Debra Austin and Jeffrey Gribler in Pennsylvania Ballet's production of Balanchine's "Rubies." Copyright Steven Caras, all rights reserved.

"We Are Moving Forward": Debra Austin on Balanchine, Nureyev, and Ballet's Diversity Issues

Debra Austin has a special place in dance history: In 1971, at age 16, she was the first African American woman George Balanchine hired into New York City Ballet. After nine years with the company and two years with Zurich Ballet, she joined Pennsylvania Ballet as a principal dancer, making her the first female African American principal hired by a major U.S. ballet company outside of Dance Theatre of Harlem. Famous for her buoyant jump, Austin's vast repertoire ranged from classical roles to Balanchine to Hans Van Manen. Since 1997, she's been passing on her knowledge as ballet master at Carolina Ballet, a company led by her former director at PAB, Robert "Ricky" Weiss.

In honor of her achievements, Texas Christian University's School of Classical and Contemporary Dance has named Austin as this year's Cecil H. and Ida Green Honors Chair. She started at TCU this week, where she's been leading master classes and cross-department collaborations, attending cultural events and giving lectures. We caught up with Austin prior to her residency to talk about her extraordinary career.



Where did you first start ballet?

I first studied ballet at a local school down the street, in the Riverdale section of the Bronx. The woman there told me I had no talent, so my parents said forget that. Luckily, a school called Children's Ballet Theatre in Carnegie Hall had an offshoot school in Riverdale. My teacher there was a former New York City Ballet soloist named Barbara Walczack—she was in the original cast of Agon.

When I was 11, Barbara contacted Diana Adams, then the director of School of American Ballet, and said, "I have a young girl I want you to see." She wanted me to have more training in a bigger atmosphere. Diana came and watched class and told Barbara she'd take me into the school the following year. At 12, I got a full Ford Foundation scholarship to SAB and a half scholarship to Professional Children's School. Sometimes I look back and think if I had not been given that opportunity, I would not have gotten this far in my career!

Were there other African American students at SAB at the time?

I remember one, in level B class. But that's about it. When I was 14 years old, the school—I think Diana had retired by this point— told me during my evaluations that I would never get into NYCB because I wouldn't blend into the corps of Swan Lake. But I didn't leave—why would I?

Talk about the day you got into the company.

When I was 16, Balanchine came and watched our class. Afterwards he took two of my classmates into the company. Then they called me into the office and told me to have my parents call them. I thought, are they going to tell me to go elsewhere? Because I already had it in my mind that I wasn't going to get into NYCB. I called my mom at work—at the time it was a dime for a pay phone—and told her to call them. Then she called me back and said, "Debbie, Mr. Balanchine just took you into the New York City Ballet!" You see, they had to ask my parents' permission because of my age and child labor laws. I was so thrilled!

Did it sink in that you were the first African American woman hired into NYCB?

No, not really. Mr. B didn't really want it to be publicized. Trust me, there were people who wanted to interview me and he kind of squashed that. I was one of his dancers, period, the end. Just like everybody else.

Were you aware of other black ballerinas during your early career?

No. When I was a child, Arthur Mitchell was who I could look up to and that was about it. I knew of Janet Collins. But at the time I didn't really know who Raven Wilkinson was. I used to pass her in the hallway of the theater when I was in NYCB and she was in City Opera—I didn't put it together until later.

Also, the timeframe between when I started at NYCB in 1971 and when Dance Theatre of Harlem was starting up was very close. Arthur wanted me to join. But I was like, "Arthur, I've worked all this time, I really want to dance for City Ballet."

Austin as the "Russian Girl" in Pennsylvania Ballet's production of Serenade. Copyright Steven Caras, all rights reserved.

What was it like working for Balanchine?

It was quite amazing. Choreography just poured out of him. He was very gentle in rehearsals. He made a solo for me in Ballo Della Regina that always catches my heart. To have been in the studio with him when he created that, the thought that this belongs to me, that this is mine, is so special to me.

What other featured roles did you perform?

John Clifford gave me my very first principal role when I was 19 in his Bartok No. 3. I danced the 3rd Movement principal in Symphony in C, and one of the five soloists in Divertmento No. 15. I danced Fall in Jerome Robbins Four Seasons, and the pas de deux in his Interplay. And for the 1975 Ravel Festival Jerry choreographed a ballet for me, Patricia McBride, Helgi Tomasson and Hermes Conde called Chansons Medecasses, which is now lost.

After nine years, why did you leave NYCB to join Zurich Ballet?

I just felt like I needed to get away and do something else. One of my best friends was in Zurich Ballet, and I had visited her and loved Switzerland. Also, Balanchine was there a lot—it was a sister company to NYCB, so it didn't really feel too far from the bird's nest. But it also gave me the opportunity to work with European choreographers. I did Myrtha in Heinz Spoerli's Giselle, I danced Hans Van Manen's works—it gave me another taste of what dancing was like outside my comfort zone.

You also danced with Rudolf Nureyev while you were there. What was he like?

Yes, our director Pat Neary used to invite him. We did his Manfred, and we all danced with him in it. Later I danced Apollo with him at Pennsylvania Ballet, for a gala—Suzanne Farrell came and danced Terpsichore and I was Calliope. I loved Rudi, he was a character. He could be very difficult and mean to people, but he was always really kind to me. I was a jumper and I could do double tours and double assembles, and in class he used to say, "Debbie, go show those boys how to do it."

How did you come to join Pennsylvania Ballet?

After two years in Switzerland I got homesick. When I came back, Balanchine was in the hospital and died shortly afterwards. Peter Martins asked if I wanted to rejoin NYCB, but I said no. I'd already danced there, and it was no longer under Balanchine. Peter said he knew someone who was about to get a directorship, and if I was interested he would put us in touch. It was Ricky Weiss at Pennsylvania Ballet. So Ricky called me up and watched me take class and then took me into Pennsylvania Ballet as a principal.

Were you expecting a principal contract?

I don't know—I didn't really think about it at the time. But my God, I had so much opportunity there. I did both Giselle and Myrtha, in the same performance series! I did all the classical roles— La Sylphide and Swan Lake and Coppélia. Richard Tanner's ballets, Lynn Taylor Corbett. And we did so much Balanchine: "Rubies," Symphony in C (I've danced in every movement), Donizetti Variations, Concerto Barocco—really everything!

Over the course of your career, did you ever feel like there were limitations placed on you?

No, not really. The only time I didn't get to dance a classical role was after Ricky left PAB and we were without a director for a while. We were doing John Cranko's Romeo and Juliet and the person who came in to set it didn't cast me as Juliet. I don't know what the reason was, but that was the first time ever that I felt like, "Hmm…"

Ricky told me a few years ago that a stager once questioned casting me as the Sylph in La Sylphide. "I've never seen a black Sylph," he said, to which Ricky responded, "Well, have you ever actually seen a sylph?" I'm glad I didn't know about that conversation then, because it might have affected my confidence and made the role hard to perform.

Are you encouraged by the increased diversity initiatives in ballet companies now?

Yes, very much. I'm on the diversity committee at SAB, and I've taught at DTH and have been part of their mentorship program. And now I'm here in Texas working with TCU. What Misty Copeland has done, which is so wonderful, is bring diversity to the forefront at ballet companies, because dancers have been rejected because they were black, or Asian—it's a fact. And it has also given black dancers from past generations a place in history. When you think about it, I was at NYCB by myself for nine years—there was no other black dancer until I left. So we are moving forward.

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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."

Tanya Howard in rehearsal Trase Pa. Photo by Karolina Kuras, Courtesy of NBoC.

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Students of Canada's National Ballet School. Bruce Zinger, Courtesy Ballet Unleashed.

Ballet Unleashed Aims to Connect Emerging Dancers From 11 Academies With Freelance Opportunities

To any pre-professional dancer vying for a company position, auditions are a familiar and often dreaded scene: Hundreds of hopeful young graduates flock to an audition site, pin a paper number to their dance clothes and try their luck. But only a few will receive full-time contracts with companies—the rest will go home disappointed, potentially facing a gap year as they try to figure out next steps.

Mavis Staines, artistic director and CEO of Canada's National Ballet School, became frustrated with this flawed system years ago. Why were so many talented dancers not being rewarded with work opportunities? And why was the only acceptable form of work a full-season contract, when in the music and theater industries, project-based employment was a legitimized way to build careers?

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