Gabriel Gaffney Smith with Caitlin Valentine in Edwaard Liang's Distant Cries

Jennifer Zmuda, Courtesy BalletMet

Gabriel Gaffney Smith Says Farewell to BalletMet for Careers in Visual Art and Music

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

For 35-year-old Gabriel Gaffney Smith, retiring from BalletMet is more about switching focus than a bona fide farewell to dance. A modern-day Renaissance man, Smith is also a choreographer, composer and visual artist. His road to being a dancer began at age 12 at New York's Saugerties Ballet Center. He then attended Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre School before becoming a member of the main company in 2005.

In 2008, he joined BalletMet, where he has not only danced but has had opportunities to choreograph and compose music for the company. He has also collaborated with musicians and choreographers, composing works created for The Washington Ballet, Kansas City Ballet, Cincinnati Ballet and Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre. As a visual artist, his woodcarvings have been shown at the Columbus Museum of Art and in galleries across the United States. (See samples of his artwork and music at GabrielGaffneySmith.com.) Smith, at home in Columbus, Ohio, with fiancée and fellow BalletMet dancer Carly Wheaton, reflected on his career and talked about why he's shifting his attention toward his other artistic loves.


Carly Wheaton and Gabriel Gaffney Smith, wearing knee-length black leggings and zip-up tops, face each other and lunge towards the audience. Wheaton looks into Smith's outstretched hand as a string quartet plays in the background.

Smith dancing alongside his fiancée, BalletMet dancer Carly Wheaton

Jennifer Zmuda, Courtesy BalletMet

When did you decide that you wanted to make dance a career?

A game-changer for me was attending Miami City Ballet's summer program as a young dancer. I was around amazing dancers at a high level that were training to be in ballet companies. There, I felt how incredible ballet was and how I could express myself in it.

What were some of the challenges you faced as a student?

There was a bit of bullying as a kid, but I never really let that bother me. For me the biggest challenge was starting a bit late, at 12, and trying to catch up. Those things were just fuel for my fire to prove I could make it.

What advice would you give young dance students looking to pursue a career like yours?

Work hard and be respectful to the people around you. Explore your physical body, such as your port de bras, along with movement outside of ballet. If you have an idea, just use your imagination and make it happen.

Why are you retiring now?

I had been thinking about this for a couple of years. For me, I really wanted to spend more time making visual art and music. I am not afraid to move on to the second act of my life.

What will you miss most about company life?

Going in every day and taking class, creating characters and the process of making dance. I will also miss the people and the friendships made in the studio.

Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, you missed out on an onstage farewell. Have you looked into returning for a final onstage performance?

I am definitely interested in one and have been in conversation with artistic director Edwaard Liang. It would be pretty incredible if things worked out, but if not, that's just how the cookie crumbled for me.

One of Smith's abstract artworks, entitled Shark Girl.

Courtesy Gabriel Gaffney Smith.

You have choreographed and created music for several dance companies. How will that play a role in your career going forward?

I see myself creating multimedia events, like a gallery opening that incorporates dance and music, or dance films and music videos, along with choreographing and composing more for dance companies.

Has the pandemic sidelined or delayed any of your projects?

Yes and no. Right now, there are a lot of private collections I am creating artwork for. I also have things in the works for an art opening with music and more that will happen post-pandemic.

What else is in your plans going forward?

I want to ski. I was a major skier before I got seriously into ballet. I want to travel too. I also see myself doing small projects as a dancer.

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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."

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