Cincinnati Ballet in Swan Lake. Aaron M. Conway, Courtesy Cincinnati Ballet.

Onstage This Week: Valentine's Day Programs Abound, Milwaukee Ballet Reimagines the Ballets Russes, and More!

Wonder what's going on in ballet this week? We've rounded up some highlights.


These 11 Companies Are Celebrating Valentine's Day With Romantic Story Ballets

Valentine's Day creates the perfect opportunity for companies to share romantic story ballets with their audiences. Below, check out 11 companies presenting the classics this week. (We'll pretend most of them don't have such tragic endings).

Giselle

February 11-16, American Ballet Theatre brings Giselle to The Kennedy Center in Washington, DC. The run includes Stella Abrera's last DC performance before retiring from the stage, and marks debuts for Skylar Brandt, Joo Wan Ahn and Aran Bell.

New Jersey-based American Repertory Ballet presents Giselle at the New Brunswick Performing Arts Center February 14-15.

Swan Lake

Peter Martins' Swan Lake returns to New York City Ballet February 14-23.

St. Petersburg Ballet Theatre's Swan Lake, starring ballerina Irina Kolesnikova, tours to New York City's Brooklyn Academy of Music February 15-16.

February 13-16, Cincinnati Ballet presents Swan Lake, choreographed by former resident choreographer Kirk Peterson after Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov.

Kansas City Ballet audiences have a number of chances to catch Swan Lake, which runs February 14-23.

Richmond Ballet's production of Swan Lake, running February 14-16, features two special guest stars: American Ballet Theatre principals Sarah Lane and Cory Stearns.

The Sleeping Beauty

February 13-23, Oregon Ballet Theatre presents The Sleeping Beauty, choreographed by artistic director Christopher Stowell after Petipa's 1890 original.

Cinderella

Victoria Morgan's Cinderella is back onstage at Orlando Ballet February 14-16. The run also includes one condensed, family friendly performance.

Two Valentine's Day Mixed Bills

Rather than stick to the full-lengths, two companies are ringing in the Valentine's spirit with shorter ballets.

Grand Rapids Ballet brings a program titled Eternal Desire to the stage February 14-16 and 21. The mixed bill pairs the world premiere of artistic director James Sofranko's Romeo & Juliet Balcony Pas de Deux with Trey McIntyre's Wild Sweet Love, Penny Saunders' Give Me. Also on the program are the world premieres of November by Danielle Rowe and A Dreamer by Sofranko.

February 14-16, Ballet Austin presents Restless Hearts, a double bill featuring George Balanchine's "Rubies" and Christopher Wheeldon's Ghosts.

Milwaukee Ballet Reimagines Three Ballets Russes Classics

Sergei Diaghilev's 1909–29 Ballets Russes is known for its intense emphasis on creation and collaboration. February 13–16, Milwaukee Ballet uses this as a jumping-off point for its Ballet Russe Reimagined program. Three company dancers—Nicole Teague-Howell, Timothy O'Donnell and Garrett Glassman—will choreograph new works based on Diaghilev's celebrated commissions.

Nashville Ballet Explores Gender Identity With Four World Premieres

February 14-16, Nashville Ballet explores the gender spectrum with world premieres by four choreographers: Jennifer Archibald, Erin Kouwe, Matthew Neenan and Carlos Pons Guerra. These new works are inspired by four questions (based on National Geographic's 2017 "Gender Issue") that artistic director Paul Vasterling posed to the choreographers: What does it mean to be a man, what does it mean to be a woman, what does it mean to be both and what does it mean to be neither? Catch additional interviews with the choreographers on Nashville Ballet's YouTube channel.

Ma Cong's New "Firebird" Hits Texas Ballet Theater

The world premiere of Ma Cong's take on Firebird, telling the tale of a mystical Firebird that frees a prince and princess from the control of an evil sorcerer, opens at Texas Ballet Theater February 14-16. It's joined by Jonathan Watkins Crash, to a score by Ryan Cockerham.

Justin Pecks' "The Times Are Racing" Makes Joffrey Ballet Premiere

The Joffrey Ballet's The Times Are Racing program, running February 12-23, includes three ballets presented on the Chicago stage for the first time. Itzik Galili's Mono Lisa and The Sofa and Justin Peck's The Times Are Racing, all making their Chicago premieres, are joined by Christopher Wheeldon's Commedia and Stephanie Martinez's Bliss!.

"Firebird" Flies Onto the Miami City Ballet Stage

Miami City Ballet opens its third program of the season February 14. Running through March 1, this exciting mix of ballets includes two company premieres: Firebird, choreographed by George Balanchine and Jerome Robbins with all new costumes by Anya Kelpikov and designs by Wendall Harrington, and Justin Peck's Rodeo: Four Dance Episodes. Also on the program is Twyla Tharp's Nine Sinatra Songs. This weekend's run takes place at the Miami Arsht Center.

San Francisco Ballet's Second Program of the Season Celebrates Contemporary Works

February 11-22, San Francisco Ballet presents Classical (Re)Vision, a mixed bill program highlighting the range of San Francisco Ballet's contemporary repertoire. Audiences will see Stanton Welch's Bespoke, Mark Morris' Sandpaper Ballet and two surprise "Director's Choice" works selected from a rotating group of eight short ballets, and chosen by artistic director Helgi Tomasson.

Tulsa Ballet Follows Dorothy Down the Yellow Brick Road 

Edwaard Liang's vibrant, puppet-filled Dorothy & The Prince of Oz returns to Tulsa Ballet February 13-16. This take on the classic story of The Wizard of Oz tracks Dorothy's adventures to restore peace in the Land of Oz. Above, get a behind-the-scenes look at the making of the ballet's animated characters with puppeteer Basil Twist.

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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."

Michael Cairns, Courtesy Orlando Ballet

Returning to Live Audiences: How 4 Companies Have Gotten Back Onstage

Performing in front of live audiences again has been every ballet organization's goal since the COVID-19 pandemic began more than a year ago. With vaccinations on the rise and light appearing at the end of the tunnel, companies are slowly starting to come back to in-person shows.

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#TBT: Antoinette Sibley in "Cinderella" (1969)

With its fairytale magic and ludicrous stepsisters, Sir Frederick Ashton's Cinderella is full of whimsy and charm. The choreography is also playfully challenging with quirky, intricate phrasing that illuminates Prokofiev's score. Antoinette Sibley, a former principal of The Royal Ballet, revels in the challenges as the titular Cinderella. A master of speed and staccato, Sibley is a frothy delight in her Act II variation in this clip from 1969.

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