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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."
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."
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."
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."
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.
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."
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.
When you heard that ABT had to cancel its 2020–21 season performances, did you make any plans off the bat?
I definitely did not make any plans, mostly because we all thought this was going to be more of a short-term thing. It all felt very gradual, and there was almost never a significant shift all at once. It was a good lesson in taking things day by day and asking, "What would be fun or useful to do today?" And before you know it, a year has gone by!
Did many other ABT dancers guest with outside companies?
Yes. A lot of the international dancers found companies to guest with in their home countries or cities. I think seeing them and a few other colleagues dancing with local organizations helped spark the idea to do it myself. I've loved seeing dancers connect more with their communities.
Had you had much of a connection with Eugene Ballet?
Yes, I actually trained at the Eugene Ballet Academy, and when I came home after my time at The Rock School I took open classes here. I also danced in some company productions—I was a flamingo in their Alice in Wonderland in 2011. So I knew the dancers, and one of the ballet masters had coached me for Youth America Grand Prix that year. Three of the current principals were apprentices back then! It's been really fun to feel like I've grown up with the company.
Did you enjoy your time here as a guest artist?
I loved it! One of my favorite things, and what I've missed the most during the pandemic, was having peers to dance with and even just chat with in the hallways. To feel part of a community is truly valuable. In rehearsals, it felt so good to be among other people who were supporting each other. The company's new building, obviously, was amazing too.
ABT has about five times as many dancers as EB. What was it like dancing for a smaller company?
My dad actually asked me the same question! It's helpful and supportive to be reminded that what we're all doing is so much the same. It may seem like New York and Eugene are different in many ways, but we have so much in common. I was super impressed with everyone's talent and ability, the professionalism, and the way the company was run. When you're in two places where the environment is amazing, the amount of company dancers or any other variables seem to matter less.
While you were here you performed the Fairy Godmother variation from Cinderella and were also in the premiere of Suzanne Haag's Conduct, recorded for our upcoming virtual program (available here May 14–21). What was it like dancing for the camera?
During the pandemic I'd filmed one other piece for ABT Incubator, which recently came out. But that was my only other main experience with filming. I felt comfortable, and it felt normal—but in the sense that it's what's happening during the pandemic. I'm sure it's different for everyone, but I genuinely forgot the camera was there. It's funny, because technically you want to engage with the audience, so I'm sure there's an art to being filmed for dance. I'll have to keep that in mind for next time.
How has the pandemic changed you as a dancer?
Actually, I'm really grateful for this—it's widened the way I think about myself. Before the pandemic, I saw my life more linearly, and where I fit in the dance community felt smaller. But suddenly that line is gone, so I'm redeveloping the way I think of myself, and it's in a much more equal sense. Everyone's unique; you aren't comparable to anyone else.
Richardson and Antonio Lopez in rehearsal for Suzanne Haag's Conduct .
Courtesy Eugene Ballet
Do you have any advice for younger dancers or those new to company life?
It's so hard for me to know what professional life will even be like in, say, 10 years. Except that I think your character matters a lot. One of the things you realize is so much of your life is based on your interactions with others, even in terms of the opportunities you get. It's important to be just as focused on developing your character and who you are as a person as it is to develop your technique and artistry.
Also, dance is really self-focused, so it takes active effort to think outside of yourself. Find ways to give back and be aware of how you can be helping. Be willing to look outside of yourself and to add value to others. Admire and appreciate the beautiful dancers around you and spend time recognizing the good.
Any parting thoughts?
It's a big, wide world, and there's a lot to learn! Trust yourself. Everyone can listen to their own intuition and inspired ideas. The more I learn, the less I want to give advice, and the more I want my advice to be "I think you know the answer if you really listen to yourself."
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.
Last spring, the pandemic had forced the competition to pivot to a virtual finals format. But through strict health and safety measures, such as mask wearing, weekly COVID-19 testing and timed performance slots, YAGP was able to resume live semifinals in 26 locations between November and April, without any reported coronavirus cases. Dancers were more than eager to take part—according to the competition, 10,000 students participated in the semifinals. (Those in the U.S., Canada and the Asia Pacific region who were not ready or were unable to perform live were allowed to audition virtually.)
Dancers in the 2021 Pre-Competitive Division take class at during YAGP's Season Final
David King, Courtesy YAGP
Of course, it wouldn't be YAGP without a star-studded gala. This year, to account for social distancing at the Straz Center's Morsani Hall, the annual Stars of Today Meet the Stars of Tomorrow gala will be presented as a two-part series: the first, on May 13, featuring Junior Division finalists, and the second, on May 16, showcasing Senior Division finalists. Both performances will also star YAGP alumni such as American Ballet Theatre's Skylar Brandt and Aran Bell, San Francisco Ballet's WanTing Zao and Benjamin Freemantle, and Broadway's Giuseppe Bausilio. The gala will also feature world premieres by Alonzo King (danced by LINES Ballet's Adji Cissoko) and ABT principal Calvin Royal III. Don't worry if you can't make it—a virtual edition will be made available on Sunday, May 23.
For information on the finals' competition schedule, click here. And stay tuned as we bring more exciting news about this year's scholarship winners.