Cassandra Trenary photographed by Nathan Sayers for Pointe.

Cassandra Trenary: Why the ABT Soloist Has Us Spellbound

This is Pointe's June/July 2016 Cover Story. You can subscribe to the magazine here, or click here to purchase this issue.

It seems that, in ballet careers, everything happens at once. For a few years, you notice a dancer and make a mental note: “She's got something." And then, before you know it, she's everywhere. And so it was last year for American Ballet Theatre's Cassandra Trenary, 22. In the blink of an eye she graduated from promising young dancer—I remember spotting her as she led the Shades in La Bayadère with unrelenting precision—to nascent star. She performed her first classical solo, in Raymonda Divertissements, in 2014. Then, in one year, she debuted the roles of Princess Florine and Diamond Fairy in Alexei Ratmansky's new The Sleeping Beauty, the youngest sister in Antony Tudor's Pillar of Fire, the sleep-dancing young woman in Le Spectre de la Rose and a lead role in Marcelo Gomes' new AfterEffect. Last August, she was promoted to soloist.

Physically, it was a challenging year. “I felt like crap!" the relaxed, forthright Trenary answered recently at a café near ABT's studios when asked what it felt like to learn so many roles in quick succession. “But I love to dance, and I just ran with it." Trenary—a petite brunette with big, lively eyes and strong features that read particularly well onstage—emanates energy and directness. No matter what role she dances, she's dynamic and strong, a force to be reckoned with.


Trenary as the Canary Fairy in "The Sleeping Beauty." Photo by Gene Schiavone, Courtesy ABT.



“She's a real person and it's fun to be in the studio with her," says James Whiteside, a principal in the company who is also a close friend. “We work our butts off, but it never has that neurotic edge," he adds, with a laugh. That ability to maintain a level head has served her well in recent months as she prepared for her biggest assignment to date: the role of Princess Aurora in The Sleeping Beauty. For the first time, she has to carry the whole show, in a purely classical idiom.

It has taken an adjustment. “I need to be bigger, and to make every step extremely important," she said after a rehearsal in February, before her April 2 debut in Detroit. (Her New York City debut will take place June 29.) Particularly in this production, which emphasizes delicate musicality over showy virtuosity, she has had to find a new lyricism, a way to make the steps sing, like notes in an aria.

In rehearsal, Trenary and Whiteside worked through “The Vision" scene, in which Prince Désiré imagines Aurora calling him to her bedside to free her from Carabosse's spell. Even after a long day of rehearsals, Trenary looked fresh and alert, unfazed by all the information coming her way. The moment the pianist placed his fingers on the keys, her body and face changed—she became someone else. Breathing into her port de bras, she gazed into her partner's eyes with a look full of curiosity and longing. How could a prince resist?

The ballet master, Keith Roberts, gave her tips on how to make her performance register even more. The unifying principle was: let go. “You have to forget how you ran with other women, and run by yourself. You can be you now," he said at one point. With each take, she seemed to expand and soften. Instead of overthinking technical details, she trusted the music and the feeling of the steps to carry her, relying less on the mirror and more on internal sensations. She also asked a lot of questions, rather than wait for suggestions.


Trenary in "Company B." Photo by Rosalie O'Connor, Courtesy ABT.


“She is an unusually self-possessed and focused artist who knows how to learn," says artistic director Kevin McKenzie, who offered her a spot as an apprentice in 2011, when she was 17 and still a student at ABT's Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School. (She skipped over the ABT Studio Company, the usual stepping stone for promising candidates.) She had come to the school from Georgia, where she grew up with a younger brother. Her father owned a used-car dealership; her mother worked in real estate and retail. Trenary got into dance early, at 3, and started taking class at the Lawrenceville School of Ballet. But her training was eclectic, and she wasn't a bunhead; she did ballet, jazz, tap, modern dance and hip hop, but also tried horseback riding and tae kwon do. In fact, before being spotted at ABT's summer intensive and invited to study at JKO (at 15), she had only been taking ballet three times a week.

At the school, then artistic director Franco De Vita and faculty member Raymond Lukens immediately sensed her potential. “From the moment we saw her, there was something special about her. She was luminous," says Lukens, who cast her in one of his own works. Because of her varied training, she was placed with dancers two years younger than her. It took her a year to catch up to the other students in her age group. Her confidence flagged—“I started comparing myself to other people, which is super-unhealthy," she says—but she had the benefit of having her family around her. Her parents had quit their jobs, sold everything and moved up to New York. Even the family dog made the trip. “They didn't want me to come alone," she says, “and they looked at it as an adventure." (After she joined the company, they moved back south, to Florida.)


Trenary in "La Bayadère." Photo by Gene Schiavone, Courtesy ABT.


Perhaps that's why family and friendships are so important to her. In 2014, after a difficult year in which she slowly recovered from one injury (a fractured metatarsal) only to be beset by another (a bulge in her cervical spine), she married fellow ABT dancer Gray Davis. Through the eight months of recovery, he encouraged her and helped buoy her spirits. “I had a lot of couch time," she says, and a lot of time to think. She took some acting classes, even joined the cast of a play and considered going back to school. Meanwhile, her desire to dance grew even stronger.

Both Trenary and her husband are regular churchgoers; the habit, she says, is “a reminder to love each other a little more." That love and the sense of groundedness it inspires may help to explain why she seems so comfortable in her own skin. She thrives on work with contemporary choreographers (like Gregory Dolbashian, Ratmansky and her fellow ABT colleague Gemma Bond). She has appeared with Daniil Simkin's pickup group INTENSIO. She even made a dance video, “Wallflower," with Whiteside, who moonlights as a pop/dance artist under the alter ego JbDubs. Watching that video, you would never guess that Trenary's day job is as a classical dancer. She looks unapologetic, strong and, in a word, sexy.

This year, in addition to The Sleeping Beauty, she'll be tackling the role of the doll-like bird in Ratmansky's The Golden Cockerel. In the future, who knows? It seems there's very little she can't do if she sets her mind to it. As she puts it: “I feel as though, more and more, every detail counts."

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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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