Benjamin Griffiths in William Forsythe's The Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude

Angela Sterling, Courtesy PNB

After 15 Years, Benjamin Griffiths Bids Adieu to Pacific Northwest Ballet

In addition to cancelled shows, the coronavirus pandemic has disrupted final performances for many retiring dancers. Pointe is giving several retiring principals and soloists a chance to reflect on their careers and offer advice to the next generation.

Pacific Northwest Ballet principal Benjamin Griffiths was supposed to celebrate his final Seattle performance on June 7 before the coronavirus pandemic forced the company to cancel its season and summer tours. A native of Boise, Idaho, Griffiths trained with Lisa Moon and later at the School of American Ballet before joining PNB's corps de ballet in 2005. A principal since 2016, Griffiths has performed an impressive range of leading roles. "Technical prowess marked his roles in William Forsythe's Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude, Ulysses Dove's Red Angels and Oberon in A Midsummer Night's Dream," says PNB artistic director Peter Boal. "His Sarabande in Agon seems cast by Balanchine himself."

Griffiths, who is married to former PNB dancer Jordan Pacitti, also developed the curriculum for PNB School Professional Division's Men's Strength Training Program and graduated summa cum laude from Seattle University with a BA in Interdisciplinary Arts with a focus in Arts Leadership. Below, he talks about missing out on a final performance, his most challenging roles and his next steps.


Why did you decide to retire from PNB this year?

I decided to retire after a series of frustrating injuries, from which I developed some serious anxiety. After coming back from these injuries, I also felt that it was becoming harder and harder to maintain the technical level that I feel is necessary to perform my repertoire to the standards that I expect of myself. I wanted to stop while I still felt on top of my game and before sustaining any further injuries that might compromise my post-dance quality of life.

How has the COVID-19 shutdown affected your farewell plans, and how are you feeling about it?

Originally, I had planned to say goodbye to the Seattle audiences in June and then continue performing through the summer on PNB's planned tours to New York City and Sun Valley, Idaho. As a native Idahoan who received my upper level training at the School of American Ballet, this felt like the perfect way to say goodbye. To have all those plans dissolve is frustrating. While I'm grateful for all of the blessings in my life, I'm sad that the last four months of my career have been stolen from me by COVID-19, that I'm missing all of that time in the studio with my beloved colleagues, and that my parents, most likely, will not get the chance to see me perform again knowing it's the last time.

What is it about PNB that feels like home?

I was in complete awe of PNB as a young dancer, often traveling from Boise, Idaho to see them perform, so it was a dream come true to join its ranks. Having trained at SAB, I feel very at home in its artistic heritage, with Kent Stowell and Francia Russell (PNB's co-founding artistic directors) and Peter all having significant ties to Balanchine and his style of training. I also love my co-workers (some of which I have known since I was 15 years old), the company's repertoire, dancing in the light-filled studios of the Phelps Center, and the close connection that exists between PNB School and the company.

Was there a particular role or experience during your career that served as a major turning point or growth opportunity, and why?

Working on Marco Goecke's wild and contemporary 11-minute solo, Mopey. Before this experience, I was pigeon-holed as a classical dancer, but this opportunity allowed me to prove (to myself more than anyone else) that I could excel in contemporary work.

Working with Peter Boal on Square Dance, which was my first leading role at PNB, was also very special. It was a role that I had watched him perform many times while a student at SAB, and he passed it on with great care, asking me to focus on musicality, movement dynamics and the intentions behind the movements.

In the second half of my career, the moment that stands out most was working with William Forsythe on The Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude and In the middle, somewhat elevated. He pushed me both physically and mentally, causing me to explore new possibilities while still staying very much within the vocabulary of classical ballet.

Leta BIasucci, in pench\u00e9, holds on to Benjamin Griffiths right hand and arm for balance as he lunges slightly to the side.

With Leta Biasucci in Balanchine's Square Dance

Lindsay Thomas, Courtesy PNB

What will you miss most?

Sharing the unique lifestyle of being a ballet dancer with my colleagues every day—the communal and ritualistic aspects of company class every morning, the conversations had while cross-training and warming up in our PT room, and the collective feeling of pride when watching one another in our final studio runs before moving to theater for tech week.

What's next?

I recently graduated from Seattle University with a bachelor's degree in Arts Administration, and I love to teach ballet. Eventually I hope to be either working to further the mission of a dance organization in an administrative capacity or teaching ballet—or possibly a little bit of both. My husband also founded a skincare company, Jordan Samuel Skin, after his dance career, and I would also love to work with him to further grow and expand his business.

What advice would you pass on to the next generation of dancers?

Enjoy every moment, and try to live each of those moments in the present because it really does go by so fast!

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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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