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On My Own: Building a Freelance Career Can Offer Opportunities for Growth

One of my first jobs as a freelance dancer was performing at a gallery opening for the artist Alex Prager in September 2016. The audience was feet away—one miscalculated battement could land squarely in someone's face. Normally, this situation would have jarred me. Earlier in my career as a soloist with Pennsylvania Ballet, I struggled with varying degrees of stage fright, ranging from preshow jitters to fairly debilitating panic. Yet now at the gallery, I was surprised to find how little the audience's closeness unnerved me. Being face-to-face with performance-goers enabled me to confront my fear in a very literal way. The experience awakened me, showing me that freelancing could offer opportunities for growth I hadn't found in company life.

Transitioning from a professional company to freelance dancing can be daunting. Holding yourself accountable for taking class and securing your own performance opportunities is a dramatic shift when you're used to having those things provided for you. Yet freelancing often enables dancers to shape careers that are fulfilling in uniquely personal ways. As the coronavirus dramatically alters the company experience, building a freelance career can offer meaning and possibility for dancers as they adapt to shifting circumstances.

Evelyn Kocak, wearing a white and blue unitard and ballet slippers, takes pench\u00e9 while her partner (wearing the same costume) holds her back leg

The author Evelyn Kocak at New York's Whitney Museum in a project with visual artist Nick Maus

Courtesy Evelyn Kocak

Accepting the Unexpected

A freelance dance career often evolves out of circumstantial necessity. Argentinian-born dancer Jonatan Lujan left the Slovak National Theatre to be together with his wife, American Ballet Theatre soloist Luciana Paris, and their young son in New York City. The variety of projects and flexibility of New York's freelance scene offered him the best opportunity for balancing work and family life. "There are a lot of things I can do here," says Lujan. "I decided I will definitely change my life and I will go there and try."

Freelancing can be a difficult adjustment when it doesn't feel like a choice, especially if due to job loss. When a massive layoff by a newly appointed director precipitated my own departure from Pennsylvania Ballet in 2016, I found it challenging to simultaneously process the trauma, adapt to my new scenario and initially pursue freelancing with confidence. With the coronavirus pandemic threatening the future of ballet companies more broadly, many may face similar challenges of adjusting to suddenly unfamiliar professional terrain.

In addition to securing gigs, juggling an inconsistent schedule and staying in shape, freelancers often take on additional part-time work to make ends meet. Since moving to New York, I've held jobs in the retail, fitness and service industries to support my dance aspirations while attending school full-time at Hunter College. While it's not easy, these circumstances have reaffirmed my love of the art form, encouraging me to discover the creative potential of my dance career.

A male dancer in a gray suit and tie tugs at his right lapel and crosses his right foot in front while popping his left foot up.

Jonatan Lujan

James Jin, Courtesy Jonatan Lujan

The Power of Choice

As COVID-19 asks us to reimagine what the future in dance might look like, freelancing provides a way to expand our participation in this vision. For one thing, it enables dancers to choose projects and collaborators that align more closely with their artistic ideals. For former Joffrey Ballet dancer Abigail Simon, an early freelancing experience working with Tony Award–winning director and choreographer Rob Ashford on the musical Carousel revealed acting talents she had once been told she didn't possess. The process helped her to understand the restrictions of company life. "I want to work with people that want me, in an environment where we're all creative and supporting each other," she says. Afterwards Simon freelanced as a principal guest artist before joining the international tour of An American in Paris.

Lujan has been fortunate to find consistent work, collaborating with the likes of MorDance, Tom Gold Dance and Diana Vishneva, on her Sleeping Beauty Dreams project. (He admits that the demand for male partners has helped provide many projects.) A particular highlight for Lujan has been working with Felipe Escalante and his company Tabula Rasa Dance Theater. The experience, he says, "was really special, because the choreographer is so focused on working with the dancer, and the work offers another kind of mentality about movement."

A female ballerina in a maroon leotard stands on an outdoor stage in tendu deri\u00e9rre, looking back over her right shoulder.

Abigail Simon

Ricky Wang, Courtesy Abigail Simon

Building Your Career

Losing the stability that a company provides takes getting used to. Simon notes she misses "a consistent paycheck and health insurance." Lujan says the lack of a routine can leave him feeling unmotivated at times.

Still, the potential for taking the reins of one's own career is undeniably appealing. In addition to dancing, Simon has started her own representation and master-class-teaching company, Simon and Thompson Entertainment. For Lujan, the coronavirus pandemic has necessitated the use of digital platforms for performing and teaching—a creative solution he was fully prepared to embrace given freelancing's flexibility.

When I left Pennsylvania Ballet, I knew only that I wanted to end up in New York City. Four years later, my freelance career has given me the opportunity to dance in Europe, to collaborate with artists of different mediums, and to perform the Nutcracker pas de deux with two of my best friends (former Miami City Ballet dancer Michael Sean Breeden and New York City Ballet soloist Daniel Applebaum). Dancing as an independent artist has freed me from the fear I once felt onstage, giving me ownership over my dancing in a way companies could not provide and helping me to connect with the audience. Simon urges that nothing in a dancer's career is a waste, noting that her experiences in companies led her to where she is today: "Once you figure out a way to utilize everything that you do, you'll be successful."

5 Tips for Dancers New to Freelancing

As the coronavirus changes the landscape of the ballet world, many dancers will likely embrace unexpected freelance opportunities. Here are five tips for dancers new to navigating them.

  1. Stay open to possibilities. Even if the project seems out of your comfort zone, welcome the chance to learn a new style or way of working.
  2. Discuss payment early. It can be an awkward conversation, but negotiating pay before agreeing to the terms of the engagement is critical for avoiding larger misunderstandings down the line. Ask how often you will receive a check (weekly, every two weeks, a one-time fee?) and whether taxes will be taken out.
  3. Agree on a rehearsal schedule. Laying out expectations for how often and when you will rehearse is important for avoiding conflict and injury.
  4. Discuss shoe and costume requirements. Understanding what supplies will be provided or required of you early on can help you budget and negotiate for assistance with covering expenses.
  5. Create a routine for yourself. Even if it differs from the daily class schedule of a ballet company, make sure you have a wellness routine in place to take care of your physical and mental health.

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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

A Ballet Student’s Guide to Researching Pre-Professional Training Programs

Many dancers have goals of taking their training to the next level by attending full-time pre-professional programs next fall. But it's hard to get to know the organizations without physically experiencing them first. Even when the world isn't practicing social distancing, visiting a school or attending its summer program isn't always possible. So, what can students and their families do to research programs and know what might work best for them? Who do you reach out to, and what are the questions you and your parents should be asking?

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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