Getting Into Galas

A gala can offer career opportunities, artistic growth and one-of-a-kind performance experiences.

 

For audiences, a star-studded international gala is a treat: a rare opportunity to see high-profile artists from all over the world on a single stage. But these engagements are also invaluable for the dancers who perform in them. “A gala is a great opportunity to see how dancers at different companies approach their work and their artistry,” says Bridgett Zehr, a principal at the National Ballet of Canada, who has performed in Stars of the 21st Century in Toronto, the International Ballet Star Gala in Taipei and Youth America Grand Prix in New York City.

 

For professional dancers, being in a gala can get you guest artist work, enhance your prominence in the ballet world and even lead to higher-paying jobs. But how do you nab a gala gig? Through recommendations, networking and self-promotion.

 

Ask for an Invitation
Most gala directors invite dancers with name recognition, but they will also hire performers based on recommendations. “I ask my friends in different companies, and I keep my head in the loop about what’s going on in other countries,” says Larissa Saveliev, co-founder and artistic director of Youth America Grand Prix, which produces galas all over the world. “If I hear that something was a big success or someone stood out in a certain piece, I make a catalog for myself, from which I later put together the gala.”

 

Don’t let this discourage you from soliciting an invitation, especially if you live far from where the gala takes place. A DVD is the best way to put your name in the hat. “I welcome submissions,” says Denise Roberts Hurlin, founding director of Dancers Responding to AIDS, which produces the Fire Island Dance Festival. She gives preference to companies who do audience appeals for DRA, but also leaves room for emerging artists who may not yet have the big seasons or resources to do so.

 

Research the gala before expressing interest. Is it classical? Contemporary? Is it a fundraiser, like the outdoor Fire Island Dance Festival? Or is it a glitzy engagement in an opera house? Once you know what a particular gala is after, craft a brief letter of introduction that highlights how you are uniquely qualified. Then put together a package that includes a DVD, your upcoming performance schedule, a resumé, any reviews you’ve received, a letter of recommendation and references.


Make an Impressive DVD
When you put together your reel, select work that showcases your versatility. “Make the DVD short and clear—I’m not going to watch more than 15 minutes,” says Victor Melnikoff, director of Le Gala des Étoiles based in Montreal. He receives 80 to 100 unsolicited DVDs each year. “In order for a new artist to catch my eye, the repertoire should be innovative and fresh—not just Don Qs and Corsaires.”     

 

Repertoire can be one of the biggest factors in a hiring decision. “In high-profile engagements, organizers have to take into consideration what repertoire a dancer will have access to perform,” says Todd Fox of Elitedance Artists Management, which represents high-caliber artists for short-term guest work. If a gala director wants Bournonville, for instance, it will be easier to hire dancers from a company that regularly performs Bournonville ballets, because those dancers are more likely to be able to get the rights.  

Network, Network, Network
One of the best ways to receive an invitation is to do projects outside your company (if your contract permits) so your name becomes more visible. Daniil Simkin, a soloist with American Ballet Theatre who has been doing galas since his early teens, says competitions helped him get his first invitations.     

 

Talk to your colleagues. Is there a dancer in your company who does galas? Take him or her aside to ask for advice—and if he or she needs a partner. Are there smaller side gigs you can do in the off-season? Is your director well-connected? Ask for a recommendation. You have to be bold. “Don’t wait for the big galas to call you,” says NBC’s Zdenek Konvalina (Zehr’s partner), who has appeared in the World Ballet Festival in Tokyo, the Diaghilev Festival in St. Petersburg and others. “Start with any project, and if you feel like you have a good DVD, call them up.” 

Promote Yourself 
Consider creating a personal website so potential employers will have an easy point of reference. Simkin’s site features video clips and biographical information. He also maintains a Facebook page where his fans can connect with him, and he even tweets. “I get criticized for being so open, but it doesn’t hurt,” he says. “I’ve definitely been contacted through Facebook and by people who saw me on YouTube.”

 

Working with an agent may also help. Although Konvalina says he gets most of his invitations through recommendations, his agent has secured several opportunities for him in Europe. Just be sure to check your company contract before signing.

 

Above all, remember to stay positive. Says Fox, “It’s very competitive and it’s very difficult, but then again so is becoming a professional dancer, so don’t get discouraged.” 

Kristin Lewis is a frequent contributor to several dance publications.

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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."

American Ballet Theatre corps member Rachel Richardson. NYC Dance Project, Courtesy Rachel Richardson

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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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Abra Geiger, from the 2019 YAGP Season Finals. VAM Productions, Courtesy YAGP

YAGP Finals Kick Off in Tampa This Week—and You Can Watch Them Live!

In a hopeful sign that things may be slowly getting back to normal, Youth America Grand Prix is hosting its 2021 Season Finals live and in person this week in Tampa, Florida. Approximately 800 young dancers will perform at the annual scholarship audition, held May 10–16 at the Straz Center for the Performing Arts. Over $400,000 in scholarships will be awarded, with school directors from all over the world adjudicating both in person and online. The entire event will be livestreamed on YAGP's website, YouTube channel and Facebook page.

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