Samuel Zaldivar as Boston Ballet's lovable party scene bear. Courtesy Rosalie O'Connor, Courtesy Boston Ballet.

Mastering the Magic: 5 Dancers On How They Manage The Nutcracker's More Cumbersome Props and Costumes

For dancers, The Nutcracker isn't all winter wonderlands and charming sweets. To bring this ballet to life, we have to spar with swords (often while wearing a clunky head), pirouette in animal suits, and perform day after day with a host of other potentially hazardous costumes and props. Despite the dangers, Nutcracker's eccentric roles can be the most fun to perform. As five dancers describe, Nutcracker's whimsical, albeit taxing, accoutrements have their own kind of magic.


Party Scene Bear: Daniel Durrett, Boston Ballet

Samuel Zaldivar in Boston Ballet's "Nutcracker." Photo by Rosalie O'Connor, Courtesy Boston Ballet.

Boston Ballet's fluffy, dancing bear is a veritable celebrity around Beantown during Nutcracker season. In addition to busting out in the ballet's party scene, he shows up on social media to announce ticket sales and performs around the city for special events. As corps member Daniel Durrett has learned, however, that lovable bear head is not exactly light and fuzzy, and the variation—with plenty of turns and traveling jumps—is anything but simple. Durrett recalls, "There was one show when the head strap broke mid-jump and thankfully it was towards the end of the solo, because I couldn't see anything." The head shifted around particularly while spotting, but he managed to finish without taking out any party children.

Durrett prepares for shows by giving himself a barre, putting the bear suit on early and running the solo twice to get used to the head and moving in the costume. Despite some minor neck soreness after his first few times, Durrett says, "I absolutely love performing as the bear. It's such an honor to get to perform such a crowd-pleasing role."

Mouse King: ​Adam Hartley, Oregon Ballet Theatre

OBT's Mouse King (portrayed here by principal Peter Franc) has six heads. Photo by James McGrew, Courtesy OBT.

In Oregon Ballet Theatre's Balanchine Nutcracker production, dancers like company artist Adam Hartley have to wear a six-headed Mouse King suit. And it's quite the contraption. "The first part you have to put on has all the smaller heads," says Hartley. "It's like a big harness to attach to your torso. It feels like what I imagine a parachute would be like with a bunch of straps and connections. And then you have to put on the mouse suit, which is basically a giant piece of fur stuffed with tulle." The main head has two little eye screens to see out of. He dons this last, waiting as long as possible before "sealing in the heat."

Hartley describes the costume as that of a sporting mascot's, with a neck brace: lots of volume with little airflow, peripheral vision, mobility or even hearing. Despite everything working against him, he says, dancing the Mouse King role is an opportunity to hone his dramatic acting skills. "I can come out of my shell a little more and do things that I normally would be too embarrassed to do."

Mother Buffoon: Trevor Naumann, Ballet West

Trevor Naumann as Mother Buffoon. Photo by Beau Pearson, Courtesy Ballet West.

For the two dancers that make up the Mother Buffoon role in Ballet West's Nutcracker, the perils are many. The bottom man (the legs) wears protective gloves to push the massive, wheeled steel dress frame around the stage, which he can barely see through the overlaying tulle. The top man stands on a tall, horseshoe-shaped platform with only his upper body exposed. He wears the makeup and wig, waves the fan and has to pull quite a few strings—literally. "I've had all sorts of incidences where I'm trying to fan myself and grab the dress rope, and then that rope gets caught on the fan rope," jokes demi-soloist Trevor Naumann.

Complicating matters are the eight small children dressed like bees who emerge from the dress. There's no shortage of chatter under there, Naumann explains, and sometimes their tiny hands dart out to pinch and tickle both company dancers' legs. Distractions or not, he says, "I love doing that part. You get done early, people love you—it's fabulous." However, he stresses, it's buffoonery with restraint: "You can get in quite a bit of trouble if the jokes become vulgar or out of character. Our boss always says to remember, you're a mother."

Nutcracker Doll: ​Rob Morrow, Louisville Ballet

After sweating through the battle scene in the Nutcracker head, Morrow transforms into the Prince. Photo by Sam English, Courtesy Louisville Ballet.

As the ballet's namesake, the Nutcracker doll is somewhat crucial to the proceedings. In Louisville Ballet's production, says company member Rob Morrow, the Nutcracker does the party scene and battle scene, then goes straight into dancing the snow pas de deux with Marie. He essentially has to wear two costumes: the doll tunic with toy-appropriate buttons, and the princely layer underneath. When the outer layer and head come off, Morrow says, he's not just worried about stamina for the next scene: "I have all this gel in my hair, trying to look princely before the show, and then I have a helmet pushing it down. So after I take it off I'm like, 'Is my hair okay?' "

Wearing the head isn't all bad. In the party scene, Morrow says, "you kind of get a moment to get your stage legs without really being seen." But thick suits and poor visibility might result in a missed cue. At one point during the battle scene, the Nutcracker is supposed to kill a rat after landing from a double saut de basque—yet with limited visibility, Morrow sometimes swipes air with his sword instead of fur. When this happens, he says, Marie steps in to help. She whispers to the rat, "Go!" or "Die!" Nutcracker: a team effort.

Mirliton​: Elizabeth Powell, San Francisco Ballet

Kimberly Marie Olivier twirls the seven-foot ribbon. Photo by Erik Tomasson, Courtesy SFB.

In San Francisco Ballet's production, the Act II Mirlitons are three colorful cancan girls complete with garter belts, bright teal tights and pointe shoes. Tall hair feathers and seven-foot handheld ribbons (for flicking and twirling) complete the costume, and these latter two items can hinder an already difficult dance. "We do a double attitude turn, and at the very end of it, you have to whip the ribbon up a little bit more so it comes completely around again," says soloist Elizabeth Powell. "Sometimes I'll feel it go around my wrist or kind of swipe my feather."

Even though dancers start working with the ribbons on the first day of rehearsals, Powell has seen and experienced a host of onstage mishaps in her eight years of dancing the role. Once, her ribbon got completely tied up with another dancer's, and no amount of creative flicking could disentangle the knot. They made a snap decision to toss the props offstage rather than muddle through the choreography. Powell's best advice for stress-inducing props is to keep things in perspective: "If something crazy does happen, it's live theater. It wouldn't be the first time and it won't be the last."

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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."

Students of International City School of Ballet in Marietta, Georgia. Karl Hoffman Photography, Courtesy International City Ballet

A Ballet Student’s Guide to Researching Pre-Professional Training Programs

Many dancers have goals of taking their training to the next level by attending full-time pre-professional programs next fall. But it's hard to get to know the organizations without physically experiencing them first. Even when the world isn't practicing social distancing, visiting a school or attending its summer program isn't always possible. So, what can students and their families do to research programs and know what might work best for them? Who do you reach out to, and what are the questions you and your parents should be asking?

Here, pre-professional-program leaders share some practical advice for taking the next step in your dance training.

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American Ballet Theatre corps member Rachel Richardson. NYC Dance Project, Courtesy Rachel Richardson

ABT’s Rachel Richardson on Performing With Her Hometown Company, Eugene Ballet

When I signed my first professional contract with Eugene Ballet, one of the last things I anticipated was the opportunity to dance beside a member of American Ballet Theatre. Flash forward to the start of our spring season this year, and suddenly I'm chatting in the hallway and rehearsing the Cinderella fairy variations next to luminous ABT corps member Rachel Richardson. When ABT announced it was canceling live performances for the 2020–21 season, Richardson traveled back home to Eugene, Oregon, to be with her family—and this spring joined the company as a guest artist.

Growing up, Richardson trained locally in Eugene before moving to The Rock School for Dance Education's year-round program in Philadelphia. After securing a spot in the ABT Studio Company in 2013, she was promoted to corps de ballet in 2015. This unconventional year marks her sixth season with the main company.

After having the privilege of dancing with her this spring, I sat down with Richardson to discuss her recent guesting experience, how the pandemic has helped her grow and her advice for young dancers.

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