Left to right: Dance Theatre of Harlem's Daphne Lee, Amanda Smith, Lindsey Donnell and Alexandra Hutchinson in a scene from Dancing Through Harlem. Derek Brockington, Courtesy Dance Theatre of Harlem

Dancers Share Their Key Takeaways After a Year of Dancing on Film

Creating dances specifically for film has become one of the most effective ways that ballet companies have connected with audiences and kept dancers employed during the pandemic. Around the world, dance organizations are finding opportunities through digital seasons, whether conceiving cinematic, site-specific pieces or filming works within a traditional theater. And while there is a consistent sentiment that nothing will ever substitute the thrill of a live show, dancers are embracing this new way of performing.


Still, it's been an adjustment. How are dancers developing performance energy? How can artistry best be communicated through the camera? What is the best angle to present technique? Dance Theatre of Harlem's Derek Brockington explains that dancing for film is "about acknowledging that it's not going to be the same experience—it's a different way of dancing." Below, Brockington and several other dancers share their takeaways after a year of dancing on camera.

Adapting to New Spaces and Timelines

Rehearsing in the back of a crowded studio used to seem like a challenge, but since the pandemic began last year Zoom rehearsals became the norm, and gave new perspective to exploring movement in small spaces. Dancing an entirely digital season this year, Jessy Dick, a company apprentice at The Washington Ballet, explains that learning contemporary movement via Zoom last fall was confusing to translate into the body. "It is hard to feel the movement," says Dick. "I never realized how expansive moving in the studio can feel. The walls mess with your head."

Dick had to adapt and develop mind flexibility, which she says later carried over when the company began dancing in site-specific locations and adjusting to the quick pace of a filming day. When shooting Something Human, by TWB artist Andile Ndlovu, last October, considerations such as natural lighting and weather shaped a single day of filming at Maryland's Patapsco Female Institute. There was little time for dancers to acquaint themselves with the space, adapt and, as Dick says, "just go for it." Yet she adds that the challenge of performing outdoors on unfamiliar surfaces and in tennis shoes or bare feet was balanced by the inspiration of dancing with the wind and sunshine. "The location fueled us to be able to turn it on and off quick," she says, especially when doing multiple takes throughout the day.

Jessy Dick, wearing a light blue turtleneck, pants and socks, kicks her left leg high and holds the side of her head with her right hand. Her right elbow is bent in towards her leg and she dances outdoors on a marley floor and in front of a white wall..

The Washington Ballet's Jessy Dick on the set of Andile Ndlovu's Something Human

Mena Brunette of XMBPhotography, Courtesy TWB

Even when filming in the familiar confines of a theater, the recording experience can be intense. San Francisco Ballet principal Aaron Robison describes recording George Balanchine's Jewels at the War Memorial Opera House in January as "one run-through, notes and then a quick touch-up, and we did it again." While rehearsing his role in "Emeralds" was relatively typical (save Balanchine répétiteur Sandra Jennings coaching via Zoom instead of in the studio), the recording day included two back-to-back run-throughs. When asked how he rallies performance-level energy multiple times in a row, Robison explains that knowing that a performance run is complete in one single day of filming gives him the fortitude to push to his max.

Turning On Performance Mode—Without the Audience

The energy between dancers and audience members during a live performance is hard to replicate digitally. Since films are often shot from different angles, dancers have had to explore how to project through different parts of the body and with specificity, depending on the shot. "It involves more thinking than you normally have to do," says Brockington. He says he has to have keen awareness of where the camera is, while also trying to project beyond it and considering the different angles it is potentially capturing.

While Robison's filming process of Jewels was a straight run-through from one angle, he was still performing to an empty theater. Yet he says he drew energy from "the fact that we haven't been able to perform for all this time, and I felt fortunate in that moment being back on the stage."

Wearing a long, green Romantic tutu, Sasha Mukamedov does a high crois\u00e9 arabesque with her arms moving out towards her sides. Aaron Robison, wearing a dark green velvet tunic and white tights, lunges right and holds onto her waist with his right hand, with his left arm out to the side.

San Francisco Ballet principal Aaron Robison and soloist Sasha Mukhamedov in George Balanchine's "Emeralds"

Erik Tomasson, Courtesy SFB

Regardless of the circumstances, being committed to the moment is imperative for a filmed performance to be effective. Not only do viewers need to feel it, dancers want to do justice to the choreography in a way that stands the test of time. "That's the thing with a film," says Robison. "It stays."

Reaching a Global Audience

One of the major advantages to online performances is that anyone can watch from anywhere in the world. On a personal level, dancers from international backgrounds can share their dancing with family, friends and teachers who supported their training. From a more global perspective, virtual performances allow dancers and companies to share their missions on a broader platform.

When DTH initially created Dancing Through Harlem, a virtual submission for Harlem Week last August, it went viral with over 7.6 million views. Brockington and his roommate, fellow DTH dancer Alexandra Hutchinson, conceived, produced and edited the film—with choreography based on Robert Garland's New Bach and set throughout beautiful spaces in Harlem—over seven days in August using an iPad. Not expecting to reach such a large audience, Brockington says that the video's popularity is why representation matters. "I grew up not seeing many ballet dancers who looked like me." Brockington says he was honored to share his dancing and the stunning architecture of Harlem with the world while representing DTH's mission of inclusivity and accessibility.

Another audience added to the pool of viewers is the dancers themselves. Waiting for a film to debut can produce greater anticipation than pre-performance jitters, especially when you're not sure what the final product will look like. Robison explains that while he knows which takes he felt particularly good about, the chosen cut will be what best represents the entire cast—and that isn't revealed until the film is released.

For dancers, being able to watch the work they were a part of is a reward that is entirely new. "There's nothing that compares to the feeling of performing onstage," says Dick. "But it was beautiful to watch my colleagues blossom in front of the camera."

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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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