Heather Ogden in The Sleeping Beauty. Photo by Bruce Zinger, Courtesy NBoC.

Under Pressure: Is It Possible to Join a Company Without High-Profile Training Credentials?

When National Ballet of Canada principal Heather Ogden was in high school, she earned a spot at Royal Winnipeg Ballet School's year-round program. She had loved their summer intensive and knew she wanted to dance professionally—but she also knew that she wasn't ready to leave home. “I was reluctant to leave my family," she says. “It was a hard decision, but I knew I was getting really good training at home." She took a chance and stayed at her home studio, Richmond Academy of Dance in British Columbia, until she graduated high school and auditioned for NBoC.

These days, many promising ballet students leave home for professional schools, hire personal coaches and jet from one competition to another. Those who lack the financial means for such training, or aren't ready (or allowed) to leave home yet, may feel they have no chance at making it professionally. Pointe investigated four training “disadvantages" in today's high-profile world. Here's how to make sure you're still on track for a career.


1. I train at my local studio.

With the ever-increasing demand for versatile training, it's hard to get the necessary depth and variety of study at home, which is why moving away to attend a conservatory or company school is so appealing. They provide extensive classes in partnering, contemporary, character and pointe, as well as performance experience. Students dance alongside their more advanced peers, and have exposure to artistic directors and choreographers.

But at auditions, it's not the name of your school that wins you the contract. "The bottom line is, we pick the dancers that we think are the best dancers," says Victoria Morgan, artistic director of Cincinnati Ballet. "It doesn't matter if you trained in Timbuktu." Joffrey Ballet artistic director Ashley Wheater agrees: "I see kids that have been to some top schools, and something is missing from their training. Then I see kids with beautiful training, and I've never heard of their school."

That said, dancers who study locally must be brutally honest about the quality and versatility of their training. Perhaps there aren't boys to partner with, or few opportunities to learn different styles and genres. It's up to you to supplement your training by seeking out classes, workshops and summer programs to complete a well-rounded dance education. Start by finding the best technical training in your area. (For some, this may mean taking classes at more than one studio.) Wheater recommends researching examples of school syllabi online and modeling your own training after one or two that align with your goals.

And don't forget to embrace the benefits of your home studio. For Ogden, this meant more stage time than some of her peers at boarding schools received. For Ballet San Jose dancer Nicole Larson, who trained locally at the Naples Dance Conservatory, the biggest benefit was the one-on-one attention she received.

2. I go to a regular high school.

Heather Larson and Alex Kramer in Jessica Lang's Eighty One. Photo by Alejandro Gomez, Courtesy Ballet San Jose Silicon Valley.

Many pre-professional dancers forgo traditional high school in favor of online study. The impetus here is legitimate: Online school is flexible, often free and takes less time in the day than regular high school, leaving more time for pre-professional training. But it also means giving up that traditional high school experience.

The decision here doesn't have to be all-or-nothing. Ogden, for instance, attended a normal high school, but she made a special arrangement to receive credit for her dance training. She left school early before the last class period, arriving at her studio in time for an extra technique class. "I did a few ballet projects to receive those credits for art or P.E.," she says.

Larson also attended a full-time high school and enjoyed having a life outside of ballet. She and Ogden agree that having non-dance friends is one of the benefits, though it's hard to find time to socialize when you're headed to rehearsal. "When your friends want to go to a football game or the movies and you have ballet—that was difficult," says Larson. "I really tried to stay focused, because I knew I didn't want to do anything else."

3. I don't compete.

Ballet competitions can be a controversial topic, but when approached the right way, they can be beneficial. Beyond the exposure and potential for resumé-boosting medals and scholarships, they allow students to learn how to perform under pressure, build confidence onstage and receive individualized feedback.

If you don't have the means to participate in high-profile competitions, and you have a strong desire to do so, Wheater recommends setting up a student showcase at your home studio, where each student will perform variations for a panel of teachers who write personalized feedback. "Even if you don't have the resources to compete, you can still have an evaluation system where you're able to be really objective throughout the year on what you need to work on," he says. Shelly Power, academy director at Houston Ballet Academy, also recommends attending nearby competitions as an audience member to learn more about the talent in your area and how you fit in. To gain experience outside of your comfort zone, make a regular practice of going to master classes in neighboring towns.

4. I don't have a private coach.

Personalized feedback is vital to any aspiring dancer, but this doesn't necessarily require hiring a private coach, which is often expensive. For Larson, her classes were small already, and she was even able to schedule individual sessions right at her home studio. At large schools, on the other hand, formally scheduled private lessons may be hugely beneficial.

If you're looking for more individualized feedback but don't have the funds for weekly private lessons with a star teacher, Morgan recommends contacting the company manager of your local professional ballet company. One of the company dancers may be willing to coach you and teach you repertoire for a reduced rate, especially during the off-season.

Gaining Exposure

At auditions, the big advantage your competitors have is exposure—so as you train, and especially during your last year, it's up to you to be seen by everyone you can. Summer intensives are one of the best ways to meet teachers, choreographers and directors. Many offer scholarships and need-based financial aid. For Larson, her first professional opportunity came through a summer intensive with Milwaukee Ballet; at the program's end, she was invited to join Milwaukee Ballet II. "That was what got my foot in the door," she says.

Morgan notes that less exposed dancers should focus on building relationships. "It's good to see someone multiple times," she says of those who attend summer intensives and company auditions more than once. Directors may feel more comfortable offering a contract to someone if they gain an idea of the dancer's consistency and personality.

Now's the time to make your connections work for you—and you might be better connected than you realize. "There's the saying, 'six degrees of separation.' Well, in the ballet world it's probably two," says Morgan. "Your teacher probably knows somebody who knows somebody." For instance, during Ogden's senior year, her teacher, a former professional dancer, recommended her to NBoC, and she was invited to audition. At 17, fresh out of her home studio, her career began. "I was less exposed, for sure," says Ogden. "But I had a lot of support."

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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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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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