Eris Nezha in Glen Tetley's Voluntaries at La Scala Ballet

R. Amisano, Courtesy Nezha

After a Long International Career, L.A. Ballet's Eris Nezha Hopes for a Future in Filmmaking

In addition to cancelled shows, the coronavirus pandemic has disrupted final performances for many retiring dancers. This week, Pointe is giving several retiring principals and soloists a chance to reflect on their careers and offer advice to the next generation.

Eris Nezha has been a principal dancer with Los Angeles Ballet since 2018, but that is just one aspect of his long international career. He began training in his homeland at the National Ballet Academy of Albania in Tirana, later attending Milan's Teatro alla Scala Ballet School. In addition to dancing as a principal at La Scala Ballet and Boston Ballet, he has traveled the world as an international guest artist, performing with Staatsballett Berlin, Zagreb National Ballet and Tirana National Ballet, to name a few.

Nezha was set to retire at the end of this season in Thordal Christensen's The Sleeping Beauty, which has since been postponed until summer of 2021. His last performance was in February opposite his wife, fellow principal dancer Petra Conti, in George Balanchine's Agon. Pointe caught up with Nezha to talk about his life onstage and his exciting plans for the future.



How do you feel about the cancellation of your final performance due to COVID-19?

In these sad times, the priorities are different—personal success needs to be put aside. It is definitely more important to stay healthy, safe and connected with our families. We are all in this together, and if my part is to stay home and not perform one last show, I am happy to do so. I feel very grateful and happy with all that I have accomplished.

What was the most rewarding or challenging role you have danced in your career?

The most challenging was probably my 2005 debut in my first lead role, Des Grieux in Sir Kenneth MacMillan's Manon. Not only was it my first time leading a three-act ballet, but the role requires incredible technical, partnering and artistic skills. Before my premiere, I could see in the eyes of my director and teachers joy, pride and worry all at the same time—they were relying on me and trusting me in something very important.

Eris Nezha, wearing white briefs, squats into second position and cradles the head of Petra Conti, who is wearing a sparkly white top and briefs.

Nezha with Petra Conti in L'Altro Casanova, choreography by Gianluca Schiavoni

Costin Radu, Courtesy Nezha

How has it been sharing the stage with your wife, Petra Conti?

I met Petra in Italy—we were both guest principal dancers for the ballet Cinderella, and she was only 17 years old. I was her partner in her first three-act ballet. We met again some years later when we both danced Giselle with La Scala. We worked really hard for our debut, and the critics were enthusiastic about our freshness on stage. Everyone started saying that there was an incredible connection between us… I guess we were the last to see it!

Sharing my life on and offstage with Petra has been my greatest fortune. Ballet is not just our job, it has made us who we are today, and it connects us on so many levels. What scares me most about my retirement is that I will not be there every day in the studio with her. That's how we have existed for so many years—it has been our secret power.

How has ballet changed your life?

Ballet has always been a part of my life. Not doing ballet will definitely change my life. I am both excited and scared of this.

Eris Nezha, wearing a white Romeo costume, stands in front of a red and gold curtain.

Nezha takes a bow.

R. Amisano, Courtesy Nezha

What advice would you give to young dancers, especially young men, looking to have a long, successful career?

Success is not a straight line. An artist will hear many "no's," and will often feel alone. In my experience, not giving up and believing in myself and my qualities has been fundamental. I would add that for a male dancer, it is important to learn partnering technique early. It is not easy, but in most cases, a good partner has many more possibilities and will be able to advance faster in his ballet career.

What are your post-retirement plans?

I am currently the producer for the second edition of the Petra Conti Show, an original fusion of performing arts in collaboration with Dream Orchestra. The performance was postponed because of the pandemic, but I am enjoying the creation process, as having more time for such a big event means being able to explore, research more and prepare better.

Petra and I have also created the Z Ballet Masters Project, to coach and mentor the next generation of dancers (the "Z" is for "Generation Z"). For now, we don't have a fixed location, but we teach master classes and privates in Los Angeles County. Our bigger plans involve opening one or multiple locations.

I am also very interested in the movie industry. Currently, I am engaged as a production assistant for the movie Midnight in Switchgrass, which will continue shooting once the health crisis is over. Becoming a filmmaker is my dream goal.

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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."

Michael Cairns, Courtesy Orlando Ballet

Returning to Live Audiences: How 4 Companies Have Gotten Back Onstage

Performing in front of live audiences again has been every ballet organization's goal since the COVID-19 pandemic began more than a year ago. With vaccinations on the rise and light appearing at the end of the tunnel, companies are slowly starting to come back to in-person shows.

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#TBT: Antoinette Sibley in "Cinderella" (1969)

With its fairytale magic and ludicrous stepsisters, Sir Frederick Ashton's Cinderella is full of whimsy and charm. The choreography is also playfully challenging with quirky, intricate phrasing that illuminates Prokofiev's score. Antoinette Sibley, a former principal of The Royal Ballet, revels in the challenges as the titular Cinderella. A master of speed and staccato, Sibley is a frothy delight in her Act II variation in this clip from 1969.

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