Roberto Vega Ortiz (right) consults with videographer Max Sachar during a rehearsal with dancers Diego Cruz and Carlos Hopuy.

Rob Suguitan, Courtesy Ballet22

The New Company Ballet22 Spotlights Men on Pointe

The conversation around gender, both in the ballet world and in the larger culture, is slowly evolving toward greater inclusion. Roberto Vega Ortiz and Theresa Knudson are giving it a big push with Ballet22, their new company that showcases men on pointe—dancing not in drag or as comedic caricatures, but as themselves, each in their own authentic gender expression.

Founded last fall in Oakland, California, during the pandemic, the young company has already held two online performances and will hold a virtual spring gala April 16–18 and 23–25. It's also tapped into a growing community of male and nonbinary dancers who love pointework and are hungry for authentic artistic self-expression. "The mission of Ballet22 is pushing the boundaries of what could be possible, and making the pointe shoe ungendered," says artistic director Vega Ortiz.

From Isolation to Innovation

As a longtime devotee of pointework and an Instagram influencer, Vega Ortiz is keenly aware of the enthusiasm for pointework among male ballet dancers, via hashtags like #MenOnPointe, and of the lack of high-quality training and performance opportunities. So as a pandemic project, he and close friend Carlos Hopuy, a former Ballet San Antonio principal who has danced with Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo since 2012, started teaching pointe classes on Zoom under the name MaleBallerinas.

The response was overwhelming. "We had dancers from Germany, Chile, Argentina, Brazil, Japan, the U.S.," says Vega Ortiz. Knudson adds: "These are people who have to train in privacy or secrecy because there is not a place for them. Seeing male and nonbinary bodies doing this work is so inspiring—there's so much joy and power." Knudson, who is Vega Ortiz's roommate and now serves as Ballet22's executive director and ballet mistress, was tuned in to the venture's significance and growing audience—and its possibility for growth.

Carlos Hopuy wears a white practice tutu, pointe shoes and a black turtleneck leotard and poses in attitude. His dance partner, Diego Cruz, wears a bacl tunic, white tights and white slippers and holds onto Hopuy's waist while posing his left leg in tendu.

Carlos Hopuy and Diego Cruz during a rehearsal of Grand Pas Classique

Rob Suguitan, Courtesy Ballet22

The popularity of MaleBallerinas inspired Vega Ortiz and Knudson to expand from classes to a company. "It was always a thought to make it a company, but we didn't realize how soon it would happen," says Vega Ortiz, who has danced with Nashville Ballet and the Trocks. They were able to ramp up quickly, thanks to the combination of Vega Ortiz' artistic vision and huge following, and Knudson's business savvy gained from founding her own company, Halcyon Dance Project, in 2019, plus her degree in business administration.

Crucially, Knudson secured fiscal sponsorship through the San Francisco indie nonprofit Intersection for the Arts. "Fiscal sponsorship means we get to use their nonprofit status," she explains. "With that, we were able to ask for tax-deductible donations and we could tell people we were a legit organization. For our first show (last December), our friends bought tickets for their friends, and we had people donate afterward. When people see our work, they're excited and they want to support it."

Duane Gosa, in a white tutu, pointe shoes and tan crop top, stands in tendu derriere effac\u00e9 and crosses his arms in front of his chest. Evan Lambrose holds his waist and stands behind him in the exact same pose, wearing black shorts and a white sleeveless shirt.

Duane Gosa and Evan Ambrose rehearse Act II of Swan Lake.

Courtesy Ballet22

Expanding the Possibilities of Ballet

Dancers are excited to perform the work, too: Along with Vega Ortiz, the company roster features Hopuy and fellow Trock Duane Gosa, New York City Ballet corps member Gilbert Bolden III and San Francisco Ballet soloist Diego Cruz.

"With Trockadero, I'm switching my wigs, I'm changing my shoes—I'm a male dancer, now I'm a female dancer," says Gosa, who danced Swan Lake's Odette variation in Ballet22's December 2020 performance. "It was really cool to feel these things that I could only dream of before. Performing genderless, as myself, without the mask of the makeup and wigs, was the biggest takeaway for me. It left me more confident personally."

Brian Gephart poses in B-plus and bends forward with his left hand to his forehead and his right hand pushing downward. He wears yellow leggings, pointe shoes and a white peasant blouse.

Ballet22 dancer Brian Gephart in a ballet by Jehbreal Jackson

Rob Suguitan, Courtesy Ballet22

Bolden, who taught himself to dance on pointe with Kathryn Morgan's YouTube videos, in addition to help from friends and co-workers, agrees. "I didn't want to do drag. I really wanted to be myself on pointe, which is why this is so exciting for me." Mastering pointework has also influenced his dancing at NYCB. "It's made me more thoughtful in how I use my feet, legs and body, because I had to learn how to do the delicate finesse. And when I'm partnering, I know how a girl wants to feel and how she wants to be on her shoe."

Ballet22 has also expanded the artistic palette for choreographers like Ben Needham-Wood, whose dance film "Pointe A2B" premieres in the gala. The five-minute, single-take film features Vega Ortiz and Hopuy in a kaleidoscope of partnering as they move through an art gallery. "I would have both men bourréeing, and then one would be a secure base for the other and then transition back onto pointe, creating this shifting structure. That interplay was really fun." On a bigger scale, he says, "Ballet22 is a great starting point for a conversation that needs to happen: What is the role of gender in dance? What is the role that we have in our communities for raising awareness for important causes?"

A male dancer in all black lifts another male dancer in a gray tutu and pointe shoes above his head. Behind them on either side are two other male dancers lunging out in tendu second. The dancer on the right wears a black tutu, and pointe shoes while the dancer on the left wears black tights, ballet slippers and a black T-shirt. All of the dancers wear face masks.

Ashton Edwards, lifted by Evan Ambrose, with Donghoon Lee and Roberto Vega Ortiz in Joshua Stayton's Juntos

Concept o4, Courtesy Ballet22

Leaping Into the Future

While their initial focus is on male and nonbinary dancers on pointe, Knudson and Vega Ortiz plan to make the company fully inclusive as it expands out of its current project-based format. As companies eventually return to full-time work, the roster will likely change as well. "Women want to be part of it, which is so amazing," says Vega Ortiz. "And it's important to have a safe space for transmen and transwomen. Ballet22 is a safe place for everyone."

Their post-gala plans include online classes for all ages, a summer intensive and to eventually grow their school, The School at BlackBox Studios, into a full-time program where, in addition to classical training, men will learn pointe. "If we can offer a place where it's safe for everyone to feel that they can be themselves and have great experiences," he says, "that's what we want. The work will speak for itself."

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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."

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