Catherine Conley. Photo by Alex Garcia.

Catherine Conley on Her Year Training at the Cuban National Ballet School—and the Exciting Reason Why She's Staying

When I was 4 or 5, I told my mom, "I want to go to a real dance school with barres and a mirror." My preschool recommended Chicago's Ruth Page Center for the Arts. That's where I trained until I left for Cuba a year ago. I went to regular school during the day, and then had ballet class for four or more hours per day during the evenings and weekends. Nobody in my family has a dance background, but they've been supportive through all of it.

My school in Chicago teaches a technique that draws on Vaganova, Cecchetti and Bournonville. I went to very different summer intensives, as well: American Ballet Theatre, the Royal Ballet School in London and Boston Ballet. Then, two summers ago, Ruth Page School of Dance director Victor Alexander, who is Cuban, arranged an exchange with the Cuban National Ballet School. A group of eight Cubans came to Ruth Page's summer intensive. I had to learn an entire pas de deux as well as a contemporary ballet piece in 10 days, and then perform them. I'd never had to do anything that quickly; it was hard work but exciting. I then realized that if I could dance professionally, I wanted to.


Conley in class at the Cuban National Ballet School. Photo by Alex Garcia.


The second part of the exchange brought Ruth Page students to Havana for two weeks. I had no idea what to expect. In some ways, Cuba is a time capsule, with those old cars and beautiful old buildings. In the center next to the capitol building is the grand Great Theater of Havana Alicia Alonso, where the National Ballet of Cuba performs. Every Cuban knows and admires Alicia Alonso and they love and appreciate ballet. While watching TV, I came upon a ballet channel—it was like ESPN for ballet! It says a lot about the Cuban culture and mindset.

I didn't find out until after we were back in Chicago that Ramona de Saa, the Cuban National Ballet School's director, had invited me to train there for the year. I had been undecided about going to college or pursuing a professional ballet career. It didn't take long being in Cuba, dancing all day and seeing the amazing Cuban dancers at work, to conclude that I wanted to pursue a career first. I still applied to colleges, including the University of Michigan; I was admitted there but deferred. It made me feel more comfortable about the decision to go to Cuba to have that option.

In September 2016, I left for Cuba. I was 18 and I needed to adjust to a lot of everyday things that worked differently. First, I had to learn Cuban Spanish, which is very rapid! There's Wi-Fi, but it's not available everywhere; calling my parents was very expensive, so that was limiting. I also had to learn a new currency system. Cuban food is pretty simple and unprocessed. You get your meat from the market and you eat it that day—usually with rice, beans and vegetables. Cubans make the best pork, and their fruit is heavenly.

I lived in the student dorm for a while, but now I rent a room in an apartment from a very nice Cuban woman. I have a boyfriend whom I met during the first exchange in Havana. His family throws big dinners with a lot of people on the weekends, and I am always invited and made to feel like family, which is the way Cubans are.


Conley (far left) with her Cuban National Ballet School classmates. Photo by Alex Garcia.

The Cuban ballet technique is known for its turns and elevated jumps, but there's also a lot of stress on footwork and artistry. And Cuban men are really excellent partners. Partnering class is quite advanced because students have been doing it for so long. I worked regularly with one partner, Dario Hernandez, on the Paquita pas de deux and the Snow Queen pas de deux in Nutcracker. It was hard at the beginning because I had so little partnering experience, but we became friends pretty quickly. At first I didn't speak much Spanish, so he would speak slowly. Now I'm fluent and we dance really well together.

Ballet class here begins at 8 am. Then comes repertoire—this year we did Le Corsaire—followed by a specialty class like ballroom dancing or physical preparation, which is like conditioning. From 12:30–1:30 pm we had variations and pas de deux rehearsal. Sometimes we'd have rehearsal for shows or for the April Concurso Internacional ("competition" in Spanish), and we would be there until 8 pm. My roommate and I would walk home at night, and on the way, there was a place that sold big bags of ice for a dollar. We would get that and soak our feet in ice water.

When I arrived in Cuba, I didn't understand that the Concurso was such a big deal. Basically, all variations and pas de deux rehearsals are in preparation for it. The big event isn't just the competition—it's also a school exchange. Students come from all over the world to take classes at the National Ballet School. I competed in the Concurso with the pas de deux from Paquita. My goal was to just enjoy myself and get to the second round, but I ended up getting silver in the pas de deux category for my age group, and the overall award for Individual Interpretation.


Conley in class at the Cuban National Ballet School. Photo by Alex Garcia.

Most National Ballet School students hope to be chosen for the National Ballet. My original plan was to come back home and audition in the U.S. and Europe, but when I got here and saw the National Ballet perform, and got a feel for Cuba, I started thinking about auditioning for the company. I didn't know if that would be possible. There have been only a few foreigners in the company here, and even though I trained at the school, I was there a relatively short time. However, I think that bonding with instructors and fellow students, plus the Concurso results, made a difference. I was invited to audition right after the competition.

Within a few weeks, I learned that I would be joining the company. I was thrilled on many levels—to join one of the most renowned classical companies in the world, to continue to dance with my good friends, and to stay in a country and culture that I love so much. I'm in the midst of a six-month program that's like an apprenticeship, where the company and dancers get a feel for one another and make decisions from there about the future.

Last year while in high school, I watched a video of Roberto Bolle and Diana Vishneva performing the Sleeping Beauty pas de deux about 100 times. At the end, they do a partnered turn—just one pirouette, but it's the most beautiful pirouette I've ever seen. Someday, I want to be able to do something really simple onstage, but project so it looks as beautiful as that one pirouette. My goal now is to work very hard and make the most of my time in the company to improve. Being here is amazing, and it is my hope to stay.

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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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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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