Chun Wai Chan

Taylor-Ferne Morris, Courtesy of Chun Wai Chan

Chun Wai Chan Gets Candid About His Recent Career Move to New York City Ballet

In October, New York City Ballet announced that former Houston Ballet principal Chun Wai Chan would be joining the company as a soloist for the 2021–22 season. Born and trained in Guangzhou, China, Chan moved to the U.S. to join Houston Ballet II in 2010, joining the main company's corps de ballet in 2012. With his princely good looks, polished technique and striking confidence, Chan became a Houston favorite and was named one of Dance Magazine's 2017 "25 to Watch." Recently, he spoke with Pointe about his upcoming move to New York, embracing the challenge of a new style, and his Balanchine bucket list.

First off, congratulations on the New York City Ballet job. Of course, we will miss you in Houston. How are you? Where are you?

Mentally, I am so happy. I am back in Guangdong with my family, and it's so wonderful to be here with them. I am doing great.

How are you keeping in shape?

I have been lucky to be invited to be part of a TV show here. It's called Dance Smash and it's definitely keeping me in shape. I am dancing with Yuan Yuan Tan from San Francisco Ballet. It's pretty intense and includes all types of dance, like folk, ballroom and hip hop. It's a good opportunity to educate people here about ballet.

Was NYCB your dream company?

I am still so overwhelmed. But, actually, The Royal Ballet was my dream company. After competing at the Prix de Lausanne, I was offered a scholarship to go to the School of American Ballet summer intensive and Houston Ballet, and I decided to come to Houston.

Chun Wai Chan, wearing tan booty shorts and near a wooded creek, piques on his left foot and stretches his right leg in degag\u00e9 \u00e0 la second. He lifts his right arm up and tosses a gauzy white shirt.

Courtesy of Chun Wai Chan

So you have a redo on that fork in your ballet road. But let's talk Balanchine, because there's a lot of that in your future.

Definitely, there will be catching up. I know I have a lot to learn. But I am excited for the challenge to learn a new style, and I will adapt quickly. I like how they play with musicality, and the speed and the jumping. I cannot wait to move with them.

Also, every time there was a Balanchine ballet in Houston, I danced it: Serenade, Symphony in C, The Four Temperaments and then "Diamonds," when I was in HB II.

Which Balanchine ballet tops your bucket list?

I hope to someday dance Apollo. It's so elegant, with such amazing music. There is no other ballet like it.

How did you connect with the company?

I met Justin Peck when he came to set a work on Houston Ballet. Justin recommended me to NYCB artistic director Jonathan Stafford. After they saw my video, they invited me to take class for three days in January. During that time I learned a lot, talking to dancers and staff and reading the history. It's such a big company with a long history.

After three weeks, I got a soloist offer and took a week to consider my options. I knew Balanchine would be a new style for me. I am willing to try to learn. Also, I will be the only man from mainland China in the company—it's huge to say that a Chinese dancer could dance Balanchine and join New York City Ballet.

That's very interesting about the Peck connection. I loved your dancing in his Year of the Rabbit and Reflections at Houston Ballet.

His work feels so new and playful, and he has such a clear style. And I appreciate how he creates on the dancers. For the world premiere Reflections, I felt like it was Chun Wai Chan + Justin Peck. I could express the way I wanted to, and every show was different.

There's probably more Peck in your future, along with many other new choreographers. Have you been tuning in to NYCB's New Works Festival?

Yes, I have. I loved Andrea Miller's new song, the way it was filmed—so smooth. I have never seen that kind of dance film. And the dancing in the fountain was so fresh.

How did your time at Houston Ballet prepare you for this move?

I cannot imagine where I would be without Houston Ballet. It was a perfect company for me. I learned how to be a good dancer and to dance any kind of movement. That's why I am not afraid to leave. But it really started with Claudio Muñoz while I was in HB II. He taught me to act and partner in a way that was so real. It was endless learning. No other company could have done so much.

You had such a stellar run in Houston. Do you have any highlights of your time here?

Yes, so many. But the first big moment was when I almost quit to go to the University of Arizona during my first year with the company, after an injury. I was ready to go and had received a full scholarship. It was my director, Stanton Welch, who convinced me to stay and learn how to train hard and smart. He taught me that we have to take the responsibility to be healthy. I remember seeing my name on the fifth cast to learn Romeo and I was so happy, so after a night of thinking, I realized that I want to dance. Stanton brought me back from almost quitting. He saw something in me that nobody could see, including myself. I got promoted very quickly after that.

Wearing tan booty shorts, Chun Wai Chan jumps into a saut\u00e9 with his left leg in pass\u00e9, extending his right arm out to the side.

Taylor-Ferne Morris, Courtesy of Chun Wai Chan

What does your family think about the move? And are you ready for New York City?

My family is completely supportive. They want me to continue to grow from new challenges. As for New York City, I am from China. I am used to huge cities, with big buildings and tons of people. In fact, Hong Kong is just like New York City. I fell in love with the city when I was there. I won't have any problems adapting to it.

What have you learned about yourself during the pandemic?

To be patient and positive, and if a door closes a window might open. Always seek opportunities for learning and growing. We don't have to stop.

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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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