Eighteen-year-old Sarah Patterson (foreground), with her classmates at New Ballet School. She's decided to stay home this summer to take advantage of outdoor, in-person classes. Courtesy New Ballet School.

Why Planning Summer Study This Year Is More Complicated Than Ever

When it comes to navigating summer intensives, 2021 may be more complicated for ballet students than last year. On the heels of the COVID-19 pandemic's spring spike in 2020, summer programs went all-virtual or had very limited capacity. This year is more of a mixed bag, with regulations and restrictions varying widely across state and county lines and changing week by week.

Between vaccines and variants, can students aim for a full calendar of intensive training at local and national summer programs?


In-Studio Classes, Lower Enrollment

Many schools affiliated with major companies are finding ways to make in-person intensives possible, with some offering housing. However, they're doing so at smaller scales to enable social distancing. For instance, at San Francisco Ballet School, administrators have decreased enrollment by 25 percent compared to normal years. Boston Ballet School's Summer Dance Program is expecting to land at two-thirds enrollment overall in both its classes and housing, as compared to a non-pandemic year. While in-person classes are a big improvement from last year, smaller enrollment at major schools means that a large number of students can't be accommodated.

This stressful situation may be heightened by waitlists for those coveted in-person slots. "Yes, waitlists are longer. That said, we've never used one before, so we don't have a good comparison to base that off of," confirms Dave Czesniuk, managing director of Boston Ballet School, over email. "We are sensing a lot of 'wait and see' from the population. We won't be allotting any additional acceptances, since we filled our enrollment and waitlist so fast."

Luckily, the pandemic uncertainty has also meant that some programs are announcing plans later and still hosting auditions through April and May—check out Pointe's Summer Study Guide, which is regularly updated.

In a large dance studio, a female dance student in practice clothes and a blue face mask kneels on her left leg and holds her hand to her heart. Next to her on the right, a young male student in track pants, a blue mask and a fleece vest stands in parallel and holds his hands to his heart. They both look at their reflection in the mirror (not shown).

Students from Interlochen Center for the Arts in rehearsal

Courtesy Interlochen Center for the Atrs

Should You Go In-Person or Virtual?

Many top-tier intensives, like the ones mentioned above, will offer a combination of in-person training and virtual classes (expanding the latter as a contingent plan if outbreaks occur). Smaller, bubble-like programs are also worth considering, and may be more conducive for social distancing, whether commuter-based or residential. For example, Michigan's Interlochen Center for the Arts, which is offering a virtual option and on-site programs, has outdoor studios, cabin-style housing spaced out on a wooded campus and regular testing.

Other schools are only offering virtual intensives. For example, American Ballet Theatre is not holding in-person programming at its Southern California location and is waiting for more information from its Texas, Florida and Alabama university partners before deciding whether those will be in-person. (The New York City intensive, also still tentative, does not offer housing.)

Zimmi Coker poses next to a laptop showing a ballet Zoom class and smiles brightly for the camera. She wears her red hair in a low bun and a mint green tank top.

American Ballet Theatre corps member Zimmi Coker teaching during ABT's Virtual Young Dancer Summer Workshop in 2020

Courtesy Coker

There are pros and cons to each type of intensive, and you should take into account your current training and career goals, as well as safety, when deciding which to attend. For example, younger students, with their shorter attention spans, may be best served at a program that lets them train in person, so that they can take a full class through grand allégro and receive in-person, dedicated corrections.

Alternately, older students often see summer sessions as a chance to get in front of a director and potentially earn a traineeship or apprentice contract down the road. Joseph Morrissey, dance director at Interlochen Center for the Arts, acknowledges that his older students looking to train away from home this summer may feel pressure to network at company-attached programs. But while vaccines may be possible for students over the age of 16 by summertime, he says, he wants them to be vigorous in selecting an intensive for its safety protocols. "I would never sacrifice safety over networking."

Kate Lydon, director of ABT's summer intensives, notes that virtual intensives can be a great place to safely network. She points out that ABT Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School director Cynthia Harvey, ABT Studio Company director Sascha Radetsky and ABT artistic director Kevin McKenzie will be teaching at all of the company's two-week virtual intensives—and confirms they will be keeping an eye out for new talent. "These three see more students over Zoom than they normally would because usually they would only be present at our New York program."

Staying Local

This summer may see more dancers staying close to home. Elizabeth Hutter, principal at New Ballet School in San Jose, California, is leery of sending her students to in-person residential programs due to the risk of a COVID-19 outbreak. "What might look sure right now might be unsafe in two weeks," she says. Her dancer daughter, 18-year-old Sarah Patterson, has decided to stay home this summer to take advantage of in-person classes at the New Ballet School's outdoor studio.

Katie Slattery, a faculty member at The Florida Ballet, is seeing a similar trend and says this is a genuine concern for families. "Most of our advanced year-round students who typically go away to an intensive are enrolling here for summer because their parents don't want to send them away due to COVID."

Hutter also notes that many families have been economically impacted by the pandemic, making a residential program—or finding housing if it's not provided—financially challenging. She adds that some schools are charging just as much for their virtual sessions, and that not all families have the same access to at-home training accommodations, like wide space and portable flooring. If your family isn't in a position to pay for full-priced programs, training at your local studio may be the more economical fit with the lowest health risk.

Outside on a tennis court, a female ballet student in a pink sweater and gray sweatshorts practices cambr\u00e9 back at a portable barre. Behind her in the the distance is her male instructor, wearing a face mask and workout clothes, who watches her and holds his right arm up to mimic hers.

Interlochen Center for the Arts dance director Joseph Morrissey teaches an outdoor class on campus.

Courtesy Interlochen Center for the Arts

Design Your Own Hybrid Curriculum

To get the best of both studio training and national networking, Lydon suggests combining in-person and virtual programs, if possible. For instance, you could start or end your summer with a short virtual session and also attend a local, socially distanced one.

If that's not an option, keep in mind that the wealth of online training resources, from master classes to cross-training to at-home technique and pointe classes, is likely to continue into 2021. While a smattering of Instagram and YouTube classes can't replace a dedicated training schedule and live teacher corrections, strategically selected virtual classes may help supplement your local training.

Morrissey's advice is to keep everything in perspective. Understand that many students are in the same boat this year, and one summer won't make or break your career if you keep dancing and stay positive. "At the end of the day, the art form is not going anywhere," he says. "It's on maybe a little bit of a pause, it's not fun, it's not comfortable, but we will come back."

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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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