Carolina Ballet in Zalman Raffael's In the Gray. Photo by Ames Photography, Courtesy Carolina Ballet.

With 122 World Premieres in Only 20 Years, Carolina Ballet Stands Out

In 1996, a classified ad in Dance Magazine read: "Carolina Ballet…seeks an Artistic Director to lead the next phase of its development as a professional company." Robert Weiss, who had been a New York City Ballet principal dancer and spent seven years as Pennsylvania Ballet's artistic director, was intrigued. "It was the chance to start something from scratch, build it from the ground up, like George Balanchine and Lincoln Kirstein did," he recalls. "Could I make something successful for the community and for myself in an artistic way I really believed in?"

More than 20 years later, it's abundantly clear he could. Weiss' Carolina Ballet has had 122 world premieres (second in the country only to NYCB). That includes over 60 of his own creations, 16 by principal guest choreographer Lynne Taylor-Corbett and 20 by co-artistic director Zalman Raffael. The 38-member company presents over 80 performances a year—a staggering number for a midsized company—in North Carolina's Triangle region of Raleigh, Durham and Chapel Hill.


Robert Weiss. Photo by Juli Leonard, Courtesy Carolina Ballet.

While the repertoire also includes works by Christopher Wheeldon, Damian Woetzel and Antony Tudor, among others, it's anchored by its three in-house voices—and a generous sprinkling of Balanchine ballets. Although many parallels can be drawn between Carolina Ballet and his alma mater, Weiss is very clear: His is not a "Balanchine company." "I took the best of what I learned from NYCB and its history," he says. By bringing Taylor-Corbett on board as the company was just beginning, Weiss was following NYCB's model of shaping an aesthetic around the styles of two main choreographers. "I'm not Balanchine and she's not Robbins, but I do work in a more neoclassical style and she's more theatrical, so we complement and oppose each other. I see that mix as part of why we have been so successful," he says.

The proliferation of new works (about five to six world premieres per season) makes Carolina Ballet unique. "Our dancers are constantly being choreographed on," Weiss says. "As a director, it's exciting to choreograph on dancers that I know so well—each one has their own technical, poetic, emotional and spiritual proficiency. Experiencing the creative process over and over again pushes them to develop artistically more and more."

Principal dancer Jan Burkhard, who's been with the company for 13 years, says that being part of Weiss' creative vision is what makes life at Carolina Ballet exciting. "It really becomes a partnership," she says. "It's not just him telling you what to do. He allows you to develop the role without pressure. He's still honest about what looks good or not, but you don't feel stifled." The company's rep, balanced out by classics like The Firebird and Swan Lake, both of which Weiss reimagined for the smaller size of his company with original twists, are another huge draw. "There's such wide variety in what we dance, you never get bored," says Burkhard. "Every year, I anticipate: 'What's next season going to be?' because even when we bring back ballets, you grow into what you've already learned. You have the ability to be a bold and well-versed artist."

Carolina Ballet dancers in Robert Weiss' "Macbeth." Photo by Ames Photography, Courtesy Carolina Ballet.

Although the company hasn't had a year-round school to pull from (its annual summer course will soon be augmented by the School of Carolina Ballet, officially opening in September 2018), company class, taught by Weiss or other artistic staff, emphasizes the qualities Weiss wants in his dancers. "He focuses on presentation and being grounded," says Burkhard. "Using your plié and finding rotation from the floor, while making your fingers as expressive as the rest of your body. He wants dancers to exude energy."

Weiss is taking steps to ensure that the company will stay true to its roots in the future: He's already hand-picked his successor. Raffael will take over Weiss' dual roles as artistic director and CEO starting with the 2019–20 season. Although Weiss will hand off the day-to-day operations, he will remain involved with the company, choreographing and teaching. His choice of Raffael reflects both men's goal of upholding and expanding upon what's been built. "Zalman is committed to preserving the large repertoire of work we have," he says. "I want it to continue to be a choreographer's company, so that's why I picked a successor who will be that, while taking the company to the next level as the city and community grow."

Carolina Ballet At a Glance

Number of dancers: 38, plus 1 trainee

Length of contract: 34 weeks

Starting salary: Contact company for info

Performances per year: 81

Website: carolinaballet.com

Audition Advice

While there are no open auditions, to be considered for an audition in company class send resumé, headshot, full-body photo and current video link to auditions@carolinaballet.com. "Obviously, we want the entire package: Someone who's artistically and emotionally sensitive and has the technical proficiency to translate that into physicality," says Weiss. "Even in young dancers, you can tell to some extent whether they have emotional depth and the disposition to develop it. I look to see who is really bringing themselves to the table."

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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."

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