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Scarlett Comes Stateside
Liam Scarlett makes his U.S. choreographic debut at Miami City Ballet.

Up-and-coming choreographer Liam Scarlett is quickly becoming a household name across the pond. The deeply musical ballets he has made for The Royal, where he’s also a member of the corps de ballet, have earned raves from the London press. Thanks to Edward Villella, Scarlett is about to get a toehold over here, too: His first ballet for an American company premieres this January at Villella’s Miami City Ballet.

“Edward happened to be over in London when Asphodel Meadows, my first mainstage piece for The Royal, premiered,” Scarlett says. “I guess he thought, ‘Oh, who’s this new guy?’ And then we bumped into each other in the elevator after the show and had a funny half-conversation about my work that ended as the doors were closing. Eventually, that led to this piece for MCB.”

Scarlett fell in love with the MCB dancers’ “athleticism and visceral drive,” as he puts it. “I chose a score by Lowell Lieberman that’s very forceful and has a bite to it, and the dancers tackled it with this hunger that was thrilling—and not something you see very often in London, where we’re all very polite,” he says, with a chuckle. He’s also found a muse in principal Jeanette Delgado. “It’s strange to come in as a guest choreographer and right away find someone who suits your work perfectly, who completely gets you,” he says. “Usually it takes years to develop that kind of partnership. Jeanette brings my work to a new place.”  —Margaret Fuhrer

The Joffrey’s Roller-Coaster Summer

The summer of 2011 was a difficult one for The Joffrey Ballet—with a hopeful outcome. On June 30, the company’s management and the American Guild of Musical Artists were still negotiating new terms for the dancers’ contracts, set to expire at midnight that night. The next day, with issues of salary and rehearsal hours still unresolved, The Joffrey’s management notified the dancers that summer performances and possibly the beginning of the 2011–2012 season would be cancelled.

A few days later, management, fearing a strike, announced a lockout. For a brief period, company dancers’ names were even removed from The Joffrey website.

“The lockout was disturbing in the sense that it was unnecessary,” says James Odom, president of AGMA. “We were never near discussing a strike.” With the company dancers on leave, it also took “a lot of fancy footwork through computer links, e-mail and teleconferencing to get to a position to make a proposal to management,” according to Barbara Hillman, the dancers’ union lawyer.

But after a tense renegotiation period, an agreement was reached shortly before summer rehearsals were scheduled to begin. And soon after the labor dispute was resolved, there was another sign of a fresh start. Eight new company dancers were selected by artistic director Ashley Wheater to replace “some former dancers retiring and some let go,” Wheater says. (The company roster remains at 42.) Notable names include Rory Hohenstein, who’s danced previously with San Francisco Ballet and Morphoses; Jeraldine Mendoza, a California-born alumna of the Bolshoi Ballet Academy; and Alberto Velazquez, a former member of ABT II.

“We’re an arts organization going through very difficult economic times,” says Wheater. “I have enormous respect for the dancers in this company. The labor dispute is behind us and we now move forward.” —Giannella Garrett

Boston Ballet’s Evolution

Boston Ballet announced a slew of roster changes for its 2011–2012 season. Some of the most notable promotions are now-soloists Whitney Jensen and Jeffrey Cirio, and the 10 new company members include second soloist Ashley Ellis, formerly a member of Corella Ballet and American Ballet Theatre.
With the retirement of longtime prima Larissa Ponomarenko at the end of last season and fresh faces rising through the ranks, it may seem like a season of transition at BB. But artistic director Mikko Nissinen doesn’t feel that way. “We’ve been through times when there were many more changes,” he says. And he didn’t want to cherry-pick big names from other ballet companies to shore up his young troupe. “I have very little interest in stars who just want to come in and do their own thing,” he says. “We have more of a team mentality.” Nissinen also notes a continuity in Ponomarenko’s new position as ballet master. “It’s been wonderful to watch her come through the company and progress,” he says. “A company has a natural evolution.”
With 47 currently in the main company and 9 in the second company, BB’s roster is only slightly larger than it was in 2008, when budget constraints forced dancer cuts. Yet growth is in the works: By the 2013–2014 season, which will mark the company’s 50th anniversary, Nissinen expects to have 56 company dancers and 11 in BBII. —Nancy Wozny

A New Nut In Cincinnati

It’s not Nutcracker as usual this year for Cincinnati Ballet: The company will mount a brand-new production of the holiday standard, with choreography by artistic director Victoria Morgan, in December. And Morgan is sprinkling the classic confection with little surprises.

“Often ballet, even in The Nutcracker, gets pigeonholed as something very serious,” she says. “I wanted this version to have a sense of humor—to feel colorful and, in the most positive way, cartoonish.” Morgan’s lighthearted Nutcracker will include, for example, a shout-out to her French poodle, who’s become a sort of company mascot: “The Mirlitons in Act II? We’re making them Mirlipoos!”

But Morgan emphasizes that there won’t be “anything goofy technically” about her new Nut. “I’ve known many of the CB dancers for years now, and I’m really excited about challenging them and highlighting their personalities and strengths,” she says. “After you work with the same group for so long, there’s a certain comfort level that develops, which lets me push them—and them push me—to new creative heights.” —MF

An Onegin Wish, Fulfilled
Dancing Tatiana in John Cranko’s Onegin was one of Yuan Yuan Tan’s childhood dreams. “When I was a little girl at school in Shanghai, we only had a few ballet videos,” says the San Francisco Ballet principal. “One of them had clips of Marcia Haydée as Tatiana, and I was totally overwhelmed by her. Watching that video was the moment I realized, Wow, ballet is not only about getting your leg up high, it’s about telling a story, and that’s what I want to do.” Now Tan’s dream is about to come true: She’ll dance Tatiana when SFB performs Onegin for the first time this January. —MF

NYCB’s Nutcracker Broadcasts

In 1958, ballet fans were treated to a  television broadcast of New York City Ballet in George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker (with Mr. B as Drosselmeyer). This December, NYCB’s Nut will air live again: in movie  theaters on the 13, and on PBS on the 14. —MF

The Next Step For Two Stars

What’s next for Michele Wiles and Charles Askegard, who recently ended their respective careers with American Ballet Theatre and New York City Ballet? Ballet Next, a small company the friends and dance partners founded this fall. “Charles and I started dancing together about a year ago at galas, and we were taking lots of David Howard’s classes together,” Wiles says. “One day in David’s class, I asked him: Would you like to start a company together? I wasn’t quite joking, but almost. He said yes! And things started to progress very quickly from there.”

Wiles and Askegard are co-directors of and principal dancers with Ballet Next, which had its first mainstage performance, a one-off at NYC’s Joyce Theater, in November. “Thanks to our careers at major companies, I think we have resources and connections that are helping us create something very special,” Wiles says. Those resources include access to some of the world’s top dancers—including Drew Jacoby, who was scheduled at press time to dance a duet with Wiles, choreographed by Mauro Bigonzetti, at the Joyce performance. That show featured live music, which Wiles says will be a key component in all Ballet Next engagements. Wiles also hopes that the troupe, which she and Askegard plan to keep relatively compact, will be able to tour in the future.

“I left ABT because it was time to start a new chapter in my life,” says Wiles, whose abrupt departure from the company last summer surprised many balletgoers. “I wanted to expand myself and explore new ways of expressing emotions and ideas. I feel blessed to be working on Ballet Next—it feels like I’m on the right path.” —MF

Ballet All Over

Hallberg on The Colbert Report   
Yes, you read that right: American Ballet Theatre principal David Hallberg, who this fall became the first American to join the Bolshoi Ballet, will appear on Stephen Colbert’s satirical late-night show on December 7. Tapper Savion Glover and the cast of Fela! have previously performed on the Report, but Hallberg is the first ballet dancer to make an appearance. Here’s hoping he’ll have a chance to banter with Colbert—or that he’ll get Colbert, who earlier this year performed in the New York Philharmonic production of Stephen Sondheim’s Company, to try out a few dance steps. —MF

NYCB's Latest Wheeldon Wonder
New York City Ballet will unveil a new work by the omnipresent Christopher Wheeldon this January. The piece is set to debut on all-Wheeldon bill that also includes the NYCB premiere of DGV: Danse à Grande Vitesse. —MF

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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."

Louisville Ballet in Andrea Schermoly's Rite of Spring. Sam English, Courtesy Louisville Ballet.

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Schermoly is also no stranger to film, having created a digital short called In Passing for the Ashley Bouder Project in 2015. But her most recent film project for Louisville Ballet, a new version of the iconic Rite of Spring, breaks ground—or, rather, ice—with its fresh, arctic take on the Stravinsky masterwork.

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