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Spring Renewal


Martins on NYCB's "Architectural" Season


New York City Ballet’s spring season, which begins April 29, is chock-full of “new”: seven premieres, four commissioned scores, five sets by architect Santiago Calatrava. And yet, says Artistic Director Peter Martins, it’s all part of an old tradition. “I wish I could take credit for it,” Martins says, “but I was around when George Balanchine was inviting other artists to make work for the company, and I’m just following in his footsteps.”


Martins says that the collaboration with Calatrava—which will mark the architect’s first foray into theatrical design, and which inspired the season’s “Architecture of Dance” moniker—is also in line with Balanchine tradition. “In 1981, Balanchine asked the architect Philip Johnson to create a set for the Tchaikovsky festival,” Martins says. “I thought it would be fantastic to take that idea and bring it into our time.”


The season’s premières are by a high-profile group of choreographers: Melissa Barak, Mauro Bigonzetti, Wayne McGregor, Benjamin Millepied, Alexei Ratmansky, Christopher Wheeldon and Martins himself. “As a dancer, there’s nothing like being a canvas,” Martins says. “Some believe that people join this company to dance Balanchine, and that’s partially true, but everyone wants to be part of a creative process. McGregor’s piece, his first for an American company, will be especially exciting for our dancers.”


In the midst of all that’s new, NYCB will also be bidding farewell to four of its longtime principals: Yvonne Borree, Albert Evans, Philip Neal and Martins’ wife, Darci Kistler. “It’s a bittersweet time for the company,” Martins says. “These dancers will be sorely missed. But there is also a whole group of younger dancers here who have their work cut out for them, and I’m excited to see where they’ll go.” —Margaret Fuhrer


U.S. Students Graduate from Bolshoi Academy

It’s been a whirlwind year for California natives Emma Powers, 19, and Jeraldine Mendoza, 18. Just last January they were in San Francisco studying with Galina Alexandrova, an alumna of Bolshoi Ballet’s Moscow State Academy of Choreography. This April they will become the first American females to graduate with the Academy’s top class.


The girls’ surprising journey began in February 2009, when Alexandrova brought 12 of her students to Russia to perform at the Academy. The school was so impressed that it invited several of them to stay, and Powers and Mendoza accepted the offer.


“I thought attending the Bolshoi would put me on the ballet map,” Powers says. “The environment has a different level of intensity.”


Aside from the technical rigor, the biggest challenge was adjusting to a foreign way of life. “The food is richer, the weather is really cold and the language barrier is challenging,” Mendoza says.

But both girls feel that the Academy has enriched their stage presence and acting abilities. And they’re excited about their future. “European company directors will be at our exams in April,” Mendoza says. “I’d love to dance in Europe.” —Jen Peters

Balanchine’s Coppélia Comes to Boston


Boston Ballet continues its long association with George Balanchine this April when it performs his production of Delibes’ Coppélia, which Balanchine co-choreographed with the great ballerina Alexandra Danilova in 1974. Boston Ballet artistic director Mikko Nissinen considers the occasion historic: “We will be the first North American company besides New York City Ballet to perform this lavish production of one of Balanchine’s few evening-length narrative ballets. Casting hasn’t been set but I can tell you we will have five Swanildas and five Franzes.” 


Coppélia always tests a company’s range, from classical technique to comic mime. Act III, which Balanchine completely rechoreographed, also offers a unique opportunity for students: Twenty-four beaming little girls in pink tutus stream in for the “Waltz” section, and remain onstage performing choreography scaled for them throughout “Dawn,” “Prayer” and “Spinner.” They scamper off when a spear-carrying corps charges on representing “War and Discord” (a rarely done ensemble piece that Balanchine restored), and return for the grand finale after an extraordinarily demanding pas de deux for Swanilda and Franz.


Boston Ballet will meet these challenges in the proper style. Its corps is filled with School of American Ballet graduates. Nissinen’s assistant Russell Kaiser was a ballet master at NYCB, and Kaiser’s wife, Margaret Tracey, a former City Ballet principal, heads its school.


“The first two acts of Coppélia possess invaluable historic interest,” says Nissinen. “As students, Balanchine and Danilova absorbed the living St. Petersburg traditions set by Petipa, Ivanov and Cecchetti. No other Coppélia offers this continuity. My philosophy in programming is always, ‘Take the best and leave the rest.’ ”
—Harris Green


Neumeier’s Lady of the Camellias Comes to ABT


Milwaukee native John Neumeier has spent the past 37 years in Germany directing The Hamburg Ballet—so much time that he now speaks English with a German accent. But coming to New York City to set his Lady of the Camellias on American Ballet Theatre reminded him that he is, at heart, an American choreographer.


“There is a wordless communication that happens with these ABT dancers which helps me remember that my aesthetic is essentially American,” Neumeier says. “Physically, they understand me better than most European dancers. The mentality that comes from working in this country is compatible with my style.”


The ballet is based on Alexandre Dumas’ 1848 novel, but it is not a period piece. Neumeier has adapted Camellias in small ways for ABT, which will perform the ballet in May at the Metropolitan Opera House. “I believe that dance must be alive, which means it’s constantly changing,” Neumeier says. “The changes to Camellias are probably too small for most people to notice, but they bring the
ballet into the present tense.” —MF

Georgina Parkinson, 1938–2009


Georgina Parkinson, former Royal Ballet principal and longtime ballet mistress at American Ballet Theatre, died in December from cancer-related complications. ABT dedicated its January performances to Parkinson, who from 1978 on guided the company’s ballerinas through a variety of roles. She was particularly well-known for her sensitive, intelligent coaching of Kenneth MacMillan’s ballets. “Georgina nurtured the individuality and artistry of each person she worked with,” says ABT principal Gillian Murphy. “She encouraged me to trust my intuition so that every moment could be as expansive and expressive as possible. Her vibrant spirit and sense of humor will be sorely missed.” —MF


Ballet All Over: Big Names in Black Swan


Darren Aronofsky’s upcoming feature film Black Swan has some serious ballet muscle behind it. Not only is New York City Ballet principal Benjamin Millepied choreographing and performing in the movie’s dance sequences, but American Ballet Theatre soloists Sarah Lane (pictured) and Maria Riccetto are also “dance doubles” for stars Natalie Portman and Mila Kunis, respectively.
Stay tuned for more behind-the-scenes Black Swan news in the fall! —MF


Pointe Style Watch: Springtime Brights


Ward off the early spring chill with these playful warmers from Discount Dance Supply. The soft knits in bold, Dr. Seuss stripes do double duty: At 16” long, they work well on legs (try them scrunched up as ankle warmers!) and arms. They’ll keep you cozy—and trendy—through class and rehearsal. —MF

Pointe Shoe Profile

Pennsylvania Ballet Principal
Arantxa Ochoa

Brand: Freed of London
Size: 6X
Maker: Multicross
Years wearing this shoe: 15!


Padding: A Bunheads Ouch Pouch that she’s washed many times, so that most of the padding is worn away. It protects her toes while allowing her to feel the floor.


Break-in process: Not much! She softens the boxes with her hands or steps on them, and then bangs them on the floor to make sure they aren’t too noisy onstage.

Number of pairs she uses: Varies depending on the ballets she’s dancing, but at least one pair each performance.

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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."

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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Abra Geiger, from the 2019 YAGP Season Finals. VAM Productions, Courtesy YAGP

YAGP Finals Kick Off in Tampa This Week—and You Can Watch Them Live!

In a hopeful sign that things may be slowly getting back to normal, Youth America Grand Prix is hosting its 2021 Season Finals live and in person this week in Tampa, Florida. Approximately 800 young dancers will perform at the annual scholarship audition, held May 10–16 at the Straz Center for the Performing Arts. Over $400,000 in scholarships will be awarded, with school directors from all over the world adjudicating both in person and online. The entire event will be livestreamed on YAGP's website, YouTube channel and Facebook page.

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