Dancing Voluntaries

A stage is seldom thought to be a lonely place, but for me, the most alone I have ever felt was standing in place in semi-darkness, my forehead resting on my partner’s shoulder, waiting for the curtain to go up at the beginning of Glen Tetley’s Voluntaries. Ahead was an impossible task: to dance this beautiful, demanding and highly personal ballet fully and with honesty.

 

This year, companies around the world are dancing Voluntaries in celebration of Tetley’s 80th birthday (see box on page 61). In the 33 years since the ballet’s
première, it has struck a chord with critics and audiences alike, but it holds a special place in the hearts of dancers who have performed it because of what it teaches them.

 

Voluntaries is a challenge not because of its unique movement vocabulary, nor because the entire cast is costumed in unforgiving white unitards; it is challenging because in Voluntaries movement and meaning are one.

 

Created for the Stuttgart Ballet in 1973 following the death of that company’s director, John Cranko, this 27-minute masterpiece for 17 dancers is an affirmation of life in the face of death. To dance it is to literally and metaphorically journey from a place of darkness to one of light. It is an amazing work to learn and a joy to
perform, but it does not come easily. For me, and the dancers with whom I spoke for this story, dancing Voluntaries was a transforming experience as much
for the insight Tetley brings to the art of dancing as for the choreography.

 

“It was devastating,” recalls Tetley about the time he spent in Stuttgart creating the ballet. Cranko had died suddenly, on a flight home with the company from a successful U.S. tour. “No one could talk about [the fact] that John, who had created this company, was suddenly missing. Yet he was there—everywhere—at the same time. That was inside all of us during the creation of Voluntaries.

 

Tetley’s answer to that devastation was to devise movement that seems to ask those who dance it to communicate transcendence by experiencing it. “When I was a dancer,” says Tetley, “I always wanted to be pushed to the limit—to the extremes.”

 

That is exactly what he asks his dancers to do in all of his ballets, but especially in Voluntaries. “I have to go physically into a work,” he says. “I want a deep physical reaction to the music.”

 

Actually, Voluntaries begins in silence. The curtain rises on the central couple alone on the stage. They move forward into the light; she turns, extends one leg in a long reaching breath, and then is lifted straight up, her arms circling, twisting from the center of her being, as the first chord of Francis Poulenc’s Concerto in G major for Organ, Strings and Timpani tears through the air—“like the voice of God,” says Tetley.

 

“It’s a very hard way to start a ballet,” says Sara Webb of Houston Ballet. She and Connor Walsh danced the central couple in that company’s première of Voluntaries in September. “You feel very exposed.”

 

Fortunately, the music carries you. Beginning with that first powerful organ chord, the score is also rich with moments of tender solemnity and soaring spirituality.

 

“For me, the organ music was very special,” says Maria Eichwald, who danced Voluntaries when it returned to Stuttgart Ballet’s repertoire in February for the celebration of Tetley’s 80th birthday. “I related to the ballet musically, mainly, and [then] through the music, emotionally.”

 

“This, for me, is a classical work,” says Tetley. “In my own definition, the word ‘classic’ means pure of its kind, and the work—the movement—has a purity.” 

 

Tetley likes to work with technically adept dancers and expects them to push themselves to move in ways they have never moved before, fusing the extended lines of classical ballet with the articulated torso of modern dance.

 

“The steps were not difficult, but they were different from the way of moving I am used [to] through my classical education,” says Eichwald. “We worked not so much with the legs, as is normal for classical ballet, but a lot with the whole body.”

 

It can be difficult for ballet dancers to incorporate the contractions and use of the breath that are so much a part of Tetley’s style. Voluntaries is tightly choreographed, but the movement should look as if it is coming out of the dancer.

 

“Glen loves that you use your back all the time,” says Augustus van Heerden, who, with Yvonne Hall, was half of the first-cast principal couple in Dance Theatre of Harlem’s production of Voluntaries. He has subsequently set the ballet for Tetley on companies around the globe. “Glen loves that the whole body is working. He’ll say, ‘Do it again. No, do it again; no, until you get it, and you actually feel what it is. He may verbalize some things, but some things he wants your body to learn so that it becomes part of the dance.”

 

Ballet dancers are trained to understand movement from how it looks, but Voluntaries forces you to realize that ballet is so much more than beautiful positions and well-executed steps.

 

Everyone who dances Voluntaries comments on how grueling it is. The rehearsal period was one of the most arduous I experienced as a dancer. I remember clearly the struggles my wonderful partners—first Lowell Smith, and then Eddie Shellman—and I had. Aside from building the stamina required to get through five pas de deux (the first one—a lesson in complete interdependence—consisting of almost seven minutes of overhead lifts, stage-covering runs, smoothly contained movement and suspensions that reach and fall), we labored to learn choreography in a vocabulary that threw into question my ability to dance, which, in turn, forced me to face what I meant by aspiring to be an artist.

 

“Glen said to me that you don’t learn how to be an artist. You become an artist by nourishing your soul and the spirit within you,” says Pacific Northwest Ballet’s Patricia Barker. “If you will allow yourself to open up, it’s food.”

 

Though demanding, Tetley was supportive and inspiring in rehearsal. His faith in the work and what he sensed you could do as a dancer created an environment in which you could learn how to trust yourself, your partner, and most importantly, the choreography.

 

“When I first did Voluntaries, I was still very young,” says Barker, whose interpretation of Voluntaries is one of Tetley’s favorites. “In this ballet, Glen provided me with a real inner focus. It was the first time I had experienced such guidance. I was very step oriented, and it was a
difficult process for me. He made me very uncomfortable, but he was very honest and I truly trusted him. It was a real breakthrough for me, dancing this ballet and being able to work with him.”

 

Despite the movement’s fluid quality, it is very specific, as is the timing, though there is an organic quality to how it works.

 

“It’s never been about the steps,” says van Heerden. “It’s always about something. It’s not necessarily how you move your hands, but what the movement is supposed to mean, so there is leeway there. It is how the whole body moves for those movements that makes the image that he wants to see.”

 

In the process of rehearsal, we learned that, by doing the movement fully, the emotion is conveyed; there was no need to dramatize it or “perform” it, as in the woman’s soliloquy at the end of the ballet.

 

“Everything from that point always balances the pull between this thing that you can no longer touch, but that you are still reaching for,” says Tetley to describe what is happing in the solo. “The movement—all the balances—are done with this [idea], not as a finished point, but a pull between two.”

 

That tension made the end of Voluntaries as sublime as the beginning was terrifying. Transcendence is at hand, but there is still a price to be paid.

 

“I found [the solo] the most difficult moment of the entire ballet,” says Barker. “It’s not that technical, but it was the first time I wasn’t being touched onstage. No one was helping me come out of a step or guiding me or had a hand on me. It was complete vulnerability.”

 

There it is, the loneliness of loss—learning how to exist on your own. At the end of that solo, the woman walks forward into her partner’s hands, and in the next moment she is soaring high above the stage in an overhead lift.

 

That moment was always completely miraculous to me—suddenly I was flying. Of course, there were mechanical things that my partner and I did to make that long mid-air suspension possible, but who was thinking mechanics? Tetley set the wheel in motion for us to fly, and we did.

 

Voluntaries remains a celebrated ballet. Each generation of dancers that has tackled its complexities comes away from it with a heightened understanding of what it is to dance. But ballets are not produced for the dancers. Voluntaries speaks to audiences as well. It was made in response to a great loss, and that is something that is universal.

 

“Glen truly captured what it is like to mourn,” says Webb. “When we had a performance on September 10, I really did feel like I was reaching toward all of those people who died on September 11,” says Webb. “Other nights I felt like I was just reaching for soldiers that had died that my husband knew when he was in Iraq. I was just reaching for somebody that I couldn’t touch, that I wished was there but wasn’t.”

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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

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