New York Theater Ballet's Amanda Treiber (center) with Steven Melendez and Choong Hoon Lee in Antony Tudor's Trio Con Brio

Richard Termine, Courtesy New York Theater Ballet

No Small Feat: Dancing in a "Petite" Ballet Company Comes With Unique Benefits

Amanda Farris has never danced in a company with more than 20 dancers. "Growing up we have these notions that we're aiming for the big companies, and that's the only place success lies," says the California native, who dances with the 11-member Diablo Ballet outside San Francisco. Yet Farris' impressive rep says otherwise: Over the course of her career she's performed everything from Giselle to Balanchine's Apollo to Trey McIntyre's Blue Boy.

Small troupes tend to slip under the radar. But they offer unique benefits that are harder to find in big ballet companies, such as frequent opportunities for featured roles and forging deep connections with colleagues. The intimate working environment also provides ample opportunities for artistic growth. We spoke with dancers working at small ballet companies across the country to learn what they love about the careers they've made.


Tilton, dressed in a white princely outfit and standing in a tendu with his arm in the air, holds Farris, who's balanced on pointe in a back attitude in a cambre back. She wears a purple floral dress.

Diablo Ballet's Amanda Farris and Raymond Tilton in Norbert Vesak's Tchaikovsky Dances

Bilha Sperling, Courtesy Diablo Ballet

More Chances to Shine


Dancing with a small group makes it impossible to be overlooked in the company's ranks. No one gets stuck in the corps "waving a rose," says New York Theatre Ballet's Amanda Treiber. "Everyone is truly a soloist." Treiber, who's been a member of NYTB for 12 seasons, was drawn to the 12-dancer chamber troupe because of the range of work they do. The company's rep includes everything from condensed classics for young audiences to 20th-century masterworks by the likes of Antony Tudor and José Limón to groundbreaking contemporary choreography.

With fewer dancers, it's also harder to be typecast or boxed into one style. "You need to be able to do anything and everything," says Farris. "Especially if there's an injury and you have to jump right in. Being a versatile dancer is so important."

Diablo Ballet boasts a season complete with full-lengths, mixed bills and plenty of live music. Farris notes that they often work with Bay Area collaborators. She describes working with Val Caniparoli on the role of Ophelia in his Hamlet and Ophelia as a career highlight. And at smaller companies, dancers have more opportunities to work closely with choreographers and répétiteurs throughout the creative process.

Hill is in a high arabesque pench\u00e9 with her face parallel to the floor. She wears an orange dress and ballet slippers, and is held under her armpits by Vessell, who is standing in a lunge and wearing black pants and no shirt.

Northwest Arkansas Ballet Theatre's James Vessell and Lilly Hill in Karen Castleman's Late Summer Cycle

Stephanie Saclolo of Wilde and Wilder Photography, Courtesy Northwest Arkansas Ballet Theatre

​Close Ties

Close working relationships are truly at the core of smaller troupes. James Vessell, a dancer with the 12-member Northwest Arkansas Ballet Theatre in Bentonville, Arkansas, now in its second season as a professional company, notes how important it is to be yourself in such an environment. "You're with these people all the time," he says. "They're your family."

Elise Mosbacher, now in her 10th season with Missouri Contemporary Ballet in Columbia, Missouri, echoes this sentiment. "It's not to say that we all get along 24/7," she says of her seven fellow dancers at MCB. "That's not how families work, but we know how to work and interact with every other dancer. It's very cohesive and that all comes out in how we perform together as a group."

Artistic directors can also be more personally invested in every company member. At MCB, director Karen Mareck Grundy entrusts each of her dancers to delve into her distinctive style. The company's rep is based heavily on Grundy's own choreography, which Mosbacher describes as "ballet with a twist," influenced by Grundy's background as a classically trained dancer and Las Vegas showgirl. Each company member has a significant responsibility to carry out the artistic vision, and as a result the artistic staff and dancers build extremely close, trusting relationships.

Similarly, Farris emphasizes how Diablo Ballet artistic director Lauren Jonas never views her dancers as dispensable or replaceable. "We are her dancers. She knows us as people, not just names on a casting list," says Farris.

Soares reaches stage left in an angular, modern position, holding onto Mosbacher's arm. She is also reaching, balanced on one leg and smiling. Both wear grey pants and tops with a black stripe down the middle.

Missouri Contemporary Ballet Company's José Soares and Elise Mosbacher in Just Tell Me by Kristopher Estes Brown

Jeff Bassinson, Courtesy Missouri Contemporary Ballet Company

​Wearing Many Hats

Treiber also points out that at a small company, dancers' responsibilities often extend beyond the stage. With modest budgets and limited resources, they frequently wear different hats to make the seasons come together. "I help set works I've danced on younger company members," says Treiber. "It's helped me know what direction I want to go in after I'm done dancing. I'd love to be a ballet mistress."

Similarly, Vessell developed a taste for artistic direction through his experiences at NWA Ballet Theatre. With the company growing so quickly, dancers have taken on roles on the administrative side of the organization, and Vessell has assisted with organizing promotional and outreach performances. "I eventually want to have my own company," Vessell says. "It was great to experience what it's like to set up tech week, plan a lighting design and set up a schedule."

Like so many dancers in small companies, Vessell found that the tight-knit, collaborative environment was an ideal platform to grow beyond any preconceived notions of his place in the art form. With each dancer bearing a significant amount of responsibility onstage and off, they are a testament to what a small group committed to one goal can accomplish.

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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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