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."
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."
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."
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."
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.
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."
To any pre-professional dancer vying for a company position, auditions are a familiar and often dreaded scene: Hundreds of hopeful young graduates flock to an audition site, pin a paper number to their dance clothes and try their luck. But only a few will receive full-time contracts with companies—the rest will go home disappointed, potentially facing a gap year as they try to figure out next steps.
Mavis Staines, artistic director and CEO of Canada's National Ballet School, became frustrated with this flawed system years ago. Why were so many talented dancers not being rewarded with work opportunities? And why was the only acceptable form of work a full-season contract, when in the music and theater industries, project-based employment was a legitimized way to build careers?
Dancers from Dutch National Ballet Academy
Staines thought some dancers could be better suited to a freelance model, with its mobility, flexibility and versatility. But exploring new options wasn't just about convincing dancers that project-based work was worthwhile; it also meant convincing ballet schools to rethink their perspectives. "Our art form is so invested in tradition, so it can be really hard to make systemic changes," Staines says. She had her work cut out for her.
Luckily, the pandemic paved the way to realizing Staines' dream of developing a network of quality, project-based opportunities for dancers at the start of their careers. "I felt that instead of giving in to despair for how COVID has affected our work, we could create new pathways," she says. After hearing her idea, Ernst Meisner, artistic director of Dutch National Ballet Academy, and professor Jason Beechey, rector of the Palucca University of Dance Dresden, jumped on board. Then, they set to work engaging other schools to take part. The result is a new organization called Ballet Unleashed.
Students of Palucca University of Dance Dresden
Here's how it currently works: Recent graduates from 11 participating schools—the three mentioned, plus The Ailey School, Australian Ballet School, Paris Opéra Ballet School, Boston Ballet School, New Zealand School of Dance, San Francisco Ballet School, The Royal Ballet School and The Royal Danish Ballet School—can apply and audition for short-term, project-based performance opportunities. Selected dancers will sign contracts for paid employment during the projects, which will generally run for three to five months. While providing valuable audition and performance experience for emerging artists, these collaborations have the potential to foster connections with choreographers and other dancers, which will serve them throughout their careers, no matter what directions those careers take.
Things are starting off strong this spring: The first project is Switchback, a film for six dancers (plus two understudies) by choreographer Cathy Marston, who co-directed the film with producer and co-director Laura Finerman to original music by Iain Farrington. Recently, Marston has been exploring how ballet training can embrace contemporary dance and improvisational work, and she's looking forward to seeing how emerging dancers take on the challenge. "I love the 'sponginess' of new dancers," Marston explains. "They tend to want to try things, although sometimes you have to help them find confidence." Marston is also optimistic about choreographing for film, a medium she's worked with before: "I think we've discovered that we can create virtual works that can complement our live programs and potentially reach a far greater audience," she says.
Staines acknowledges that there's room for growth. She hopes to eventually increase Ballet Unleashed's budget to pay participants' travel costs, and to have multiple projects running at once in different locations. Further plans are being drawn for a choreographic mentorship program in 2022 between emerging and established dancemakers. Finally, Staines imagines a future where Ballet Unleashed can be opened to young dancers beyond the 11 participant schools. "We're starting at a scale we can manage, with a defined circle of schools," she says, "but I see boundless potential."
Darcey Bussell Is Putting on a Benefit Gala Starring 8 UK Dance Companies—and You Can Stream It From Home
Planning a major gala during a global pandemic is no easy feat—but don't say that to Dame Darcey Bussell. In an amazingly short time, the former Royal Ballet principal and "Strictly Come Dancing" judge has curated a historic evening to support the dance industry in her home country. The British Ballet Charity Gala will bring eight major UK dance companies together for a live performance at London's Royal Albert Hall on June 3, before it is streams internationally on June 18.
The event, hosted by Bussell and actor Ore Oduba, a "Strictly Come Dancing" winner, will feature performances by Ballet Black, Birmingham Royal Ballet, English National Ballet, New Adventures, Northern Ballet, Rambert, Scottish Ballet and The Royal Ballet—marking the first time all of them have performed together on the same program.
Bussell, concerned about the pandemic's domino effect on the dance industry, began planning the benefit back in January. "A lot of my friends said, 'Darcey, have you gone mad? This is going to be very challenging,' " she said during a joint Zoom interview with Oduba last month. "But I just felt that something had to be done. The government has been able to give recovery funds to a lot of companies, and they have pledged an awful lot of money, but it's not going to last, sadly. The pandemic will have a long-term effect on these companies."
Proceeds from both live and online ticket sales will be shared among the eight participating groups, with each also nominating a community dance company of their choice to receive a waterfall donation. The gala will benefit 19 organizations in all.
Dame Darcey Bussell
Courtesy Royal Academy of Dance
"This event couldn't happen under normal circumstances, because these companies are all busy with their own productions and tours," says Oduba. "But over the course of the last year we've all been able to find incredible collaboration and creativity during this pandemic."
Each company will perform a piece from its repertoire, accompanied by the Royal Ballet Sinfonia, directed by Paul Murphy, Birmingham Royal Ballet's principal conductor. In true collaborative spirit, English National Ballet's technical team and The Royal Ballet's stage management will handle the show's production elements, while BalletBoyz Productions will be filming the gala for streaming.
Scottish Ballet in Helen Pickett's The Crucible
Jane Hobson, Courtesy British Ballet Charity Gala
The ballets on the program are being kept under wraps for now. "Just like the companies in America, everybody is in flux," says Bussell. "We didn't want to put the pressure on them, in case they need to make last-minute changes, so we're keeping the program repertoire quiet." To meet safety restrictions, every company has to be in their own pod. "We have to get 65 dancers on- and offstage." (The theater will be limited to 1,000 audience members, socially distanced.)
The dancers will then come together virtually for the gala's finale, which has been specially choreographed by Rambert dancers Simone Damberg Würtz and Daniel Davidson. "The collaboration happens with a film editor—with one piece of music and good timing, you can actually create something quite special," says Bussell.
New Adventures in Matthew Bourne's Swan Lake
Johan Persson, Courtesy British Ballet Charity Gala
Oduba notes that the performance is an opportunity not only to raise money but also to get audiences excited about returning to live performances. "Darcey and the tight nucleus of people involved with this gala have poured their hearts into it, and you'll also see that during the show from each of the performers. Because we've been starved for the performing arts so long. And I think as things start opening up, this gala is a chance to whet the appetite on what we've missed and what we can look forward to, and how appreciative we are of this art form."
For more information on the June 3 live performance at Royal Albert Hall, click here. Access to the on-demand virtual performance begins June 18 (available through July 18); tickets are $27 and can be ordered here.