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As Ballet Looks Toward Its Future, Let's Talk About Its Troubling Emotional Demands

As a ballet student, I distinctively remember being told that to survive ballet as a profession, one must be exceptionally thick-skinned and resilient. I always assumed it was because of the physically demanding nature of ballet: long rehearsal hours, challenging and stressful performances, and physical pain.

It wasn't until I joined a ballet company that I learned the true meaning behind those words: that the reason one needs thick skin is not because of the physical demands, but because of the unfair and unnecessary emotional demands.

Undoubtedly, emotional and physical strength go hand in hand to some extent. But the kind of emotional demand I am talking about here is different; it is not the strength one finds in oneself in moments of fatigue or unwillingness. It is the strength one must have when being bullied, humiliated, screamed at, manipulated or harassed.

The conditioning to endure intimidation and humiliation starts early for ballet dancers. Ballet training leaves very little space for the unique characteristics and personalities of young pupils. Instead, each student must fit into a mold that looks the same and acts the same. They learn that it is unacceptable to speak their mind or to challenge authority—all you must do is smile, nod and do as you're told. Ballet students become completely dependent on their teachers, and what comes to shape their sense of self is the words, opinions and attitudes of their instructors.

In many schools, there is little understanding of pedagogy and psychology; pedagogical training is based upon teachers' own experiences. Still, too often, ballet training fails to recognize children's vulnerability. Not every child learns and develops the same, and they have different needs and body types. Rather than fostering care, empathy and creativity, ballet training encourages a "survival of the fittest" mentality. This can easily lead dancers to believe that ballet is only for strong-minded people. On the way, we lose a staggering number of beautiful artists who are just as able, only too vulnerable.

From my own years in ballet school, I remember my teacher comparing me to other students, calling me a "cloud head" and a "lethargic snail," and continuously mocking me for my weight. There were some wonderful moments as well, moments when I felt ecstatic onstage or after a well-executed rehearsal, or when I felt I was cared for by a teacher who believed in me and my individualistic abilities. But even then, fear and insecurity shadowed every accomplishment.

This hostile environment continues from ballet schools to company life. In most cases, directors, ballet masters and choreographers are authority figures that, more often than not, hold all the ropes in their hands, making decisions that affect the lives of young, impressionable artists. Unfortunately, dancers too easily become marionette dolls who move, act and do what they are told with no personal agency, and with fear of being replaced or pushed aside at any moment.

Ballet as an art form is not emotionally hostile, tough or cruel. It is the atmosphere created around it. It is those certain choreographers who are bullies, those directors who play mind games, and those répétiteurs who humiliate and scream. For some odd reason, all of this is thought to just be "how it is." It is acceptable and normal. Many still believe that to create good art, one must be broken; that to produce something good onstage, the process has to involve screaming and shouting; that to get the best out of an artist, one must be tough, not kind.

During my nine-year professional career, I had the pleasure of working with extraordinary choreographers and répétiteurs who created an exciting and safe atmosphere in the studios. On the other hand, I lived in a constant state of fear. I felt that I had no control over my artistry or expression; every gesture, every movement, every choice was in somebody else's hands and one wrong move could destroy everything. No matter how unfair or cruel certain decisions were, they were always referred to as "artistic choices." During my career, I was told that I needed to have sex with men, be more feminine, be thinner but not too thin, be stronger, be more confident, have more personality but always stay in line…the list goes on. I was told to rehearse a variation on my own for months for an upcoming ballet only to see the cast list didn't even include my name. I was told to change how I dress, walked and talked. At the age of 18, my director told me that I must have a boyfriend and lots of crazy adventures outside of ballet to be interesting onstage. At the same time, a répétiteur told me that a good, dedicated ballet dancer must be committed only to dance and spend a minimum of eight hours at the theater daily. I always felt conflicted and unsure, unable to trust my own knowledge of my body or my own opinions. Whatever I did, somebody thought it was wrong or not enough.

Diverse body types and ethnicities are traditionally not celebrated in ballet, and neither are unique personalities and emotions. But every dancer's history, cultural context and lifeworld is colorful and personal. Some artists are strong and undefeatable, others are vulnerable. While screaming and yelling might push one dancer to her very best, it might break someone else. Ballet schools and companies need to recognize each student as an individual. No workplace, artist or performance has ever been ruined by fostering an empathetic and kind atmosphere.

Ballet demands discipline, resilience and patience, but there is no reason why these assets cannot be developed through care and support. Thick skin is not built by belittling. One's will is not strengthened with manipulation. When it comes to ballet, it is often thought that the end justifies the means. For some, art gives legitimacy to bad pedagogy. For generations, we have bowed in front of creative geniuses, putting them on a pedestal despite their ways. But no art is good art if it leaves broken artists behind.

The circle keeps going: Broken dancers become broken teachers who produce broken pupils. It is time to create an art form that is inclusive and accepts mistakes and vulnerability. After all, the best art happens when one allows oneself to be vulnerable. Ballet, too, is at its best when what happens on the inside shows just as much as beautiful lines and clean movement.

There has been much concern in recent years about ballet's place in the modern world. Will it become one of those ancient art forms that's left in history, or will it continue to resonate with the viewers and artists of today? Perhaps the only way ballet can survive and keep its place is if it leaves its oppressive traditions behind and evolves along with the world into a kinder, more empathetic and accepting environment.

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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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