Joshua Shutkind in rehearsal. Photo by Beau Pearson, Courtesy Ballet West

Ballet West Dancer Joshua Shutkind Opens Up About Dealing With Bipolar Disorder

It was the kind of nightmare that haunts a dancer in their sleep. Joshua Shutkind, then a first-year corps member with Ballet West, stepped onto the stage in the coveted role of the Prince in The Nutcracker and completely forgot the steps. But Shutkind was not dreaming.

"Dancers are aware of their strengths and one of mine was my memory," he says. "The company always relied on me to pick up choreography, and that kind of kept my confidence high."

Shutkind doesn't remember much about how he handled the moments that followed in the battle scene, his view confined by the foam Nutcracker head he was wearing, and his mind lost in the fog that had set in nearly six months prior. The fog had come with tumultuous emotional swings, but it would be another year before he would receive a formal diagnosis for bipolar disorder.

When Shutkind arrived in Salt Lake City in 2015 as a member of the second company, he was coming off of a major back injury that had taken the better part of a year to recover from. He was in a new city, away from his family in New York City. He was thrilled to be offered a corps contract starting in the fall of 2018, but that summer, strange emotions began to overtake him.

"I started to notice that I was higher energy and happier than I had ever been in my life," he remembers. "Just unbelievably powerful and like nothing could defeat me." That high lasted for weeks until it was gone, like flipping a switch. "In September, I remember waking up one day feeling empty." The change was alarming, but Shutkind was afraid to say anything. "That lasted about a week, and then I started to feel the depression," he says. "Nothing had necessarily happened, but I started to feel the darkness coming over me."

The extremes of Shutkind's manic and depressive episodes accelerated each time they happened. "I would wake up in the morning and feel this anger inside like there is no point in getting up, and that slowly evolved into there is no point in me being here," he says. The depressive episodes would last three or four weeks each time, and made it hard to even make it to company class. He went to therapy, but it was easy enough to assign his feelings to life's various trials.

Then the switch would flip again, and Shutkind would wake in the night with intense energy and feelings of "godly" confidence, he says. During these manic episodes, which tended to last about a week, he rarely slept or ate. "My hair was falling out; my skin was becoming unhealthy," he says. "I could tell that I was not the way that I once was, and I was horrified to talk to anybody about it because I thought nobody is going to have answers."

His care for his body suffered, and so did his dancing. Old and new injuries flared up endlessly. "My ability to make it through rehearsals was significantly diminished since I wasn't fueling my body throughout the day," he says. Feeling out of control of his moods created tremendous anxiety, both with close friends and artistic staff.

Shutkind went to the emergency room several times during manic episodes, desperate for answers. They would simply give him an IV, assuming he was on drugs. "Even some great doctors don't get it right," he says. Many physicians would explain the episodes away with the fact that it is normal to feel emotional, particularly at his age. However, according to the American Psychiatric Association, late teens and early 20s are also the time when people are most likely to experience their first mental illness.

An SSRI prescription for depression only made things worse. During contract negotiations for the 2019–20 season, Shutkind asked Ballet West artistic director Adam Sklute for a leave of absence, citing his back injury. Sklute agreed, and Shutkind took several months off. "I was so grateful to Adam for giving me that because he could have just said no. Some part of me thinks he knew I needed that time for my mental health."

Toward the end of his leave, Shutkind watched the Amazon series "Modern Love." In one episode, Anne Hathaway plays a bipolar woman with extreme emotional episodes. Shutkind watched the screen in amazement as the character ripped back and forth between unbridled joy and emptiness, just like he did. "I called my doctor the next day and said, I think I have bipolar disorder." His doctor agreed and, thankfully, found a medication that worked on the first try.

"I have been able to rebuild my life and relationships," he says. "I found an amazing therapist who I was seeing once a week, and now I just see her when I want to talk to her about something." After returning to work at Ballet West, Shutkind says that his mental and physical health felt more solid than ever.

Yet he still has occasional episodes. Most recently one took him by surprise following the death of his grandmother. "With therapy, medication and loving relationships with people who know about it, I am able to pull myself out of it, and I live an almost completely normal life."

As Shutkind has managed the shutdowns related to the pandemic, he has spent a lot of time thinking about others who may be where he was just a short time ago. "Especially in the ballet world, there is this idea perpetuated that we have it all together. We are performers, that is what we do," he says. But he wishes dancers would see it differently. "Every dancer knows that feeling of going to bed and thinking about how they are going to dance through their injury the next day," he says. "And if you had just dealt with the injury instead of pushing on, you could have avoided a stress fracture or something more serious. I like to think about that and reflect on what happened to me."

After over a year of living in fear of what was happening to him and how those who love him would respond if they knew how bad it really was, Shutkind has found peace and acceptance. "This is just a part of me now just like everything else," he says. "After you have been through something like that, you are not who you were anymore. But if you can embrace, truly, who you have become and accept it, you become something greater and you are able to live an authentic life."

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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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