Carney rehearses "Waltz of the Flowers" with Kansas City Ballet's Tempe Ostergren. Photo by Jessica Kelly, Courtesy KCB.

At Devon Carney's Kansas City Ballet, the Roster of Dancers Keeps Growing

This story originally appeared in the April/May 2016 issue of Pointe.

“There's always boxes of color to help with that," says Kansas City Ballet artistic director Devon Carney when I ask him if the long hours in the studio are turning his hair gray. It's November, and he's creating the company's new $2 million Nutcracker production. “I love it," he says. “There's nothing like making something that will influence kids in their development as dancers."

For Carney, there was a lot to love about the situation he stepped into in 2013 as only the fourth artistic director in Kansas City Ballet's 59-year history. (Carney's predecessor, William Whitener, retired after 17 years to work as an independent choreographer, teacher and arts advocate.) The company had recently moved into a brand-new, state-of-the-art facility, had a new performance home at the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts and was free of debt. “It was pretty spectacular," says Carney.


Now into year three of a plan to increase the number of dancers, raise the level of artistry and transform the company's repertoire, Carney says the organization has already met most of those goals.

KCB, formerly known as the State Ballet of Missouri, was founded in 1957 by Tatiana Dokoudovska. Company dancer Logan Pachciarz says the AGMA-participating troupe has grown exponentially since he arrived in 2000. “It had about half the number of dancers then, and we did mostly ensemble works."

Carney, a former principal dancer and ballet master at Boston Ballet, says his decade-long term as associate artistic director at Cincinnati Ballet helped prepare him for his first directorship. Growing the organization was one of his priorities when he arrived. First, he created the six-member second company, KCB II. In 2015, he instituted a nine-dancer trainee program. The additional dancers, says Carney, are not only necessary to do full-length ballets and outreach, but have also relieved the 28 company dancers of some of the corps work, freeing them up for more soloist and principal roles.

“In my career, I had a chance to experience a lot of different styles," says Carney. “I think it's important that the dancers here have that kind of opportunity to grow. I believe in them, and when someone believed in me, it really changed my confidence level."

Carney with the company after a run through of "The Nutcracker." Photo by Jessica Kelly, Courtesy KCB.

With an annual operating budget of $8.5 million, Carney is cognizant of the ballets and choreographers he can bring in. Therefore, he needs performers who will excel in a variety of works. When hiring, Carney says, he looks for versatile dancers who will commit to the artistic intention of each piece. KCB now does a mix of full-length classics (something they did very little of before), neoclassical ballets like those of Balanchine, and contemporary works from a host of emerging and established choreographers, such as Edwaard Liang, Amy Seiwert, Jodie Gates and Val Caniparoli.

“He really challenges us to increase our technical level and ability," says Pachciarz of Carney. “He's a big fan of wide, sweeping movement and a lot of port de bras and épaulement."

Ballet master and former Cincinnati Ballet principal Kristi Capps, who Carney hired in 2014, says he is “demanding, but in a caring way. For Devon, to see a dancer not put forth maximum effort is heartbreaking because he knows how short a dancer's career is."

Carney is also an accomplished choreographer, having created works for Boston Ballet, BalletMet, Cincinnati Ballet and Cincinnati Opera. Pachciarz says he “is very methodical. He reads scores and thinks about how the movement fits into them." In addition to KCB's new Nutcracker, Carney mounted the company's first-ever full-length Swan Lake in February and restaged his Giselle for them in 2015.

Carney with KCB dancer Joshua Bodden during company class. Photo by Jessica Kelly, Courtesy KCB.

Artists who join KCB will step into a pretty spectacular situation, as Carney did. Their home, the new Todd Bolender Center for Dance & Creativity—a converted power plant—houses the company, administrative offices, Kansas City Ballet School and a 180-seat theater. Each production (apart from Nutcracker) runs two weekends at the Kauffman Center, with most performed to live music by the Kansas City Symphony. Dancers can benefit from extra performance opportunities in ongoing collaborations with organizations like the Lyric Opera of Kansas City, and they have the chance to choreograph as part of the company's annual New Moves program.

Next up for KCB, May 6–15, is Adam Hougland's Rite of Spring, along with works by Helen Pickett, Yuri Possokhov and a world premiere by Viktor Plotnikov. Beyond that, Carney's plans for KCB include continued growth, in every direction. He aspires to add more dancers, have more collaborations and to tour—something they've done very little of. “I believe in this company," says Carney. “There is so much left for us to do, and I am excited for what the future holds."

Audition Advice

The company holds open auditions January to March. Videos are accepted year-round as a preliminary audition, but Carney highly recommends dancers attend an open audition.

“Musicality is paramount to me, as is attentiveness to the material and being able to exactly reproduce it quickly," says Carney. Women generally need to be between 5' 4" and 5' 7". Male dancers should be 5' 10" and up, with strong partnering skills. Carney says he also places great importance on a dancer's demeanor, professional appearance, resumé and photo.

Kansas City Ballet At a Glance

  1. Number of dancers: 28
  2. Length of contract: 35 weeks
  3. Starting salary: $733 per week
  4. Performances per year: 48+
  5. Website: kcballet.org

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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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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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