Kubanych Shamakeev and Liriy Wakabayashi, leading soloists with the Chelyabinsk State Academic Opera and Ballet Theater, won top prizes in the Arabesque-2020 Senior division.

Andrey Chuntomov, Courtesy Arabesque-2020

Inside Arabesque-2020, One of Russia’s Top Ballet Competitions

Much like everything else this year, the XVI Russian Open Ballet Competition Arabesque-2020 was unlike any in its three-decade history. Rescheduled and shortened because of the coronavirus pandemic—and on the brink of cancellation until the very last moment—the competition nevertheless took place October 24 to November 2 at the historic Perm Opera and Ballet Theatre.

Arabesque-2020, which was originally scheduled for the spring, is one of the most prestigious international ballet competitions in Russia. Since its inauguration in 1988, it has attracted more than 1,400 young ballet dancers and choreographers. This year, due to the COVID-19 crisis, the competition rounds were held without an audience. But ballet fans could watch the second and third rounds, as well as the opening and closing gala performances, online. (All live broadcasts are now available for streaming on Vimeo.) Online viewers could also vote for their favorite participants and contribute to, and thus determine, the monetary size of the Audience Choice Award.

Pointe followed Arabesque-2020 online and spoke with its organizers and prizewinners via email to find out what it was like to hold a ballet competition during a pandemic.

Arabesque and Its History

Originally named after the great Russian ballerina Ekaterina Maximova (the full name is the "Ekaterina Maximova Arabesque Ballet Competition"), Arabesque is a biennial event that regularly draws hundreds of young dancers from Russia and around the world. They compete in two categories: junior (13–17 years old) and senior (18–25 years old).

Legendary Bolshoi dancer Vladimir Vasiliev serves as its artistic director and jury chairman. Vasiliev, now 80, has been closely involved with the competition for the last 30 years.

"The competition has become a launching pad for many dancers in their future careers," says Vasiliev. Past prize- and diploma-winners include ballet stars like Maria Kochetkova, Daniil Simkin, Viktoria Tereshkina, Ivan Vasiliev, Vadim Muntagirov and Kimin Kim.

Yuri Chernov, Courtesy Arabesque-2020

From right: Subedey Dangyt and Kamilla Ismagilova won second and third prize, respectively, in the senior men's and women's category

Arabesque-2020 by the Numbers

Initially, the organizers were expecting more than 300 participants from 27 countries, including the U.S. "There were so many applications for this year's competition that we didn't know how we would be able to evaluate everyone who had applied," says Vasiliev. "But the pandemic has made its own adjustments."

Because of the coronavirus, nearly 65 percent of the applicants couldn't attend. Still, 107 young dancers and choreographers took part. They spanned 11 countries, including Argentina, Japan, Greece, Finland, Spain and the UK. Competitors from Russia hailed from 20 cities.

"Even though we had fewer participants, those who did come had a particularly memorable time here because they were eager to be onstage after a monthslong hiatus," says Vasiliev. "I am really glad that we were able to give them this opportunity. And I enjoyed, as never before, seeing their desire and drive to become the best in their profession."


Health Safety Measures

The organizers followed strict health safety protocols. In addition to providing a negative COVID test, all participants and staff were required to wear masks. (Dancers could take off their masks only during rehearsals and while onstage.) Temperature checks were conducted at the theater's entrance, and access to the building was restricted for the entire duration of the competition. In the studios, special purifying devices were installed, cleaning air 24 hours a day; and sanitizers and masks were available in common areas. Spaces were disinfected before and immediately after each event of the competition.

Discovering New Talent

Seventeen dancers advanced to the third and final round of the competition, with winners announced on October 30. This year, the Grand Prix was not awarded. It has been given only three times in the competition's history; its most recent recipient, Korean-born Kimin Kim, is now a principal dancer with the Mariinsky Theatre.

Kubanych Shamakeev and Liriy Wakabayashi, leading soloists with the Chelyabinsk State Academic Opera and Ballet Theater in Russia, were the undisputable favorites—and a true discovery—of this year's competition, winning the jury over with polished duets from Don Quixote and Esmeralda. Shamakeev won first place in the senior men's category and Wakabayashi placed second in the senior women's (first place was not awarded). They also took first prize in the contemporary dance competition and received the Press Jury Award.

"We wanted to show not just a competition number but a true theatrical performance," says Wakabayashi. Originally from Japan, she received her formal ballet training in Europe, graduating from the Royal Ballet School Antwerp in Belgium. While the pair say it was challenging to perform without an audience in the theater, they knew there was a live broadcast being watched by thousands of viewers online, including their families back home.

A ballerina in a red tutu does sous-sus andleans into her male partner's right arm as he lunges to the right. He wears a black and gold bolero jacket and black tights.

Wakabayashi and Shamakeev perform the Grand Pas de Deux from Don Quixote

Andrey Chuntomov, Courtesy Arabesque-2020

"When we learned that we had won prizes, we couldn't believe it," says Shamakeev, who was born in Kyrgyzstan and is a graduate of Kazakhstan's Almaty Choreographic School. "Our happiness knows no limits! We celebrate our victory with our coach, Tatiana Predeina, to whom we are immensely grateful."

Vasiliev thinks Arabesque-2020 will have special meaning for all of its participants. "I am sure that this competition, and the time we spent together in Perm in such unprecedented times, will be remembered by all of us forever."

Yuri Chernov, Courtesy Arabesque-2020

Junior category competitors Uliana Moksheva and Rasmus Algren perform the Act II pas de deux from Giselle.

Check out the Arabesque-2020 classical category winners below. (The full list is available on the competition website).

Junior Women

Second prize: Viktoria Snigur, Diana Tovtyn

Third prize: Daria Chugunova, Uliana Moksheva

Junior Men

Second prize: Ivan Sorokin

Diplomas: Anastasia Kaplina, Bogdan Pleshakov, Tamila Shishkalova

Senior Women

Second prize: Liriy Wakabayashi

Third prize: Aleksandra Krisa, Kamilla Ismagilova

Senior Men

First prize: Kubanych Shamakeev

Second prize: Subedey Dangyt

Third prize: Algren Rasmus, Marat Safin

Diplomas: Natalia Pivkina, Ksenia Ring

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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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