The author, Kyra Laubacher

Antonio Anacan, Courtesy #instaballet

My First In-Theater Performance as a Pro Dancer Included Masks and Social Distancing—and It Was Exhilarating

This is one of a series of articles following one young dancer as she starts her career in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic.

Two months into my professional career—and eight months after the coronavirus shutdown forced theaters to close and dancers to train virtually from home—I finally feel like I'm back in shape. Throughout October, Eugene Ballet, where I am an aspirant, provided morning company classes, and it was glorious. Even though we were broken up into pods, wearing masks and sanitizing the room after every class, I deeply appreciated our studio time. Each weekday from 9 am to 10:30 am, we practiced in one of two studios with our fellow pod-mates, gradually getting to know each other better and relishing each other's company (even while staying 6 feet apart).

The classes had amped up in difficulty, as well, pushing us to break out of the "maintenance mode" we had been operating in since the beginning of quarantine. One particular adagio exercise included a full promenade in attitude derrière en relevé (yikes!). But as frustrated as I was trying to rise to the level of difficulty at hand, with time I felt that incredible feeling I'd been craving for so long: improvement.

Wearing a red and lack plaid shirt, jean shorts and pointe shoes, Kyra Laubacher stands on a rooftop and does a parallel pass\u00e9 with her left, pushing her arms forward with flexed hands.

Antonio Anacan, Courtesy #instaballet

Our season technically begins November 22. So when Eugene Ballet announced plans for a combined in-theater and livestreamed fundraiser program, Home Is Where the Art Is, for October 31, I couldn't wait to get into rehearsals. Along with five other company members, I was cast in a new work, In Place, created by our resident choreographer Suzanne Haag. Set to music by Yann Tiersen, the ballet took what we'd experienced in pandemic life—denial, distress, isolation, anger, absurdity and the comfort and community provided by others—and transformed it into a series of group numbers, duets and solos. I'd never danced in a work commenting on the here-and-now, and certainly not one about the social implications of a worldwide pandemic. It seemed fitting for In Place to be my first ballet with Eugene Ballet, the company that had given me my first professional contract despite the most contrary of circumstances.

Home Is Where the Art Is was designed as a fundraiser program separate from our regular season, with proceeds benefiting the construction of Eugene Ballet's new Midtown Arts Center, opening in early 2021. Split between a small, socially distanced live audience and online viewers, the program marked the company's first attempt to broadcast a live onstage performance. It would also be the first performance at Eugene's Hult Center for the Performing Arts since March. In short, this had to be a success—not only artistically and fiscally, but to prove both organizations' resiliency and preparedness to continue performing safely.

After two and a half weeks of in-studio rehearsals, we took the program to the Hult for spacing and tech runs. Each of us had been completing health checks, wearing masks, sanitizing and distancing for quite some time, so those policies were easy to integrate into backstage procedures. Newer safety precautions included extreme divisions of dancers between dressing rooms (I felt so spoiled—my dressing-room mates and I each had about seven mirrors' worth of space!), hallway traffic patterns designated for company members and stagehands, and marked "safe zones" backstage for dancers who needed to catch their breath, sans mask. And while I've used foundation to pancake my pointe shoes and bodice elastics before, for this performance I had to also pancake the white elastics of my costume's cherry-red face mask to blend in with my jawline. Yet I was much too excited about finally setting foot onstage to really pay attention to the odd novelty of what I was doing.

A male and female dancer face each other onstage wearing red socks, gloves and a masks. The woman, in a red leotard, stands with her feet apart and her arms wide and hands flexed while the man, in a black leotard, lunges toward her on his left foot.

Laubacher with fellow Eugene Ballet dancer Antonio Lopez in Suzanne Haag's In Place.

Courtesy Laubacher

And that excitement was justified. When I first looked out into the empty theater before onstage warm-up class, my world stopped for a moment. Here was the crux of my reality: the culmination of my first professional onstage performance, the months spent desperately wanting to be back in the theater and the sheer uncanniness of pandemic life. I felt a wave of adrenaline, awe and nerves inside me. But as I set my bag down, took my spot at the barre and surveyed the lights, curtains, wings and marley floor, I couldn't ignore that I also felt at home.

And when I finally took my first step onstage with my fellow company members during Saturday night's performance, everything seemed surreal. The mixture of distinct newness and comforting familiarity rocked my system with a feeling I'd never experienced before, and one I don't know I'll ever feel to that extent again. I could sense it from my fellow dancers, too—every wide eye, deep breath and anxious jitter carried a special weight. After all the months of dancing at home, waiting anxiously and struggling to get back in shape, we had made it back to the stage together. We stood in front of an audience that reached beyond the theater walls, and I took my first professional bow in a state of absolute wonderment. This was, for many reasons, the performance of a lifetime.

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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.

8 Virtual Dance Performances to Watch in May

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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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