Forsythe's in the middle, somewhat elevated uses the battement like an attack. Photo by Alexander Iziliaev, Courtesy Pennsylvania Ballet

The Story of How Ballet Legs Got Higher, and Higher, and Higher

Just before retiring in 2015, Sylvie Guillem appeared on "HARDtalk with Zeinab Badawi," the BBC's hard-hitting interview program. Badawi told Guillem,

"Clement Crisp of the Financial Times, 14 years ago, described your dancing as vulgar."

Guillem responded,

"Yeah, well, he said that. But at the same time, when they asked Margot Fonteyn what she thought about lifting the leg like this she said, 'Well, if I could have done it, I would have done it.' "

They were discussing Guillem's signature stroke—her 180-degree leg extension à la seconde. Ballet legs had often flashed about in the higher zones between 135 and 160 degrees before. But it wasn't until the virtuoso French ballerina regularly
extended her leg beside her ear with immaculate poise in the 1980s that leg extensions for ballet dancers in classical roles reached their zenith. Traditionalists like Clement Crisp were not taken with it.


ballet legs

Sylvie Guillem changed the expectations of ballet dancers' extensions. Photo by Nina Alovert, courtesy DM Archives.

"There's always a sense that the virtuoso is bleeding over into a realm of inappropriateness," says Ariel Osterweis, a dance and performance studies scholar at the California Institute of the Arts. "Classical forms change due to virtuosos. Because they're not wholly rejecting a certain style or form, they're just pushing the boundaries."

The leg extension to the front, side and back is one of ballet's most recognizable, debated and gawked-at stances. The beauty and magic is in the unwavering, impassive squareness of the dancers' hips. Almost anyone can "get a leg up" through some contortion of the pelvis and physical strain. But a ballet dancer's leg extends as though entirely independent, their torso floating above it all.

Battement développé "is an example of the body truly blossoming," wrote Russian critic Akim Volynsky. For the body to blossom this way, dancers need good turnout, flexibility and strength that work in a highly coordinated way.

ballet legs

To this day, extension is seen differently on male and female dancers. Yet the standards among men are rising. Here, Edward Watson in Wayne McGregor's Carbon Life. Photo by Bill Cooper, Courtesy Royal Opera House.

This was not an issue for dancers during the first couple hundred years of ballet's history. Decorum demanded that the leg extend no higher than the hip. Lifting it further revealed too much leg, and displaying the area "down there"—the crotch—was taboo for women. For men, the issue was the suggested effeminacy (and hence homosexuality) of stretch over strength—an early-19th-century notion with residues to this day.

Dancers have often had to push the limits of social propriety to further movement expression. With her skirts lifted to calf height, Marie-Anne de Cupis de Camargo could perfect the entrechat quatre in the 18th century. Marie Taglioni lifted hers some more in the mid-19th century and bourréed across the stage on pointe. By the end of the 19th century, female ballet dancers were performing in shorter tutus and dancing a variety of virtuosic steps. Yet, the legs were still generally lifted only to hip height.

"In my experience, the highest leg height notated in Stepanov is 90 degrees," says Doug Fullington, the education programs manager and assistant to the artistic director at Pacific Northwest Ballet, who has reconstructed work of Marius Petipa from Stepanov Notation. "This doesn't mean the leg never went higher in practice. However, body mechanics change as the leg goes above waist height; one gains the ability to do certain things but loses the ability to do others."

He points out that the 19th-century ballet dancers were more compact, less flexible and less turned out than those we see today. Ballet was about nimble footwork and showing elegant angles of the body and torso, better achieved with the legs below 90 degrees.

High legs were for the circus or the nightclub where brazen cancan performers kicked to their noses and flashed their undergarments—pantalettes—with or without a crotch. These high kicks might suggest that you were loose, but equally that you were independent and powerful and not to be messed with—a sort of proto-punk attitude that made its way into ballet 100 years later.

Gradually during the first half of the 20th century, seeing women's legs, albeit trousered, became socially acceptable thanks to the "all-inclusive" labor requirements of political revolutions and world war. Women were included in the gymnastics events at the 1928 Olympic Games in Amsterdam, showing off the strength and agility of female legs. Fashion reformers responded to a growing emphasis on athleticism throughout the culture with accommodating and practical styles for women, such as shorter tennis skirts and all-in-one, tight-fitting bathing suits.

A new realm of physical and expressive potential was on offer to the revolutionary choreographers of the period just as audiences grew hungry for the new and exotic (and erotic) from companies like Diaghilev's Ballets Russes. Dancers' flexibility could be developed and exploited with fewer social restrictions.

ballet legs

Lauren Lovette and Herman Cornejo in Balanchine's "Rubies." Photo by Erin Baiano, courtesy Vail Dance Festival

A major change came from George Balanchine. "His modernist focus on form and the body (as opposed to narrative) created a shift in the way ballet-trained bodies conveyed meaning onstage," says Osterweis. His fast, fragmented movement generated an exaggerated focus on specific body parts, such as legs—their lines, height and speed.

Ever since, high leg extensions have abounded in contemporary ballet choreography. Everyone from Maurice Béjart and Roland Petit to William Forsythe, Wayne McGregor and Dwight Rhoden has pushed, contorted and extended dancers' legs for different effects and to mixed reviews. "I don't apologize for using the body in extreme ways," says Rhoden, "because I think that the work I like to do reflects the world around us, and we are in an extreme time."

With ballet companies' mixed classical and contemporary repertoires, and increasing audience expectations, it was almost unavoidable for leg heights in classical ballets not to follow the upward trend. Sure enough, a 2009 study showed that there was a steady increase in leg elevation angles of codified ballet postures between 1946 and 2004. The researchers also found that a group of ballet-naïve volunteers preferred the more vertical shapes to the earlier forms.

Today, hyperextended extensions are an expected part of most classical dancers' vocabulary. "Dancers stand at the barre their whole lives to improve their extension, to clarify their line, to amplify their form," says Rhoden. "We train our bodies to do many different types of movement; high extensions are just one way to show a heightened emotion or change in energy."

And it feels good. "From the dancer's perspective, when you can control where your working leg goes, and how you want to use it, there is that feeling like sexual power, but there's also a pure athletic and kinesthetic joy," says Osterweis. "What's interesting about the high leg as used by William Forsythe and Sylvie Guillem is that it's more of an attack and exclamation than a coy invitation." As such, it is hearkening back to those rebellious and independent cancan dancers of yore.

ballet legs

Diane Vishneva shows off lower legs in Alexei Ratmansky's Sleeping Beauty. Photo by Gene Schiavone, courtesy ABT.

However, some critics and audiences admit to feeling a bit weary of hyperflexibility on the ballet stage. One high-profile respite has been Alexei Ratmansky's reconstructions of Petipa's ballets. The lines are returned to soft, rounded shapes, knees are bent, retirés low. There's lots of épaulement, demi-pointe and fast footwork. The dances acquire more texture and the musicality Petipa originally intended.

Judith Mackrell, writing about Ratmansky's Sleeping Beauty in The Guardian, described how the leggy Bolshoi ballerina Svetlana Zakharova was transformed in this "new/old world" choreography: "Her body seemed to become physically rounder and…the more she restricted the height of her leg extensions, the more energy and lushness began to flow through her back and arms."

Mastering the 19th-century style—and its hip-height legs—still holds value. The more dancers absorb each phase of ballet's history, the richer the ballet-scape will be.

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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."

Kaatsbaan Cultural Park artistic director Stella Abrera and executive director Sonja Kostich. Photo by Quinn Wharton, Courtesy Kaatsbaan Cultural Park

The Inaugural Kaatsbaan Spring Festival Brings Together Leading Figures in Dance

The rollout of vaccinations is helping the U.S. turn a corner during this coronavirus pandemic, and artists and audience members alike are looking forward to enjoying live performances once again. It couldn't be more perfect timing, then, for the inaugural Kaatsbaan Spring Festival, which will feature 16 presentations on two outdoor stages in New York's Hudson Valley. Taking place May 20–23 and May 27–30, the festival brings together luminaries from multiple disciplines, including dance, music, poetry, sculpture and the culinary arts.

"During a challenging year such as this, we really wanted to provide artists from various genres opportunities for support and work," says Sonja Kostich, Kaatsbaan Cultural Park's executive director.

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Ballet West principal Katlyn Addison in a still from In The Balance. Courtesy Ballet West

Ballet West’s New Web Series Documents an Uncertain November

If the story of a ballet company presenting performances amidst a global pandemic, a divisive presidential election, and uprisings for justice sounds like it was made for TV, Ballet West has a series for you. In The Balance: Ballet for a Lost Year is a nine-episode documentary about BW's November 2020 performances, which took place at Salt Lake City's Capitol Theatre. The series premieres Friday, May 7, on Ballet West's social media channels, with a new episode released every Friday. (Viewers can also unlock all nine episodes on Ballet West's website starting May 7.)

For a month filmmakers Diana Whitten and Tyler Measom of Skyscape Studios had unlimited access to company class (divided into pods to abide by COVID-19 restrictions), rehearsals for new ballets by Jennifer Archibald and Nicolo Fonte, and interviews with artists and administrators. Some of the series' most fascinating insights come from people's different ways of navigating uncertainty, and how this connects to the arts.

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