Photographed for Pointe by Jayme Thornton.

From Home-State Stardom to ABT's Corps, Betsy McBride Finds Grace in Every Role

This is Pointe's February/March 2018 Cover Story. You can subscribe to the magazine here, or click here to purchase this issue.

In a polished cast of Sir Frederick Ashton's Symphonic Variations at an American Ballet Theatre performance last October, corps member Betsy McBride shone with a warmth that belied the piece's crystalline, cold precision. Dark-haired with large, light-catching eyes, McBride was more coiled spring than willowy sylph, evident in the way her pliant limbs shot rather than floated to Ashton's prescribed positions. While the choreography's measured steps and lowered legs may seem particularly limiting for someone with McBride's flexibility, she managed to find pockets of expansion in the restricted movement. She lunged a little deeper, sailed on pointe a little longer, her open face lingering in the spotlight until the very last moment.

Symphonic Variations marked McBride's debut in a principal role with ABT, yet it was not the 25-year-old's first taste of the spotlight. She began her career at Texas Ballet Theater at just 15, becoming a principal by 19. Under TBT artistic director Ben Stevenson, she performed roles that most dancers her age still covet—Juliet, Odette/Odile, Aurora—before leaving the company for an ABT corps contract in 2015.


McBride (far left) with Devon Teuscher and Cassandra Trenary in "Symphonic Variations." Photo by Erin Baiano, Courtesy ABT.


Some may see McBride's move as accepting a demotion, but she saw it as a new horizon. Despite her wunderkind start at TBT, McBride's humility and hunger for new challenges have made for a harmonious transition to ABT's corps. As more opportunities come her way, it seems her risky career move is paying off.

Growing up in Texas, McBride fell into dance behind her older sister. "My mom's friend was putting her daughter in ballet and she wanted someone to carpool with," McBride recounts with a chiming, bell-like laugh. Those beginnings led to year-round training in her hometown outside Dallas. Yet she didn't originally aspire to dance professionally in her state. Two summers spent at ABT intensives in New York City at 12 and 13 sparked an early desire to one day dance with the company.

However, her professional career started much earlier than anticipated. After attending TBT's summer program in nearby Fort Worth at 14 years old, McBride joined the school as a trainee. Just one year later, Stevenson offered her a corps contract. She began working with the company right away, commuting from her parents' house and finishing her education through The Keystone School's online high school program.

"Betsy has a wonderful facility and she was dedicated to her work," says Stevenson. He notes that her enthusiasm and drive helped her blossom more as an artist and technician over time. He challenged her with increasingly difficult and theatrical roles, not hesitating to name her principal in 2012, during a period when the company had ranks. Throughout her time with TBT, McBride excelled in everything from Stevenson's classical ballets to Jiří Kylián's Petite Mort and Val Caniparoli's Lambarena. While many dancers would have ridden out that early wave of success comfortably in the spotlight, McBride is not one for complacence. Though she found a nurturing mentor in Stevenson, her career at TBT was more serendipitous than intentional. After eight years, she decided it was time to act on her early aspirations to join ABT.

Photo by Jayme Thornton for Pointe.

Simon Wexler, McBride's boyfriend and fellow TBT company member at the time, also felt ready to leave Texas. The two decided to make use of their frequent visits to his family outside of New York City. McBride reached out to ABT through email in March 2015, to let the staff know that they were interested in auditioning for the company. They said that there were no contracts available, but invited her and Wexler to take class. "I thought I'd just go in, meet everybody and talk face-to-face," she says, but she didn't expect a job offer.

However, recent departures at ABT opened up spots for McBride and Wexler. Artistic director Kevin McKenzie offered them both contracts, making clear that his decision was based on each dancer's individual merit, not couple status. " 'We do not do package deals,' " she recalls him saying. " 'I see talent in both of you and I see that you both fit well here.' " The pair happily accepted.

McBride returned to Texas and met with an understanding and supportive Stevenson. "She's ambitious," he says. "It was a great opportunity for her. I've always loved her so much. My best thoughts are with her development, and she has to go on developing." She finished up her TBT season that May and joined ABT one week later, during its Metropolitan Opera House performances.

McBride in Alexei Ratmansky's "Whipped Cream." Photo Courtesy ABT.

McBride found herself quickly readjusting to life as a corps dancer in a company of 90 compared to TBT's 40. One of her biggest challenges has been having less preparation for a role. "If you're second or third cast, sometimes you just don't get runs of things," she says, recalling that her first run of Symphonic Variations onstage was her debut. "The steps and the counts aren't in your muscle memory yet."

Yet ABT ballet mistress Susan Jones says that McBride never looks unprepared, even when negotiating a schedule packed with corps de ballet duties and soloist opportunities. McBride has performed Sleeping Beauty variations, Swan Lake's cygnets and the lead gypsy in Don Quixote, among other featured parts. Jones calls it one of the most difficult positions to have in the company: "When you're in demand for every corps de ballet and also soloist roles, you have to constantly switch hats and go back and forth." In a way, Jones says, it can be a testing ground, one that McBride is maneuvering with apparent ease. "Betsy is reliable and quick," she says. "She's one of those people you can count on."

Does she ever feel frustrated in the corps after so many years in the spotlight? "It's definitely hard," McBride admits. "It's a really good humbling experience." But she then quickly speaks of corps work's collective rewards and her respect for her co-workers—any of whom, she says, could be principals or soloists in small companies, as she was.

Photo by Jayme Thornton for Pointe.

Both staff and colleagues agree that McBride is hardly in need of an ego check. "She's so sweet, humble and willing to work," says Cameron McCune, McBride's fellow corps member and frequent partner. Jones echoes: "She wasn't one of those people who came to Kevin McKenzie and said, 'I'm a principal at my current company, so I'll accept a corps contract but want to be considered for soloist roles.' She applies herself to everything she does."

McBride seems to be as content as her polite gratitude suggests, both onstage and off. She and Wexler live together in their New York City apartment. Though he left the company last season to pursue studies at Columbia University, the pair find plenty of time for Central Park explorations, recreational tennis matches and New York's food scene. When cooking at home, they take turns depending on who's busier: McBride with Romeo and Juliet runs or Wexler with finals and papers. She also makes plenty of visits home. After the fall season last year, McBride spent part of her four-week break visiting her sister and newborn niece in Texas.

Looking forward to ABT's spring season, McBride speaks about her swan corps duties with the same congeniality as she does of her hopes to one day reprise Odette/Odile—on the Met stage. Though more soloist roles may tip the balance towards promotion, she isn't one for precipitate hopes. Radiant whether she's dancing alone or in file, she toes the line between fitting in and standing out gracefully—and graciously. No matter the role, says Jones, "her love of dance is unconditional."

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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."

Students of Canada's National Ballet School. Bruce Zinger, Courtesy Ballet Unleashed.

Ballet Unleashed Aims to Connect Emerging Dancers From 11 Academies With Freelance Opportunities

To any pre-professional dancer vying for a company position, auditions are a familiar and often dreaded scene: Hundreds of hopeful young graduates flock to an audition site, pin a paper number to their dance clothes and try their luck. But only a few will receive full-time contracts with companies—the rest will go home disappointed, potentially facing a gap year as they try to figure out next steps.

Mavis Staines, artistic director and CEO of Canada's National Ballet School, became frustrated with this flawed system years ago. Why were so many talented dancers not being rewarded with work opportunities? And why was the only acceptable form of work a full-season contract, when in the music and theater industries, project-based employment was a legitimized way to build careers?

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Birmingham Royal Ballet in Cinderella. Roy Smiljanic, Courtesy British Ballet Charity Gala

Darcey Bussell Is Putting on a Benefit Gala Starring 8 UK Dance Companies—and You Can Stream It From Home

Planning a major gala during a global pandemic is no easy feat—but don't say that to Dame Darcey Bussell. In an amazingly short time, the former Royal Ballet principal and "Strictly Come Dancing" judge has curated a historic evening to support the dance industry in her home country. The British Ballet Charity Gala will bring eight major UK dance companies together for a live performance at London's Royal Albert Hall on June 3, before it is streams internationally on June 18.

The event, hosted by Bussell and actor Ore Oduba, a "Strictly Come Dancing" winner, will feature performances by Ballet Black, Birmingham Royal Ballet, English National Ballet, New Adventures, Northern Ballet, Rambert, Scottish Ballet and The Royal Ballet—marking the first time all of them have performed together on the same program.

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