actively when it came to realizing Ochoa's vision: when she asked if they could get an actual chicken to star in one scene, a friend of a friend delivered a selection of birds to choose from. "That worked out very easily because there's farms and chicken everywhere in Oklahoma," Kawashima says with a laugh.

While Ochoa had used YouTube to promote her work early in her choreographic career, this project led her to experiment with the medium. She took it upon herself to edit each film, and asked a friend who is a cameraman to mentor her. "The first time he saw my work, he said I had basically done a fancy archival video," she says with a laugh. "He explained to me that the world is your stage in film. I decide how the viewer looks at the piece." She started trying new angles and collage techniques, and asked dancers to use their eyes in a more "natural" way instead of projecting as they would in an auditorium.

For some performers, the experience has also been a taste of the kind of creative freedom companies can't necessarily offer. Joffrey Ballet dancer Dylan Gutierrez, who will be featured in an upcoming film with his real-life partner Jeraldine Mendoza and even composed music for it, relished "the opportunity to collaborate with Annabelle on her own terms, and not have to know whether we're available for her piece. We get to make all the decisions together." The pair suggested the sessions weren't all that different from studio rehearsals. "If anything, I felt like it was more streamlined," Mendoza says.

Ochoa isn't sure whether she will continue her Zoom-based venture when companies all return to work. While traveling to the U.S. is likely off the table until 2021, Dutch National Ballet has already asked her to contribute to a special evening of impromptu premieres in September. Still, creating virtually has proved a warmer process than anticipated. "I feel that when I go inside dancers' houses, there's an intimacy which you don't get when you're in a studio," she says. "And it was nice to see that even if companies never ask me for a piece again, I will find a way."

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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

A Ballet Student’s Guide to Researching Pre-Professional Training Programs

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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