Gillian Murphy in the Cloud & Victory Ballerina Tee. Photo courtesy of Cloud & Victory.

Gillian Murphy on Mastering the Dual Role of Odette/Odile and Which One She Loves Dancing Most

Whether you've been lucky enough to watch American Ballet Theatre's Gillan Murphy dance Swan Lake's Odette/Odile in person or you're one of the 100,000+ who've watched her performance on YouTube, the magic happening on stage is obvious. Even off stage, it's easy to see why the role is such a perfect fit. Supremely graceful with her long limbs and quiet nature, Murphy certainly looks the part of Odette. Yet there's also an Odile-like spark in her eyes as she speaks, one that was even more noticeable while teaching a younger generation the famous black swan pas de deux during Cloud & Victory's master class in New York City last month.

After we learned how to master Odile's swan arms (the trick is to relax your elbows while still keeping resistance, according to Murphy), we caught up with Murphy for her take on the famous role.


How did you prepare for dancing the role of Odette/Odile for the first time?
It's such an iconic role and such a big moment, but it was definitely daunting. I think I was still a soloist, about 21 years old, when I did Swan Lake for the first time. I was preparing it with Marcelo Gomes, and it was our double debut. All of the nerves and the whole experience, we went through it together. It was definitely exciting, and there was a feeling of going out there, and sort of—pun intended—winging it. Over the years, I've learned a lot and I've grown a lot from each performance.

Do you have any tips for getting into the characters?
The music informs everything I do. I have a completely different approach for the two characters. For Odette, I'm trying to channel everything that's good inside of myself to give her character a vulnerability and pathos that comes with the music. The music that Odette dances to is so sublime, so I try to really respond to that and bring her character to life. She's afraid to let herself go and fall in love, but she is falling in love. That's also giving her hope and strength for the future, that maybe one day she'll break the spell.

For Odile, it's a little less complicated. She's wickedly beautiful, and I kind of have a different approach every time I dance it. Once again, the music lets you know that she needs to be seductive and dynamic. I think of her weaving a web for Siegfried to fall into; it's really a game for her. I have to bringing out a whole different side of myself, which hopefully people don't see too much of in real life. It's something inside that's a little more calculating and manipulative. She's the opposite of Odette, who has a heart of gold.

Murphy teaching Black Swan in Cloud & Victory's Black Rose leotard. Photo courtesy of Cloud & Victory.

Does one of those characters come more naturally to you?
I think the technical elements of Odile—the pirouettes, the chaînées—that sort of more dynamic energy comes easier to me than the sustained adagio elements of Odette. But, from a character standpoint, I feel more at home as Odette. I'm more introspective, and I know what it feels like to fall in love. I don't personally know what it feels like to manipulate a guy into selling his soul, which is probably a good thing. [Laughs]

How do you make sure that you're preserving enough energy to get through a big variation, particularly Odile's?
There's an art to pacing one's self. For instance, in the black swan pas de deux, when Odile enters, she needs to come out with a whole lot of energy. I'm already exhausted at that point, but there needs to be a lot of charisma and power with that entrance—you can hear it in the music. And then the music pauses for a moment and it becomes more of an adagio, and that's a moment to take bigger breaths and not push energetically—not really relax, but make it more about the épaulement or seducing him with the hands or the eyes. It takes time and experience to find where you can pull back a little bit so that you can finish strong and feel good.

Another good place to take a breath is the bows. You can stay in your final position for just another second longer and people will start clapping, and then you slowly get to b-plus. Then you bow graciously, and then you can go off. But if you just run into the bow immediately and run off immediately, you haven't given yourself enough time.

A group of students practicing their swan arms. Photo courtesy of Cloud & Victory.

Do you still get nervous?
I get a bit nervous for any show, just because you never really know what could happen.

How do you combat those nerves, or make sure that nervous energy doesn't get in the way of your performance?
The way I get myself out of that butterfly feeling is to really immerse myself in the music and in the character. So I'm going to feel whatever Odette is feeling. It's not about 'Is Gillian feeling nervous, or did she not sleep well,' or whatever I personally have going on. For me, on the stage, it's a full immersion into making the most of that moment—and it's such a fleeting moment and art. It doesn't have to be perfect. The idea of perfection, I think, is something to aspire to in terms of how to have more clarity and precision and shapes to our classical lines. But ultimately, when I'm sitting in the audience, I want to be moved. I don't enjoy watching people dance who are just executing steps. I feel dance really has to speak to something deeper within. The choreography is there as a means to that expression and artistry and imagination, not as a be all and end all in itself.

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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."

Louisville Ballet in Andrea Schermoly's Rite of Spring. Sam English, Courtesy Louisville Ballet.

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Schermoly is also no stranger to film, having created a digital short called In Passing for the Ashley Bouder Project in 2015. But her most recent film project for Louisville Ballet, a new version of the iconic Rite of Spring, breaks ground—or, rather, ice—with its fresh, arctic take on the Stravinsky masterwork.

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