A portrait of Fanny Elssler, Courtesy Olga Smoak.

#TBT: All About Romantic Ballerina Fanny Elssler, Plus a Brand New Recreation of Her Famous "La Cachucha"

This Thursday, we're throwing it all the way back to Fanny Elssler, one of the most famous ballerinas of the Romantic period. Elssler may have graced stages far before the age of reality TV and Instagram, but her story is anything but dry. Last week, the Historic New Orleans Collection put on a symposium on the history of dance in New Orleans, of which Elssler played a pivotal role. We spoke with dance historian Olga Smoak to find out more about why this ballerina is still so exciting... nearly 200 years later.

But first, watch a recreation of Elssler's famous "La Cachucha," which she performed in New Orleans in 1841, danced by Rebecca Allen at the HNOC last week. Note the extreme tilts of the torso; they're part of what made Elssler such a captivating dancer in her day.


​Who was Fanny Elssler? 

Elssler was born in Vienna in 1810 to a family of artists; her father worked for the composer Joseph Haydn. Elssler's family was very large, so according to Smoak, her parents sent her and her sister Therese to the Imperial School of Ballet so that they could save money by feeding fewer mouths. When she was roughly 16, she was taken to Naples for further study, had an affair with the Prince of Salerno, and became pregnant. Due to his royal status she was unable to marry him, so she returned to Vienna and gave birth to a son, Franz. She immediately gave him up and turned her focus back to her career. "She never felt she gave him the love he deserved; he had a very difficult life," says Smoak.

After her success in Naples, she was invited to Berlin to perform, and soon fell in love with a young man her age, and became pregnant again. Next, she made her way to London, where she met a kind woman named Mrs. Grote whose husband was a member of parliament; three months later, the Grotes agreed to adopt Elssler's newly born daughter, though Elssler maintained contact with her. Now, at age 19, Elssler's career took off in earnest.

Path to Stardom

Up until that time, the most famous ballerina of the day was Marie Taglioni. In 1834, Taglioni was the leading prima of the company that is today the Paris Opéra Ballet. The director thought that she was becoming too demanding, and wanted to provide her with a foil. He invited Elssler to Paris and gave her a contract with the company, creating a rivalry with Taglioni. "It was the most important company," says Smoak. "It's what every dancer at the time wanted." Though many believe that Taglioni was the stronger dancer of the two, Elssler's novelty helped her to take off. She found her niche with the Spanish "La Cachucha" variation from the 1836 ballet Le Diable boiteux, and adapted the steps to her liking. "She really hit the jackpot with that dance," says Smoak. "She became so famous in it that people took casts of her foot, made porcelain figurines of her, and chocolates in her name." While Taglioni was known for her ethereality and the quality of her jumps, Elssler was celebrated for her sharp, quick footwork.

Elssler in Cracovienne. Portrait Courtesy Olga Smoak.

Elssler in America 

By the late 1930s, Elssler had a repertoire of ballets, and spent her summers traveling to other cities to perform, much like dancers do with their summer layoffs today. At the time, she was involved with a count she'd met backstage. "He was her so-called protector," explains Smoak. The count had to leave the country, and was nervous leaving her alone, so in 1841 he connected with a producer in Philadelphia and arranged a tour to the U.S. Elssler took a leave of absence from the Paris Opéra, and set sail across the Atlantic with a male partner, a maid and a coachman in tow. When she arrived in New York, she hired a handful of dancers to join her on a tour of three cities: New York, Philadelphia and New Orleans. "People expected her not only to dance 'La Cachucha' but to dance the major ballets she did at the Paris Opéra," says Smoak. "She had to adapt much of what she danced for small spaces, with very few dancers and musicians." Nevertheless, Elssler was an immediate hit. "Audiences went berserk," says Smoak.

The New Orleans Connection

When Elssler made her way to New Orleans, audiences welcomed her with open arms. Smoak attributes her great success there to the city's origins. "New Orleans was never an Anglo Saxon city," she says. "It went directly from the French to the Spanish to the United States." Elssler was popular with both groups: People of Spanish descent were wowed by her Spanish-influenced "La Cachucha," and people of French descent were thrilled to see a dancer from the great Paris Opéra Ballet. While based in New Orleans, Elssler also toured to Cuba and to Washington, DC, where Congress closed so that all of the members could attend her performance. Elssler stayed in the U.S. for a total of two years; after realizing how much money she could make on tour in America (between $500-$1,000 a night; roughly $15,000-$30,000 today), she ultimately gave up her position in Paris. Eventually Elssler returned to Europe, and ultimately retired near Hamburg, dying of cancer in 1878.

"Elssler is an incredible symbol of the 19th Century," says Smoak. Happy #ThrowbackThursday!


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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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