BalletX rehearsing Wubkje Kuindersma's Yonder. Vikki Sloviter, Courtesy BalletX.

From Pick-Up to Premieres: How BalletX Has Grown Into a Coveted Company Prioritizing New Work

When Christine Cox and Matthew Neenan were forming BalletX in 2005, they had big dreams: Still dancers with Pennsylvania Ballet, they aspired for their contemporary ballet company to perform at Jacob's Pillow and Vail Dance Festival. They liked the idea of presenting new work. They hoped someday their company would be on the cover of Dance Magazine.


Fourteen years later, BalletX, now helmed by Cox as artistic and executive director, has accomplished all these things. Nearly every piece it performs is a world premiere—with 81 in total as of this March—and it works with a dazzling array of international choreographers, including Nicolo Fonte, Trey McIntyre, Jo Strømgren, Jodie Gates, Val Caniparoli and Lil Buck. BalletX was the first American company to commission Annabelle Lopez Ochoa, welcoming her most recently for the creation of her full-length The Little Prince. Cox commissions as many as eight new ballets each season and says, "I'm looking for voices that are strong, compassionate and curious and are able to challenge the dancers each day they're creating." The company's mission was made very clear in 2018, when it opened its South Philadelphia studio, the Center for World Premiere Choreography.

Its dancers have opportunities to choreograph for pop-up performances at local landmarks, such as the "Rocky steps" in front of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. BalletX also offers an annual choreographic fellow program for one emerging dancemaker, and this year it launched dancer fellowships, akin to traineeships, for newly professional performers.

"I really want to grow the next generation of dancers," says Cox, whose company of 10 includes 2019 Princess Grace Award winner Stanley Glover and Chloe Perkes, a Pointe Standout performer of 2014. The dancers come from varied backgrounds. Prior to joining BalletX, Perkes was in Alex Ketley's contemporary troupe and Sacramento Ballet. Skyler Lubin was in Miami City Ballet's corps, and Glover was on "So You Think You Can Dance" and in Cirque du Soleil.

Christine Cox. Gabriel Bienczycki, Courtesy BalletX.

But the now-renowned troupe had humble beginnings. It all started in 2005, because Cox and Neenan, then near the end of their careers at PAB, wanted to dance with their friends off-season at the Philadelphia Fringe Festival. Very early on, they had encouragement from the local arts community. In 2006, the Fringe Festival invited BalletX to present world premieres by Neenan and Jorma Elo.

Soon, BalletX was performing three seasons a year as the Wilma Theater's resident dance company. The William Penn Foundation encouraged BalletX to apply for funding, which allowed the troupe to hire its own dancers. (When the company started as a pick-up group, most were from PAB.)

Touring and festival performances followed. In particular, "the Vail Dance Festival has shined a light on the company," Cox says. BalletX has appeared at Vail six of the past seven summers (spending one as the resident dance company).

As BalletX was growing in size and prominence, Neenan quietly took his leave in 2014, pursing choreographic opportunities at larger ballet companies. Cox, however, still commissions him regularly.

Andrea Yorita in Annabelle Lopez Ochoa's The Little Prince.

Vikki Sloviter, Courtesy BalletX

The dancers enjoy working with Neenan, as well as the wide variety of other choreographers. "I'm always challenged in different ways," says Richard Villaverde, who joined in 2012, when he was a senior at University of the Arts. "Everyone always wants to try something new with us." As for working with Cox, Villaverde says, "in the studio, she's really diligent about why you're doing what you're doing, the meaning behind it and performing the work the way it was created." Although it's intense to constantly be involved in new creations, Villaverde sums up the company experience in one word: "Fun." He says, "We all get along so well. And that's one of the most vital parts of being a dancer here."

In 2019, the company toured more than ever before. Aside from stops at the Kennedy Center and Vail, BalletX traveled to Serbia, New York City and on a southern tour of three states. While touring is glamorous, Cox makes sure BalletX spends plenty of time at home. "I have to give the artists time to create," she says. The emphasis on premieres is "very different than many other small to midsized companies. Our company is about being in Philadelphia and really building."

Stanley Glover in rehearsal.

Vikki Sloviter, Courtesy BalletX

BalletX at a Glance

Number of dancers: 10, plus 2 fellows

Length of contract: 40 weeks

Starting salary: $700 a week

Performances per year: 65–70

Website: balletx.org

Audition Advice

The company holds auditions once a year, usually in February, March or April in New York City. Beyond technical proficiency, Cox looks for "really physical dancers who have a great sense of musicality, an authentic sense of soulful dancing and sense of self that allow them to open up." BalletX doesn't have frequent turnover, but Cox says she called an auditioning dancer months later when a position opened up. Several current members auditioned more than once before landing the job.

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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."

Louisville Ballet in Andrea Schermoly's Rite of Spring. Sam English, Courtesy Louisville Ballet.

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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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