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Choreography 101: 10 Pro Tips for Beginners

As dancers well know, developing a new skillset takes guts. For so many of us, training begins young and, to our friends' bafflement, only gets more intensive. ("Wait, what? You're going to dance class six days a week?") Yes.

Developing your choreography skills is not unlike the serious dancer's training in terms of the sheer pluck, determination and passion required. Even for seasoned dancers, it can feel like gutsy business to get started as a choreographer—yet it doesn't have to. But how does someone who knows how to move their body in someone else's choreography begin to develop choreography of their own? Three seasoned choreographers offer their insights on how to get going if you're new to dancemaking.

1. Start with what you're familiar with

Choreographer Matthew Neenan, co-founder of BalletX in Philadelphia, suggests that aspiring choreographers "first make what you know." Ask what you know about the art form and how you can convey this to your audience. For Neenan, this meant working with classical music and using balletic and Balanchine-inspired vocabulary. He cautions beginners against jumping too far into uncharted territory. "There's always room to grow and expand."

2. Think of your piece as a puzzle

Gabrielle Lamb, founder and choreographer of New York City's Pigeonwing Dance, says, "I think of choreography like building, like if you build a stone wall. You have a pile of rocks, and you have to pick out the ones that fit well together and put together a puzzle." When coming up with ideas, consider your options. Do you want dancers to start onstage, or off? To music, or in silence? Should they move in a circle, or in a line? As you make those decisions, think of the big picture—how can you start combining the various elements of your work in a way that will eventually produce a cohesive work?

Wearing black leggings and sleeveless gray top, Gabrielle Lamb kicks her right leg high and twists her upper body back, looking at her reflection in the mirror. Three dancers in black dancewear look on.

Gabrielle Lamb works with the dancers of CelloPointe

Jaqlin Medlock, Courtesy Lamb

3. Try structured improvisation

One way to piece together your wall is to use structured improv prompts. It's a strategy Lamb teaches because it helps you come up with movement via tasks or commands. She suggests using artist Richard Serra's Verblist to create a phrase: pick two or three verbs and "cycle through them repeatedly using different parts of your body." Bend and twist? Figure out how to bend and twist your arm, your torso, your head. Using methods like this one not only stretches your ingenuity but also relieves some of the anxiety that can accompany the creative process.

4. Look for inspiration

Open your eyes to the world around you—and its inherent, diverse glimmers of creative inspiration. To get you thinking of the possibilities, we asked Neenan, Lamb and Tara Lee, co-founder and choreographer of Atlanta's Terminus Modern Ballet Theatre, about what stirs them artistically. For Neenan, it's the modern dance greats: Alonzo King, Crystal Pite, Paul Taylor, Jiří Kylián, Nacho Duato and Ohad Naharin; for Lamb, poetry, science and metaphors; for Lee, existential questions about relationships and the human experience. Find whatever makes you want to wildly chase your muse, and don't discount it if it's out-there. Out-there is original.

5. Record yourself

Both Neenan and Lamb video themselves as they're coming up with movement sequences. Neenan shares that this allows you to "look at your work objectively." When he's on the hunt for a fresh idea, he re-watches old videos of himself dancing. "I'll watch something and realize, 'Oh, that little thing I did—I liked that. I didn't even mean to do it. So I need to let that into the piece.'"

Matthew Neenan, wearing a blue V-neck T-shirt, is shown from the waist up crossing his arms and looking towards the camera.

Matthew Neenan

6. Allow yourself space to develop your own voice

As a novice, it can be daunting to put your personal flair into your work. "Don't be afraid," says Neenan. "We all have different voices and opinions on what we would love to see."

Lee says it's important to ask questions as you find your voice: "What kind of dance do you love to watch? What sparks your curiosity? What inspires you?" These types of queries are a great springboard for coming up with material. "Figure out what your language is by what feels good, what you enjoy watching—that's all really relevant. And just play."

7. Don't let creative roadblocks disrupt your process

Choreographer's block is inevitable. For Lee, she has discovered that "the flow" should remain central in spite of any roadblocks. "The more I allow my energy to get stuck, the more the entire process loses its momentum," she says. She strives to keep stressed energy out of the studio, instead finding alternative routes to figuring out material, such as running ideas past dancers and other artists outside of rehearsal time.

8. Let go of your ego

It can be tempting to jump into your first piece full force. Maybe you want to use a composer and choreograph on your colleagues. There's nothing wrong with this, per se, but it may be to your advantage to work with less advanced dancers first. Lamb recommends taking opportunities to create on lower-level dancers because it "stretches your creative boundaries."

To do this, you may have to let go of your ego—and accept the unexpected. Sometimes your piece can turn into something entirely different than you first envisioned. "That can be even more beautiful," says Neenan. When you put your ego aside, the work becomes less about you, which can be a really good thing.

long Tara Lee, wearing a wide-neck gray short and her black hair down, is shown from the neck up and smiles towards the camera.

Tara Lee

Joseph Guay, Courtesy Terminus Modern Ballet Theatre

9. Try, try again...and yes, again

"Like dancing or any discipline, you want to spend as much time with it as possible, because that's how you get good at it," says Lamb. She points out that when we see works by famous choreographers, we forget that they've "been doing this for decades already."

10. Don't shy away from creating at home

Many of us have yet to step foot in the studio again, thanks to continued social distancing restrictions. But on the bright side, you probably have more time on your hands than usual. Perhaps now is as good a time as any to explore your interest in choreography. As Neenan and Lamb point out, less space can make things tricky, but it can also incite more inventiveness.

Whether you're feeling a little stir-crazy, looking for a new creative outlet, or hoping to become more well-rounded as a dancer (or maybe all three), why not see what you can come up with? Lee says it well: "Go ahead and take this time to just be playful with your ideas."

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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."

Tanya Howard in rehearsal Trase Pa. Photo by Karolina Kuras, Courtesy of NBoC.

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