The dancers of Bolshoi Ballet in Bryan Arias' The Ninth Wave

Natalia Voronova, Courtesy Bolshoi Ballet

The Bolshoi Is Back Onstage: We Went Inside Bryan Arias' Latest Work

This summer, when parts of the world were slowly emerging from the COVID-19 lockdown, all live performing arts events having been canceled or postponed, choreographer Bryan Arias found himself in Moscow creating a brand-new work for the Bolshoi Ballet.

Arias, who was born in Puerto Rico, grew up in New York City's Spanish Harlem, and danced with Complexions Contemporary Ballet, Nederlands Dans Theater 2 and Kidd Pivot, had been invited by Bolshoi artistic director Makhar Vaziev to be part of an impromptu program of contemporary choreography titled Four Characters in Search of a Plot. Three other international choreographers—Martin Chaix (France), Dimo Milev (Bulgaria) and Simone Valastro (Italy)—had also been asked to participate. This program, unusual by all standards for Russia's esteemed classical ballet company, opened the Bolshoi's 245th ballet season on September 10. Eager to resume live events, the theater introduced a number of safety regulations for audience members, including limited and spaced-out seating, temperature checks upon entry and audio messages reminding patrons to wear masks and maintain social distance.

Below, Arias talks about his trip to Russia and his experience of creating his new piece, The Ninth Wave, on the Bolshoi Ballet dancers.



A bare-chested male dancer squats and balances the body of a ballerina costumed in blue, who lays across his legs.

Ekaterina Krysanova and Vladislav Lantratov in Bryan Arias' The Ninth Wave

Natalia Voronova, Courtesy Bolshoi Ballet

The Phone Call From Moscow

"Because of the pandemic, all my plans got shifted into the future and there was no certainty about anything. I was in quarantine in Basel, Switzerland, feeling a bit lost and trying to stay inspired and motivated. And out of nowhere I got a phone call from Makhar Vaziev, artistic director of the Bolshoi Ballet, with an offer to come to Moscow and to choreograph whatever I would like. I agreed on the spot—I was ready to do anything at that moment. We decided right then that I would do a 60-minute piece, with a cast of 40 dancers, and I would use live music. This would be a ballet with the largest number of dancers I had ever worked with."

Traveling to Russia During the Pandemic

"Everything about the trip seemed suspended and improvised. I was scheduled to travel on July 19 but on July 16 I still didn't have my Russian visa. When I finally got the visa, one day prior to my departure, I was told at the embassy that there was no guarantee that I would be able to enter into the country. Next day, I packed my bag and took a train to Paris; from there I went to a small airport servicing only private jets. There I met the three other choreographers. It was my first time traveling to Moscow and up until the end of the trip it all felt unreal."

A man wearing glasses and a green puffy jacket takes a selfie in front of a maritime painting that shows a ship capsizing in a storm.

Arias in front of a painting by Ivan Aivazovsky at Moscow's Tretyakov Gallery.

Courtesy Bryan Arias

Inspiration for "The Ninth Wave"

"In my preparation for The Ninth Wave, I wanted to dive into all things Russian, so I surrounded myself with Russian art and music, and I began reading a lot about Russian history and culture. When I first saw the works of maritime painter Ivan Aivazovsky, I just felt inspired by his art. He lived a secluded life in a small town on the Black Sea. The imagery of the sea is so rich with possibilities, and my imagination just took off. I also found a connection between the art of Aivazovsky and the music of Mikhail Glinka and Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov. When I imagined their music performed live—it just felt right."

Selecting the Cast

"I had five days before the Bolshoi officially began working after the lockdown. Mr. Vaziev selected a group of 50 corps de ballet dancers who, in his view, would be a good fit for this project. From there, all four choreographers started watching the company's classes. There were six to eight classes per day. Usually I would select a small group of dancers to work separately in a studio, just to feel how they carry themselves and to better understand their body language, their personality and chemistry. With the principal dancers (opening night starred Ekaterina Krysanova, Vladislav Lantratov, Evgenia Obraztsova, Artemy Belyakov and Jacopo Tissi), I was trying to figure out what I could do to showcase them in a new light. I wanted the audience to see these dancers, whom they know and love, through a different lens."

A bare-chested male dancer, wearing blue pants and with blue makeup on his chest and throat, does a large sissone on a darkened stage.

Bolshoi Ballet leading soloist Jacopo Tissi in The Ninth Wave

Natalia Voronova, Courtesy Bolshoi Ballet

Staying Safe During Rehearsals

"Sometimes it felt as if COVID-19 didn't even exist there. In reality, everyone was responsible; everyone had tremendous respect and care for each other. If the dancers didn't feel well, they wouldn't come to work; they would immediately go to a doctor's office to get tested. It all seemed very efficient and it worked."

Ballet With a Hip-Hop Twist

"I had a great connection with the dancers. Even though we had to use an interpreter in the studio, the dancers would understand me almost immediately. I have a hip-hop and salsa background, and I can create challenging movements with that abstract, hip-hop quality. But here I tapped in to my classical ballet knowledge, more than I have ever done before. I was obsessed with classical ballet when I was growing up, so the whole process of creating The Ninth Wave felt very satisfying—it's a classical ballet where I used the elements of hip hop to accentuate certain shapes and movements."

Long-Distance Collaborating

"I had to work with my collaborators online since some of them weren't able to come to Moscow due to the travel restrictions. It added a layer of difficulty to my work. My lighting designer created lighting for The Ninth Wave with a digital app. The design was sent to the Bolshoi and they were able to re-create it; and the costume designer did the same. Luckily, my projection designer was able to come; she created and manipulated a set of images of Aivazovsky's paintings, which were projected on a backdrop."

Opening Night

"When the curtain went up it all felt surreal. Even though all three performances were sold out, the theater was only partially occupied because of the safety regulations. The Bolshoi dancers are used to full houses, but they told me after the performance that it seemed as if the theater was completely packed because of the energy the audience gave them. They felt the audience's love and support."

A large group of dancers wearing blue costumes stand backstage around a choreographer in a suit, clapping towards him in congratulations.

Arias backstage with the cast of The Ninth Wave after the premiere

Courtesy Bryan Arias

Closing Thoughts

"The experience at the Bolshoi has humbled me. It made me feel free and valuable and ready to go wherever the water takes me. It brought newness to my life and my career. Hearing words of appreciation from the dancers for my work and feeling their gratitude meant a lot to me. And just to be able to work and to be in the present, to realize that we want to be in the now…It's a bit unfortunate to think that we had to have a pandemic to realize the importance of feeling that way."

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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 International City School of Ballet in Marietta, Georgia. Karl Hoffman Photography, Courtesy International City Ballet

A Ballet Student’s Guide to Researching Pre-Professional Training Programs

Many dancers have goals of taking their training to the next level by attending full-time pre-professional programs next fall. But it's hard to get to know the organizations without physically experiencing them first. Even when the world isn't practicing social distancing, visiting a school or attending its summer program isn't always possible. So, what can students and their families do to research programs and know what might work best for them? Who do you reach out to, and what are the questions you and your parents should be asking?

Here, pre-professional-program leaders share some practical advice for taking the next step in your dance training.

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American Ballet Theatre corps member Rachel Richardson. NYC Dance Project, Courtesy Rachel Richardson

ABT’s Rachel Richardson on Performing With Her Hometown Company, Eugene Ballet

When I signed my first professional contract with Eugene Ballet, one of the last things I anticipated was the opportunity to dance beside a member of American Ballet Theatre. Flash forward to the start of our spring season this year, and suddenly I'm chatting in the hallway and rehearsing the Cinderella fairy variations next to luminous ABT corps member Rachel Richardson. When ABT announced it was canceling live performances for the 2020–21 season, Richardson traveled back home to Eugene, Oregon, to be with her family—and this spring joined the company as a guest artist.

Growing up, Richardson trained locally in Eugene before moving to The Rock School for Dance Education's year-round program in Philadelphia. After securing a spot in the ABT Studio Company in 2013, she was promoted to corps de ballet in 2015. This unconventional year marks her sixth season with the main company.

After having the privilege of dancing with her this spring, I sat down with Richardson to discuss her recent guesting experience, how the pandemic has helped her grow and her advice for young dancers.

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