American Ballet Theatre principals Christine Shevchenko and Aran Bell in the pas de deux from Sir Kenneth MacMillan's Romeo and Juliet

Courtesy Live Arts Global

How ABT's Christine Shevchenko Put Together a Virtual Gala in Just 2 Months

While the coronavirus pandemic has brought live performances to a halt worldwide, American Ballet Theatre principal Christine Shevchenko has used the gap in her schedule to realize another dream—and help her colleagues at the same time. Shevchenko teamed up with former ABT corps de ballet dancer Melanie Hamrick and choreographer Joanna DeFelice to found Live Arts Global, a platform to view dance at no cost and bring in new audiences. Their first project: A Night at the Ballet, which safely unites some of the world's most celebrated dancers for a virtual gala performance.

"Dance can be very healing, especially in troubling and difficult times like this," Shevchenko says ahead of the gala, streaming on YouTube from December 17 to 20. "We wanted to bring some happiness to everyone's home, while also providing a way for dancers and crew to work again in a COVID-safe environment." The hour-long performance, sponsored by Bloch, includes excerpts from Don Quixote, Romeo and Juliet and The Nutcracker, and features ABT's Calvin Royal III, San Francisco Ballet's Julian MacKay and Dance Theatre of Harlem's Crystal Serrano, among others. (Shevchenko will be performing too, of course.)

"We worked our butts off to put this together," Shevchenko says. She laughs as she recalls figuring out logistics, like finding a filming location, hiring dancers and raising money—all while following CDC guidelines. "It was a lot, but the result is definitely worth it," she adds.

Ahead, Shevchenko shares how Live Arts Global put together its first gala in just two months.

How did the idea for A Night at the Ballet come about?

My dream has been to create my own gala eventually. I just never had the time to do it because when we work full-time with ABT, we're insanely busy. I was in a slump because there were no performances or rehearsals because of COVID-19, and I reached a limit where I thought, I want to do something on my own because I'm tired of waiting around for something to happen. I thought this would be a great opportunity to start something that I've been wanting to do for a long time, so I reached out to one of my best friends, Melanie Hamrick, in October.

What were some of the biggest challenges in organizing a virtual gala?

Well, I'm in New York, Joanna is in Florida and Melanie is in Europe, so it was a lot of 9 am FaceTime calls to go through what each person had to do. The most challenging thing was finding a space to film. We really wanted to film in a theater to make it look like a real, onstage performance. We probably spent a month looking, and luckily we found Manhattan Movement & Arts Center—they have a beautiful theater in their basement.

Then, we came up with an insane collaboration of dancers from Mariinsky Ballet, Dance Theatre of Harlem, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, San Francisco Ballet, New York City Ballet and American Ballet Theatre. But, obviously, there was no way the Mariinsky couple could come to New York for filming. We told them the camera angles we needed and what it should look like, and they filmed right on the Mariinsky stage, which is quite incredible. (We are keeping the dancers' identities a surprise)

A white ballerina in a bright red tutu, pink tihgst and pointe shoes and a rose in her hair performs an attitude devant with her right leg and looks towards her partner on her left. Her partner a white male danseur, wears a black bolero jacket, black tights and slippers and  holds her around the waist with his right hand with his left arms up high.

Shevchenko with Julian MacKay in the Grand Pas de Deux from Don Quixote

Courtesy Live Arts Global

What were the rehearsal and filming processes like?

All of the dancers rehearsed on their own, renting studio space in different locations since we can't all work together. I'd been rehearsing with ABT principal Aran Bell for the past two months, but I'm also dancing with Julian MacKay, who is at SFB, so we were only able to rehearse a couple of times before we filmed. Closer to filming, Joanna was able to come to New York and help, and we worked with an amazing crew, MacKay Productions. Then for the filming of the performance, we spaced everyone out so that there were no crossovers. One couple would come in, film, leave, and we would sanitize the dressing rooms and everything before the next couple would come in.

In the future, where do you see Live Arts Global?

We would love to continue with this and have more impact. Eventually, maybe in the spring, I'd like to put together a bigger gala that could take place live.

What are you most looking forward to, post-pandemic?
In the beginning it was quite challenging because nothing was open. I turned my living room into my dance studio, and I did a lot of ballet class there for the first three months. Now, it's a little easier because ABT is doing classes, and other studio space is open to rent. But what I really miss is interacting with my colleagues and the audience. It feels really lonely right now, and it's weird not to be around people every single day. And for a live performance, you feed off of the energy of the audience—I really look forward to live shows.

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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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