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Go Ask Alice

 

Christopher Wheeldon’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland arrives at The Royal.

 

In Lewis Carroll’s classic books Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, the eternally curious Alice is no shrinking violet—and she won’t be in Christopher Wheeldon’s new Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, either. “Alice is a strong-minded girl in our production, a little ahead of her time,” says Wheeldon. “She’s gregarious and modern for her Victorian age.”

 

The whole of Wheeldon’s Wonderland, which The Royal Ballet will premiere this February, seems inspired by Alice’s feistiness. Though only the forth evening-length work Wheeldon has ever tackled, it’s a huge undertaking: A lavish and expensive full-company production (co-commissioned with the National Ballet of Canada, which will perform it in June) with an original score by Joby Talbot and designs by Bob Crowley.

 

Charged with bringing Alice to life on opening night is RB principal Lauren Cuthbertson—and it’s no easy task. “I don’t think I’ve ever done a full-length ballet where I’m literally on the entire time, but these are indeed Alice’s adventures, and Alice never, ever leaves the stage!” she says, laughing. “We’re even working out what will happen if, for example, I want to change my shoes before a big pas de deux—how am I going to manage it?” Logistical challenges aside, Cuthbertson, who’s a talented actress known for her dramatic Juliet, is looking forward to fully immersing herself in Wonderland. “There’s something lovely about never having to step back into the wings, into the real world,” she says. “Sometimes when I’m dancing Juliet, I’ll imagine the wings and the backstage area as the streets of Verona, so I don’t have to come out of character. As Alice I don’t have to do any of that pretending.”

 

Wheeldon says that translating the intricate, witty wordplay of Carroll’s books into movement has been “rather like trying to solve a never-ending puzzle,” and Cuthbertson has enjoyed watching him put the pieces together. “I’ve only worked with Christopher on abstract leotard-and-tights ballets like Tryst, but Alice has brought out a totally different side of him,” she says. “He’s just a big kid in the studio. His demonstrations of all the characters are hilarious, and so spot-on—he does all of them better than any of us can. It’s like he’s creating a living pop-up book in front of you.”

 


Ethan Stiefel Takes the Reins in New Zealand
Principal dancer, movie star, dance school dean: Ethan Stiefel has worn many hats over the course of his career. This September, he’ll add yet another to his collection when he becomes artistic director of the Royal New Zealand Ballet.

 

While Stiefel, currently a principal at American Ballet Theatre and dean of the School of Dance at University of North Carolina School of the Arts, has some ties to New Zealand—his grandmother was born and raised there—he knew RNZB only by reputation before he was offered the directorship last fall. “Luckily I was able to go out and spend four or five days with them, observing and teaching,” Stiefel says. “I was immediately impressed by their responsiveness and energy.”

 

Stiefel has big plans for the company, which include increasing its visibility in the United States and adding repertoire by American choreographers. “Right now, RNZB is much more connected to Europe than the U.S.,” he says. “That’s great, but I’d also like to bring in some ballets by people I’ve worked with. And if audiences in the U.S. are interested in the ‘new’ RNZB, so to speak, it’d be good to tour there.” His partner, fellow ABT principal Gillian Murphy, will spend parts of the year performing with RNZB. Stiefel says he may perform with the company as well, if the opportunity arises.

 

Stiefel adds that he and Murphy will continue to dance with ABT, and that artistic director Kevin McKenzie has been “gracious and enthusiastic” about the
new project. But Stiefel announced last September—shortly before taking the RNZB job—that he would step down as dean at UNCSA at the end of this academic year. “Unfortunately, I can’t do three jobs at once,” he says.

 

 

Cynthia Gregory Comes to NBT
Former American Ballet Theatre principal Cynthia Gregory has forged a new relationship with Nevada Ballet Theatre: This fall she signed on as the company’s artistic advisor. NBT has also established the Cynthia Gregory Center for Coaching, which will give dancers across the country the opportunity to work with the legendary ballerina.

 

Gregory, who moved to Las Vegas in 2009, is particularly excited about the coaching center, which will have designated studio space at NBT. “Coaching is my love,” says Gregory, who was known for her incisive interpretations of Odette/Odile and Aurora. “I have a lot of knowledge to pass on, and I’ve always wanted a place where people could come to me and work.” In time, dancers from companies all over will be able to make pilgrimages to Nevada to work with Gregory.

 

In her artistic advisor capacity, Gregory recently worked with both NBT dancers and Nevada Ballet Theatre Academy students on The Nutcracker, and she plans to assist with the Academy’s production of La Fille Mal Gardée in May. “Professionals are always wonderful, but I love getting my hands on the younger students,” she says. “They’re open to anything—little sponges!”

 

 

Ballet’s Next Generation Comes to DC
Kennedy Center audiences will get a glimpse of ballet’s future this March with Protégés III. The latest installation of the program, which began in 2006, features students of the Bolshoi Ballet Academy, The Royal Danish Ballet School, New National Theatre’s Tokyo Young Artists Training Program and the Julio Bocca Foundation Ballet Argentino School of the Arts.

 

Niels Balle, director of the Danish academy, says his 13- to 17-year-old students will perform repertoire that reflects the school’s rich Bournonville tradition: excerpts from Flower Festival in Genzano, The Kermesse in Bruges and Le Conservatoire (Konservatoriet). Balle values the opportunity Protégés offers his students to learn “how to deal with an audience in another part of the world,” he says. “It’s very important at this age that they see kids from other schools, and the level they’re on, to gauge if they’re on the right track.”


ABT Visits Moscow

It’s been half a century since American Ballet Theatre last performed in Moscow. This March, ABT returns to the Russian capital city—home of the Bolshoi, one of the world’s most venerable ballet companies. The program features Balanchine’s Theme and Variations, Robbins’ Fancy Free, Alexei Ratmansky’s Seven Sonatas and a new work by Benjamin Millepied. “It was an issue of presenting a balance of our heritage, what is uniquely American and what we are doing creatively today,” says artistic director Kevin McKenzie of the programming. McKenzie is also keen for the company’s dancers to experience Moscow. “It’s always eye-opening to be aware of our status as cultural ambassadors,” he says. “In Moscow, the versatility of styles we present will be the most notable.”

 

 

Ballet on Your iPhone

Since it seems like there’s an “app” for just about everything these days, it was only a matter of time before ballet companies got in on the trend. Both the Paris Opéra Ballet and Pacific Northwest Ballet recently created handy, free iPhone applications, which allow users to view image galleries, check out casting, make ticket purchases and even get directions to the theater—right from their phones (or their iPads or iPod Touches). Look for the “Opéra National de Paris” and “PNB Mobile” apps at the iTunes App Store.

 

 

Hot Ticket Giveaways
The Joffrey Ballet will perform Ronald Hynd’s glitzy, comedic The Merry Widow for the first time this February. We’re giving away two pairs of tickets to the Friday, February 25, performance at 7:30 pm.

 

The Washington Ballet’s “Rock & Roll” program, which runs February 16–20, includes Christopher Bruce’s Rooster, Trey McIntyre’s autobiographical High Lonesome and a world premiere by artistic director Septime Webre. We’re giving away a pair of tickets to the closing performance at 1 pm on Sunday, February 20.

 

 

Q&A

Christopher Stowell on OBT’s “Stravinsky Project”

Oregon Ballet Theatre’s “Stravinsky Project,” featuring artistic director Christopher Stowell’s Rite of Spring, Yuri Possokhov’s Firebird and a collaborative premiere, opens February 26. Pointe spoke with Stowell about how he assembled the program.

 

Pointe: A lot of iconic ballets—Balanchine’s in particular—come to mind with Igor Stravinsky. But you chose not to include them on your program. Why?
Christopher Stowell: Some of the Stravinsky scores that were written for the Ballets Russes are fantastic pieces of music, but the original versions don’t really hang together for 21st-century audiences. One of my missions since joining Oregon Ballet Theatre has been to present current interpretations of these great scores, which is why I chose Rite and Firebird.

 

PT: And what about the premiere?
CS: There are two local contemporary dance companies that I admire, BodyVox and Rumpus Room Dance. I asked their choreographers—Jamey Hampton, Ashley Roland and Rachel Tess—to work with Anne Mueller, one of OBT’s principals, on a joint project. I wanted them to make something influenced by, if not directly related to, Stravinsky’s music, his piano pieces in particular. Stravinsky wrote a lot of shorter pieces for piano that are eminently danceable, and I figured using a few of them would automatically link each choreographer’s section to the next.

 

PT: Why did you think these choreographers would work well together?
CS: Frankly, I didn’t know if they would. But I did think including a collaborative effort on the program was important. I wanted to steer clear of the old programming formula: Three ballets, each by a different choreographer...one’s old, one’s new, one’s Balanchine…you get the picture.

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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."

Tanya Howard in rehearsal Trase Pa. Photo by Karolina Kuras, Courtesy of NBoC.

8 Virtual Dance Performances to Watch in May

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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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