Company artist Rachel Seeholzer performs in Ballet Co.Laboratory's Laboratory II series. Karin Rice-Duncanson, Courtesy Ballet Co.Laboratory

Ballet Co.Laboratory’s Unique Business Model Has Kept Its Dancers Securely Employed Throughout the Pandemic

In 2018, Zoé Emilie Henrot and eight other dancers suddenly found themselves unemployed when their Twin Cities–based company transitioned to a school-only model just weeks before their season was supposed to start. They had two options: go their separate ways or band together. Joining forces, they created Ballet Co.Laboratory, an artist-led company in St. Paul, Minnesota, with an inventive repertoire and an unconventional business structure. Since its founding, Ballet Co.Laboratory has presented original works like Nutcracker in Wonderland (a new spin on the holiday classic), The Snow Queen and Remembering the Little Prince, as well as premieres by emerging choreographers. The company's dual-contract structure also provides its dancers with administrative employment, whether in management, communications, development or teaching—a framework that became especially useful in keeping the dancers employed during the pandemic.

Pointe sat down with Henrot, the company's artistic director, to talk about Ballet Co.Laboratory, its recent Laboratory II performances, and how the company's distinctive structure helped prepare its dancers to face pandemic challenges head-on.

Could you describe Ballet Co.Laboratory's dual-contract employment model?

The company is super-unique, and it's not for every dancer. I am very transparent when people audition that our model is part of who we are. Everyone has two contracts: an artistic one and an administrative one. It came out of the idea that we're all people; after we dance, what do we do? Even though we end up wearing a lot of hats, the artist-driven model allows the art to come first, no matter what. The entire company is part of the conversations we have as an organization. That's really rare.

Because of this, do college degrees come in especially handy for prospective dancers?

When I see someone who has gone to college and has been a double major or had a minor with their dance degree, that tells me they know how to multitask. I love it when dancers write in saying they worked in the costume shop or led the student concert, because that means they know how many people it takes to make the moment onstage happen. It really does take a village.

Zo\u00e9 Emilie Henrot looks sharply to the right and holds her arms out to the side with her elbows bent while twisting her lower body left at the hips. She wears an olive green tank top and burgundy tights, and is flanked by two female dancers behind her on either side doing the same pose. A red light glows on the brick wall behind them.

Ballet Co.Laboratory's Zoé Emilie Hunrot does double duty as artistic director and dancer.

Karin Rice-Duncanson, Courtesy Ballet Co.Laboratory

What does a typical workday look like?

For our artistic workday, we're in the studio Monday through Friday from 10 am to 3 pm. Administratively, it depends on the specific job and department. In the contracts, we have an estimated number of hours per week that we believe the job takes, and then it's up to the artist to make that work happen outside of studio time. There's a lot of freedom, and it allows our artists to take initiative.

What does that look like in the studio and onstage?

I tend to lead rehearsals differently, first of all because I dance, too, but also because as a choreographer, I think dancers look good dancing what feels good in their bodies. As much as we do classical ballet, I also ask for a lot of feedback so that the final product is something they're proud to perform. When we're all onstage, we truly know that we made it happen. It wasn't one person who did it—everyone did.

As a company, even though we dance together beautifully, we have different body types and backgrounds, and we all identify very differently. That's what allows us to tell all these diverse narratives that haven't been told authentically yet. We always give a nod to what came before us—we wouldn't be here without our history—but we do reimagine that rep.

Was that diversity a goal you had when founding the company?

Definitely. I'm a queer individual, and there were points in my career when I was dancing roles and asking myself, "I wonder if a role about me is ever going to be onstage?" Ballet Co.Laboratory was my opportunity to be more outspoken. Ballet has been really regimented—it's had its breakouts, but it's time for another one. How do we bring in younger audiences who want to think critically and see work that reflects their society? Ballet can do that, but you can't just keep repeating the carbon copy of what used to be the revolution.

This year has been extremely trying, but it looks like you were prepared to face it with your business model. What was it like adjusting to work during the pandemic?

I don't think we saw the power of our artistic model fully until this last year. When we had to close our studios, we were able to up our administration hours and compensate our artists financially. Some dancers said if they hadn't had the administrative work to keep them going, they would've stopped everything completely.

We're also a group of young, innovative millennials. We weren't as scared about embracing technology and taking a leap of faith. We were even able to hire six new artists last fall. With the year we had, it felt really special to be able to give contracts, period.

Talk more about the Laboratory II choreographic festival that the company recently streamed.

Our mission is to tell new narratives, so the entire concept of Lab II is creating a space for emerging choreographers. We also always have a theme. Everything that happened last May with George Floyd's murder hit very close to home for us here in the Twin Cities. This year, we wanted to create space for BIPOC emerging artists. I collaborated with my friend Emilia Mettenbrink, who is a violinist with the local opera, and our accompanist Franco Holder, both BIPOC musicians, to create a reimagined, miniature Swan Lake. All four of the other choreographers—Da'Rius Malone, Jacob Lewis, Rachel Seeholzer and Nieya Amezquita—are also local BIPOC artists. My hope is for them to have these videos for their portfolio. Then the next time they see an opportunity they have something to their name.

Any parting thoughts?

I want dancers to know that there's a space to be a serious ballet dancer while still being yourself, collaborative and supported. I want the organization to be known as professional and serious, but also as one where there's a person and a human in every single artist. Their voices matter.

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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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Schermoly is also no stranger to film, having created a digital short called In Passing for the Ashley Bouder Project in 2015. But her most recent film project for Louisville Ballet, a new version of the iconic Rite of Spring, breaks ground—or, rather, ice—with its fresh, arctic take on the Stravinsky masterwork.

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