Sarah Lane rehearses Alberto Alonso's Carmen Suite with Sonia Calero-Alonso.

Matt Stamey, Courtesy Santa Fe College.

Sarah Lane Talks About Her Starring Role in Revival of Alberto Alonso's "Carmen Suite"

Gainesville, Florida, may not seem like the typical place you'd see a major revival of a historic ballet. But November 8–9, Santa Fe College will present Cuban choreographer Alberto Alonso's 1967 Carmen Suite, rarely performed in the U.S. Staged by his widow, Sonia Calero-Alonso, the production will star American Ballet Theatre principals Sarah Lane and Cory Stearns as Carmen and Don José, and ABT corps member Luis Ribagorda (Lane's husband) as Escamillo, as well as dancers from New York Dance Project. It will also feature the Gainesville Orchestra, making this the first time the full ballet has been performed to live music in the U.S. since 1974.

Alonso, who died in 2007, had strong ties to Gainesville, and to Santa Fe College in particular. Although he helped found the Cuban National Ballet with his brother Fernando and his sister-in-law, the renowned Alicia Alonso, he and his wife expatriated to Florida in 1993. The pair spent the next 18 years teaching and choreographing at Santa Fe College's dance program. Alora Haynes, chair of fine arts for Santa Fe College, has wanted to produce the full Carmen Suite for over 25 years.


Bolshoi Ballet star Maya Plisetskaya commissioned Alonso to create the ballet for her, making him the first non-Russian since Petipa to choreograph on the company. Plisetskaya's husband, composer Rodion Shchedrin, arranged the music from George Bizet's opera for strings and percussion. However, with it's themes of personal freedom and sexuality, Carmen Suite was deemed politically and socially scandalous after its premiere and banned for a time in the Soviet Union.

Even so, Carmen Suite would became Alonso's best-known work, and a vehicle for many of the world's greatest ballerinas, including Svetlana Zakharova, Alessandra Ferri and, of course, Alicia Alonso. Now, Lane is getting her chance. Below, she shares what it's been like preparing for the iconic role and being part of the ballet's exciting revival.

How did you get involved in this production?

In 2011, I came to Santa Fe College to perform the ballet's pas de deux with José Manuel Carreño. And I just kind of fell in love with it, and with working with Sonia, and with the idea of someday doing the full-length Carmen Suite. That's also when I met Alora, and she mentioned that it was her and Sonia's dream to do the whole ballet. So I kept in touch. About a year ago I reached out to her and said, "I hope you guys are still interested in doing the full production, because it would be something I would love to continue to be a part of." And she got back to me to say that they had just been working on the logistics of putting it together, so it was perfect timing.

Sonia Calero-Alonso, wearing a black leotard and yoga pants, holds ballerina Sarah Lane's right hand as she balances on pointe.

Lane with Sonia Calero-Alonso during rehearsals for Carmen Suite in New York City.

Matt Stamey, Courtesy Santa Fe College

What has the rehearsal process been like?

We started rehearsals in New York the first week of September, mainly working with Sonia, and then again after ABT's fall season ended. Her rehearsals were full of details, which makes it more interesting and more of an artistic and fulfilling process. She is incredibly passionate about this production—there were moments when she would describe the beginning of the pas de deux and kinda get teary. And of course Alberto isn't with us anymore, so there's also that aspect, to honor his memory.

I think it's a passion project for all of us, in a way. My husband Luis, who's from Spain, is playing the toreador Escamillo, so he has a lot of that natural flair and is really excited to do a Spanish ballet. And then Cory Stearns, who plays Don José, is such a strong partner and gets really into character. He takes the artistic side incredibly seriously, which is really helpful for me. Everyone is invested, and it makes the whole production so much more meaningful.

Alberto Alonso stands at the front of the studio, wearing a green button-down shirt and brown pants.

Alberto Alonso in rehearsals with Santa Fe Collge dance students.

Courtesy Alora Haynes.

Could you talk a little bit about the character of Carmen?

For me, Carmen embodies all of the strength and femininity of a woman. She knows that she's beautiful and that everyone's eyes are on her, but at the same time, she has strength of character. She's able to stand up for herself and go after the things that she wants. But she realizes her weakness in the end. The difference between who I feel I am as a woman, and who Carmen is, is that she's more of a go-getter. She flaunts herself more, and she pays for that in the end. Rather than being subtle and content with what she has, she gets a little greedy.

Now that you've been a principal for a few years, do you think you can bring more to the role today than in 2011?

I do. I've had more experience portraying roles that command the stage, in really heavy-hitter ballets. And taking on that responsibility in multiple premieres. That will be very helpful in carrying this role, as well, since Carmen is onstage so much of the time.

Cory Stearns and Sarah Lane embrace onstage. Sarah wears a short, black, lacy dress and a rose in her hair.

Lane and Cory Stearns during dress rehearsal at The Fine Arts Theatre Hall at Santa Fe College.

Gene Schiavone, Courtesy Santa Fe College.

I keep thinking about your debut as Manon last summer...

Yeah, they're very similar characters, in a way! Both Carmen and Manon are flawed in that they think all their value lies in the attention they receive, and they lose themselves to greed. Whether it's for money and status or for attention, they lose everything because of it. I think with social media, we can understand that need for attention. When I portray characters like this, it helps me realize that our value as women has nothing to do with how anybody else sees us. It's what we do with our life, how we treat other people.

Sarah Lane, wearing a short red, lacy costume, kicks her right leg high in the air. Luis Ribagorda, wearing white tights and a white bolero jacket, holds on to her waist.

Land and her husband, Luis Ribagorda, as Carmen and Escamillo.

Gene Schiavone, Courtesy Santa Fe College.

So many major ballerinas have danced this role. Do you watch their videos to prepare?

Yes, I've seen clips of Maya Plisetskaya and Alicia Alonso and Svetlana Zakharova. But I've always been the kind of dancer who doesn't like to copy other interpretations. I have to find something about the character that relates personally with me, otherwise I don't feel like I can be authentic to a role. It doesn't justify my dancing to the audience.


Carmen Suite runs November 8–9 at The Fine Arts Hall Theatre at Santa Fe College in Gainesville, FL.

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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 Canada's National Ballet School. Bruce Zinger, Courtesy Ballet Unleashed.

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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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Darcey Bussell Is Putting on a Benefit Gala Starring 8 UK Dance Companies—and You Can Stream It From Home

Planning a major gala during a global pandemic is no easy feat—but don't say that to Dame Darcey Bussell. In an amazingly short time, the former Royal Ballet principal and "Strictly Come Dancing" judge has curated a historic evening to support the dance industry in her home country. The British Ballet Charity Gala will bring eight major UK dance companies together for a live performance at London's Royal Albert Hall on June 3, before it is streams internationally on June 18.

The event, hosted by Bussell and actor Ore Oduba, a "Strictly Come Dancing" winner, will feature performances by Ballet Black, Birmingham Royal Ballet, English National Ballet, New Adventures, Northern Ballet, Rambert, Scottish Ballet and The Royal Ballet—marking the first time all of them have performed together on the same program.

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