Patrick Armand leads class at San Francisco Ballet School's summer session. Chris hardy, Courtesy SFB.

How to Deal With Taking an Unfamiliar Class During Summer Intensive Audition Season

Ariel McCarty's training was predominantly classical until, at 15, she auditioned for Boston Ballet's summer intensive. The audition class was in more of a Balanchine style, and the teacher corrected her right away. "She wanted me to accent the arm opening out quickly in my pliés, rather than through the whole phrase," says McCarty, now a Colorado Ballet apprentice. She could have panicked, but, instead, she met the correction with a smile. "I tried it, and it felt not quite right. But the instructor said, 'That's the idea.' " After that, McCarty was able to let go of trying to be perfect in an unfamiliar style. "It opened me to a new idea of musicality. It's exciting to try new things."

The stress of summer intensive auditions is real: You're in a strange place, taking a strange class, and pressure is high to show yourself at your best. But, as McCarty discovered, shaking off a bit of that pressure might be the best way to have a good audition. Two school directors agree, and explain why you should leave behind these common audition worries.


Ariel McCarty (on her knee) in Serenade

Mike Watson, Courtesy Colorado Ballet

The Style Issue

Picking up a new style can be especially nerve-racking in an audition class. But, says San Francisco Ballet School director Patrick Armand, "any technique comes from the same basic training; after that it's a variation on a theme." Of course, it may not feel like that when you're auditioning—trying to figure out how to use your head at the barre, for instance, when you're used to looking front, or attempting a pirouette en dehors from a straight back leg for the first time.

"We don't expect kids to be already in the style of our school," says Maria Torija, director of the BalletMet Academy. "You cannot learn that in one class." The best tactic in auditions is to be yourself, rather than dancing in an uncomfortable imitation of a style. An exception is if the teacher makes a point of a particular stylistic detail, like musicality. In that case, pay close attention and give it your best effort. "Trust your ability to adapt," Torija urges. "Be open to different ways, and show that you're willing to try."

A Scary New Step 

Keep in mind that teachers may give certain steps in auditions to help the judges make level placements. Knowing a particular step, or not, is unlikely to affect your acceptance into the program. McCarty recalls a grand allégro that included a tour jeté fouetté, a step she had never seen before. "I remember thinking, That is so cool, but I have no idea how to do it!" By observing the teacher and fellow auditioners, and practicing in the back, McCarty was able to figure it out well enough to give it a try. In general, if you're unsure about a step, you should ask a question. "It just shows that you care," McCarty says.

Armand agrees, and will break down a step if he sees "questionable faces" while demonstrating. "You're in a learning process," he says. "The best thing about doing class with a different teacher is learning something new." Presumably, the desire to learn is a major reason you want to attend a summer program. Viewing the audition as an educational experience is a great way to take some of the pressure off. Try asking yourself, "What did I learn?" instead of "How did I do?"

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A New Step On Pointe

Schools vary widely when introducing specific pointework elements, and the faculty running an audition knows that. Don't throw yourself into something you haven't learned how to do on pointe. "It's not safe," Torija explains, "and there's nothing wrong with not knowing it yet." Instead, say something. The teacher may adapt the step, replacing a pirouette with a passé relevé, for example. Or they may have you skip the combination, or try it on flat.

If you don't feel comfortable speaking up in front of everyone, McCarty suggests approaching the teacher or the table to tell them more discreetly. Either way, chances are you won't be speaking for yourself alone. "Someone else is probably wondering too; you're never the only one."

Pick It Up, Fast!

The ability to learn choreography quickly is a skill all dancers are supposed to possess and demonstrate in auditions. But what if your teacher at home gives short, simple combinations—or a set class—and the exercises in the audition are longer, or put together in a way that feels complicated and unnatural?

The key is to practice. Armand recommends his students go to as many auditions as they can, even for schools they aren't interested in. "I want them to get used to being looked at, seen and judged. It's important to know what's going to happen, to be ready."

If you cannot easily attend multiple practice auditions, Torija suggests doing some research online. "Watch classes from well-known schools, of kids more or less your level, to get an understanding of different ways of putting movements together. Try to learn the combinations, for your own brain."

Maria Torija coaches BalletMet Dance Academy summer intensive student Polina Myers.

Jennifer Zmuda, Courtesy BalletMet

Be Amazing Right Away

Compounding all the anxieties above is the pressure to dance every exercise impeccably on the first try. But, says Armand, "ballet is about repetition. You cannot expect to do something perfectly the first time." Teachers and directors are likely to be especially forgiving in auditions, knowing that dancers may be nervous and unfamiliar with their teaching style. No one expects a student to know or be able to do everything—so don't expect it of yourself. What Armand looks for is enthusiasm, not perfect facility or immediate attainment. "I want kids who are eager to learn and improve."

Above all, maintain positivity. If you make a mistake or fall in an audition, don't get discouraged or show frustration—continue. How you comport yourself in class can reveal as much as your dancing, so make sure your demeanor is sending the right message. "Show that you love to dance," says Torija. "But that doesn't mean being perfect."

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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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