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Are You Rethinking a Dance Career Due to COVID-19? Read This Advice First

Olivia Duran started ballet when she was 3 years old, and it was love at first plié. From there, "I just kept going," she recently recalled over the phone, "and that was that!" Soon, she found herself at Elmhurst Ballet School, the prestigious training program affiliated with England's Birmingham Royal Ballet. She completed the school's full eight years of coursework, but as she neared the professional world, Duran felt more drawn to life as a cruise performer than as a traditional ballerina. Her final year was marked by audition circuits in London, which eventually landed her a contract with MSC Cruises.

After graduation in 2019, Duran returned home to Hampshire, UK, for a few short months to wait for the contract to begin—but with the onset of COVID-19, cruise ships stopped sailing and the job never came to fruition. Her stay at home became far more indefinite, and she was left to consider a life without dance at its center.


A group of young ballerinas wearing yellow tutus, pink tights and pointe shoes stand in a diagonal line in tendu devant effac\u00e9 with their left legs in pli\u00e9. Their right arm is curved and their left arm is extended out to the side.

Olivia Duran (second from right) performs Paquita with the Elmhurst Ballet Company.

Andy Ross, Courtesy Elmhurst Ballet School

Duran is definitely not alone—as COVID-19 continues to prevent the dance world from returning to the stage, many advanced students and young professionals struggle with increased uncertainty as they try to launch their careers. Jessica Wheeler, the school principal at Elmhurst, currently works with several recent graduates who never had a chance to audition before the pandemic's start. Now, Wheeler allows them to return to school and receive free training in return for work experience alongside the school's staff.

But as the return to performances lingers further into the future, more young grads may be left wondering: Is this really for me?

Evaluate Your Relationship to Ballet

Patch Schwadron is a career-counselor supervisor at The Actors Fund, which supports artists in the U.S. in their post-performance lives. (Career Transitions For Dancers became a program of The Actors Fund in 2016.) Recently, she's spoken with clients and colleagues about the "chaos theory," a notion that Schwadron describes as "basically, nobody knows what's going to happen, so the best thing dancers can do is add to their skill set in preparation for future opportunities that align with their interests."

To start, Schwadron suggests asking yourself: "What is my relationship to ballet?" Make sure you answer honestly, and only for yourself. Then, let that guide your responsibilities going forward. "If it's 'I need to be a ballet dancer because it's the thing that really makes the most sense while I'm on this planet,'" she says, your responsibility is to keep in shape. But maybe you like working backstage or studying dance history—those would require different responsibilities, like researching education programs and perhaps finding local mentors to guide your search. Make a timeline for yourself to keep reevaluating. Every three or six months, ask if your relationship to dance has changed, and if it has, you can shift those responsibilities along with it.

A pondering young female dancer in a green leotard, pink cardigan and pink tights rolled at the calf sits in the butterfly position on her bed and looks towards a window.


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Think Beyond Your Dance Skills

Wheeler employs similar advice with her students, and tells them to think about the future through the lens of a portfolio career, or one that incorporates multiple jobs. "The kinds of contracts where you would see dancers go to the Birmingham Royal Ballet or another large company and then just stay for a very long period of time are getting fewer," she explains. This was happening even before 2020, and COVID-19 will no doubt change the landscape even more. Now, she sees opportunities for students to build their future from a larger array of options: Some graduates "ended up setting up their own business or going into teaching or becoming a dance photographer," she says.

Going forward, Schwadron tells clients to start seeing themselves as people with expertise in a wider variety of subjects; in other words, you are a consultant with a range of services. One of the services will be your excellent dance skills, but during the wait for theaters to reopen, now might be a good time to develop some more. The Actors Fund offers no-cost workshops for strategies like this, but Schwadron also encourages students to try volunteering in their local communities. Start small, and only stick with what you like.

Young woman sitting at home with pen and paper


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Many of these tactics helped Duran weigh her options after her contract was canceled. At home, she took advantage of the extra time to research another longtime interest: midwifery. After some more reflection, Duran officially changed course and is now in the beginning stages of midwifery training. "For me," she reflects, "it was when I would go to dance class and I would just enjoy it. It sounds like a really strange thing to say, but it was no longer 'I want to do this, this is what my life is.' It became just 'I love doing this for fun.'"

The distinction took time to identify, and sometimes it was hard to separate the feeling of change from the feeling of failure. But "it's not failure to decide that it's not what you want anymore," Duran says, "it's really growth."

Both Wheeler and Schwadron echo Duran's message: Changing your focus should never be taboo. "Success can look like a lot of different things to a lot of different people," Wheeler says. Take the time to figure out what it looks like to you.

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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."

Kaatsbaan Cultural Park artistic director Stella Abrera and executive director Sonja Kostich. Photo by Quinn Wharton, Courtesy Kaatsbaan Cultural Park

The Inaugural Kaatsbaan Spring Festival Brings Together Leading Figures in Dance

The rollout of vaccinations is helping the U.S. turn a corner during this coronavirus pandemic, and artists and audience members alike are looking forward to enjoying live performances once again. It couldn't be more perfect timing, then, for the inaugural Kaatsbaan Spring Festival, which will feature 16 presentations on two outdoor stages in New York's Hudson Valley. Taking place May 20–23 and May 27–30, the festival brings together luminaries from multiple disciplines, including dance, music, poetry, sculpture and the culinary arts.

"During a challenging year such as this, we really wanted to provide artists from various genres opportunities for support and work," says Sonja Kostich, Kaatsbaan Cultural Park's executive director.

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Ballet West principal Katlyn Addison in a still from In The Balance. Courtesy Ballet West

Ballet West’s New Web Series Documents an Uncertain November

If the story of a ballet company presenting performances amidst a global pandemic, a divisive presidential election, and uprisings for justice sounds like it was made for TV, Ballet West has a series for you. In The Balance: Ballet for a Lost Year is a nine-episode documentary about BW's November 2020 performances, which took place at Salt Lake City's Capitol Theatre. The series premieres Friday, May 7, on Ballet West's social media channels, with a new episode released every Friday. (Viewers can also unlock all nine episodes on Ballet West's website starting May 7.)

For a month filmmakers Diana Whitten and Tyler Measom of Skyscape Studios had unlimited access to company class (divided into pods to abide by COVID-19 restrictions), rehearsals for new ballets by Jennifer Archibald and Nicolo Fonte, and interviews with artists and administrators. Some of the series' most fascinating insights come from people's different ways of navigating uncertainty, and how this connects to the arts.

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