Charlene Gehm MacDougal as Lead Nursemaid in Petrushka. Photo by Herbert Migdoll

In Memoriam: Joffrey Dancer Charlene Gehm MacDougal, 69

Former lead dancer with The Joffrey Ballet, Charlene Gehm MacDougal died of ovarian cancer on January 10 at her home in New York City, age 69.

Gehm illuminated the inner life of each of the varied characters in her extensive repertoire. Whether she was the gracious hostess in George Balanchine's Cotillon, the riveting Lady Capulet in John Cranko's Romeo and Juliet, or in the tumult of William Forsythe's Love Songs, she drew the viewer's eye and heart to the essence of the role.

As Forsythe puts it: "Charlene was certainly one of the most elegant dancers I have had the privilege to work with. Her striking countenance flowed into her work and, joined with her wicked sense of humor and intelligence, created thoughtful, mesmerizing and memorable art."

"Char," as friends called her, had grace and dignity. Her refined, translucent beauty and long limbs led to modeling for Sergio Valente jeans, and in print advertisements for Capezio. She put her physical attributes to the service of her dance artistry in harmony with a remarkable quality of both vulnerability and resilience, always alive to the character she portrayed and to the dance itself.

"We will always see Char in Le Sacre du Printemps, treading on 3/4 pointe, as if she were whispering in each tiny step a vision of pagan Russia she'd seen in a trance," recalls Millicent Hodson. When Hodson and her husband, Kenneth Archer, were casting their re-creation of Nijinsky's revolutionary 1913 work for the Joffrey Ballet in 1987, they described to Robert Joffrey "the three tall women in mauve (a sign of refinement in that archaic world of the Slavs)," Hodson says. His immediate response was: "You'll want Charlene for that."

Le Sacre du Printemps, with Charlene Gehm MacDuogal on the left

Herbert Migdoll

Joffrey was quite ill when Sacre was being rehearsed for the fall season in New York City (he died in 1988), yet he went to a final run-through at New York City Center. "When he saw the entrance of Char with the other Mauves, he stood up and shouted 'The storks!,'" says Hodson. "That's what Marie Rambert had told Robert when he was a young choreographer with her company in London. That's how she said Diaghilev's dancers had nicknamed the Mauves' entrance. He had forgotten it until that moment. Char's reaction was unforgettable: She'd just witnessed Joffrey recalling Rambert recalling Sacre as it was first created. She did not smile. She truly glowed."

Denise Charlene Gehm was born in Miami, Florida, in 1951 and lived in a "very tiny house," as she described it in The New York Times. Her mother was a caterer, her father, a teacher who created a mini dance studio in the carport for her to practice ballet, tap, jazz and acrobatics. She loved the discipline instilled by her parents—homework first, then dance practice, then play. This schedule became essential from the age of 10, when her 18-year-old sister died in a car accident. The burden of familial success seemed to fall entirely on her shoulders, and it was decided that dance held her future.

In The Nutcracker with Daniel Baudendistel

Herbert Migdoll

"It was like, 'Whew, this thing better work because they don't have my sister any more.' It wasn't some tragic play where it never happened," she told Debra Weiner in a New York Times interview last year, "I danced on stages in great opera houses around the world. It was big. It was wonderful."

On a scouting visit to Miami, master teacher David Howard selected 17-year-old Charlene for a scholarship to the Harkness Ballet School in New York City. She danced with the Harkness Youth Dancers from 1970 to 1971; as a soloist with National Ballet of Washington from 1971 to 1973; a principal with the Chicago Ballet in 1974; and principal with Ballet de Caracas of Venezuela in 1975.

Then, in 1976, she joined the Joffrey Ballet and found her creative home, remaining there until 1991. Early in her career with the company, Robert Joffrey is quoted as saying "people want to know who that girl is!" Selected in 1979 by Rudolf Nureyev to dance in Nijinsky's L'Après-Midi d'un Faune, she toured extensively with him, also dancing in the televised version of the ballet for Dance in America on PBS.

My tenure as ballet mistress for the Joffrey Ballet overlapped with Charlene's dancing from 1989 to 1991, and I remember her generosity and integrity, how she listened to input while also trusting herself. Her dancing was both utterly human and inherently spiritual. Of her performance in Frederick Ashton's Illuminations in 1989, Donna Perlmutter wrote in the Los Angeles Times: "Charlene Gehm (back with the company after an outing with Phantom of the Opera) personified Sacred Love as a glowing white emblem held on high."

On Broadway, Charlene performed not only in Phantom of the Opera, where the régisseur believed "her presence on our stage certainly lifted the beauty of the art," but also in West Side Story, where, as Clarice in the Jets, she worked with Leonard Bernstein and Jerome Robbins. Her versatility in bringing a character to life through movement made her a natural for musical theater. Yet her talents were also evident in every ballet she danced. A succinct tribute to these gifts came from Tobi Tobias when she wrote in New York Magazine: "Charlene Gehm's Lady Capulet is a marvel of nuance, combining public hauteur, private tenderness, and unbridled grief."

Gehm's well-known sense of humor made her "one of the few dancers who can make you laugh," according to New York Times critic Jennifer Dunning. She did so with "subtlety, grace and a touch of the bittersweet," as the tipsy Josephine in Ashton's A Wedding Bouquet, with scenario by Gertrude Stein. In Agnes de Mille's Rodeo, "Charlene Gehm was typically witty in the role of the ranch owner's pretty daughter, who is out to snare the wrangler," observed Dunning again. "Rarely has a hand beckoned with such coy peremptoriness."

Similarly, Gehm delighted friends with her uncanny perception of the essence of someone, imitating them for full dramatic or comedic effect. Former fellow Joffrey Ballet members remember her with deep affection, often using the word "classy" to describe her. In Hodson and Archer's meticulous 1988 reconstruction of Balanchine's 1932 ballet Cotillon, Gehm brought the ballet to life as the ever-present, congenial hostess, with dancing described by colleague Carole Valleskey as "elegant, light, fast, able to handle technical challenges with ease. First and foremost, she danced. You weren't aware of the steps."

Following her performing career, and after marrying business executive Gary MacDougal in 1992, Charlene Gehm MacDougal still took daily ballet class with David Howard at Steps on Broadway. She had lived frugally as a dancer, saving her pennies for the college education she could now pursue Choosing the BA program in arts administration at New York University's Gallatin School for its rigorous focus on writing and reading "great books," she graduated with honors in 1994 and delivered the keynote address at the NYU Gallatin commencement.

Although she took a management internship as assistant to American Ballet Theatre's artistic director, Kevin McKenzie (a former Joffrey Ballet partner), she ultimately decided against a full-time job and pursued graduate studies. Her master's thesis in medieval studies from Columbia University, in 1998, was on the history of stained glass at Canterbury Cathedral, the center of the Anglican/Episcopal church where she had long been a member.

Gehm was a trustee of the Lincoln Center Institute, focused on taking art into the New York City schools. As president of the MacDougal Family Foundation, supporting arts organizations, she oversaw grants for economically disadvantaged students, offering college scholarships at UCLA and helping high school seniors in Chicago. She and her husband traveled extensively, combining biannual trips to Bulgaria, for the America for Bulgaria Foundation, with visits to countries including Tibet, Bangladesh, Uzbekistan, Laos, Indonesia, Armenia and Kosovo.

Gehm is survived by her husband, her two stepsons and their wives, as well as four granddaughters.

During her illness, her husband constantly at her side, friends marveled that even then, as fellow Joffrey dancer Kim Sagami put it: "She was so kind…so brave, stoic and still always caring for others." Gehm was a person of rare sensibility and courage, and her memory will be carried forward in the hearts of all who knew her. Announcing her passing to the Joffrey Ballet community, former Joffrey principal Denise Jackson Sutherland wrote:

"I will remember Char with her bright, beautiful smile, her quirky sense of humor, her infectious laugh, and her beautiful tresses of gorgeous blond hair. She will be missed."

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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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