Ashley Thursby in Louisville Ballet's "Swan Lake." Photo by Sam English, Courtesy Louisville Ballet.

Not Feeling It: How to Handle Uncomfortable Roles and Unfamiliar Choreography

In her third year as a full company member of Alberta Ballet, Alexandra Gibson was amazed to learn she would be understudying Myrtha in Giselle. "Prior to that I had mostly played to my strengths in innocent, young roles," remembers Gibson, who didn't expect to actually perform the icy Queen of the Wilis. Yet when the first-cast Myrtha sprained her ankle a few weeks before opening night, Gibson was suddenly cast for six out of the nine shows. "Learning how to be cold, authoritative and mature in a short amount of time was as challenging as the choreography."

Every once in a while, you'll encounter roles that just don't click. Sometimes you will be cast against type, or thrown into a part that you don't feel ready for. Other times, unfamiliar choreography or movement styles may throw you off your game. In those instances, how do you remain unflappable and open to feedback in order to mold your body and mind to the role at hand? Three professionals get real about how they have struggled to do just that, and how they have grown as artists through the process.

Alexandra Gibson and artists of Alberta Ballet in "Giselle." Photo by Maximillian Tortoriello, Courtesy Alberta Ballet.

When in Doubt, Ask


When Ashley Thursby, a veteran dancer with Louisville Ballet, was cast in a contemporary premiere, she dove into the collaborative process. But as the rehearsals progressed, she found her own movement diverging from her first-cast counterpart's and was feeling frustrated and confused about what the choreographer actually wanted. "I asked, 'Is it okay that we are not the exact same?' and it was lucky I asked, because he wanted me to mirror the A cast," says Thursby. While disappointed by the idea of mimicking another person's more natural movement, she felt better knowing what she needed to do and was able to more effectively switch gears. "Earlier in my career I might not have been confident enough to ask the question," says Thursby, "but even if you don't feel comfortable with the choreographer, ask a veteran dancer or artistic staff you trust. It is beneficial for the whole room."

For Amber Neff, a freelance dancer in New York City, speaking up is essential whenever she is having a hard time connecting with movement, simply because the "why" is often as important as the "how." "When I am not liking what I'm doing, I have to get into the backstory," explains Neff. "Taking a moment to speak to the choreographer, and ask, 'What is this about?' makes it less abstract for me, helps me believe in what I am doing and feel more inclined to want to communicate that to the audience."


Amber Neff (in pose) with Shoshana Ronsefield in Miro Magloire's "Voicelessness" at New Chamber Ballet. Photo Courtesy New Chamber Ballet.

Immerse Yourself in the Work

Neff notes that dancers often don't enjoy things they aren't good at, but practice can help. "When you are forced to do things over and over again, it can make you really good at them," she says. "Whenever I look back on repertoire I struggled with, I can almost always see how I have grown."

For Thursby, this meant putting in extra hours with her partners, using lunch breaks to figure out a new way of moving. Though it took more time for the desired undulations and shapes to manifest, Thursby felt proud for being able to do what the choreographer wanted in the end. "This experience taught me to be more adaptable," she says. "When you throw yourself into something fully, the outcome can't help but be more positive."

In Myrtha rehearsals, Gibson found herself struggling to keep an automatic smile off her face and remain consistent in projecting a cold, commanding energy. As she worked with coaches, she began to understand how to portray a character through her entire body. "Port de bras was the biggest piece," explains Gibson. "Slowing it down gave me confidence and completely changed how I approached the variation. Performing the steps was not enough." Eventually she was able to inhabit the emotions and character in a more meaningful way. "Rising out of the mist alone, at the top of the act, and knowing I had to carry the next 40 minutes of the ballet as a strong character was one of the most exhilarating moments of my career," says Gibson.

When All Else Fails…

Not every challenging experience will amount to an artistic growth spurt or advance your career. What to do then? "Live music is magic," says Neff. "And even costumes can help you connect and feel good. Or perhaps you might personally know the donor that commissioned the piece—all of that you can use to help you feel more invested in the art."


Anamarie McGinn in"Cinderella." Photo by Michael Cairns, Courtesy Orlando Ballet.

Growing Comfortable with Comedy

For classically trained dancers, comedic roles can feel especially unnatural. Orlando Ballet dancer Anamarie McGinn, who played an evil stepsister in two different productions of Cinderella, remembers being initially timid in rehearsals. "One of my biggest fears was that no one would find me funny, or get it," McGinn recalls. Shedding the expectation of being a pretty, nice ballerina helped her come out of her shell and develop her acting skills. "Have you ever heard artistic staff say, 'Go for it. When it is too much I will let you know'?" she asks. "When you are doing comedy, you have to test that line, enjoy the extreme. Once I realized they were enjoying it and the dancers were still laughing after seeing it a million times, I decided to feed off the feedback."

Latest Posts


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."

Students of International City School of Ballet in Marietta, Georgia. Karl Hoffman Photography, Courtesy International City Ballet

A Ballet Student’s Guide to Researching Pre-Professional Training Programs

Many dancers have goals of taking their training to the next level by attending full-time pre-professional programs next fall. But it's hard to get to know the organizations without physically experiencing them first. Even when the world isn't practicing social distancing, visiting a school or attending its summer program isn't always possible. So, what can students and their families do to research programs and know what might work best for them? Who do you reach out to, and what are the questions you and your parents should be asking?

Here, pre-professional-program leaders share some practical advice for taking the next step in your dance training.

Keep reading SHOW LESS
American Ballet Theatre corps member Rachel Richardson. NYC Dance Project, Courtesy Rachel Richardson

ABT’s Rachel Richardson on Performing With Her Hometown Company, Eugene Ballet

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.

Keep reading SHOW LESS

Editors' Picks