Antonio Carmena (right) coaches a Barnard College student. Photo by Marcus Salazar, courtesy Carmena.

"I Retired, Now What?" One Dancer's Journey to Find His Post-Performance Career

Some ballet dancers, the lucky ones at least, get to enjoy long, successful careers. Yet their dancing schedule usually allows little time for anything else. At New York City Ballet, for instance, most dancers don't have secondary jobs on the side, although layoffs between seasons provide short opportunities to flex new muscles, like teaching. But performance careers inevitably come to an end, and dancers must then "become" something else.

When former NYCB soloist Antonio Carmena retired from the company in 2017, he realized he wasn't quite prepared for the next step. His retirement uncovered an insecurity buried deep within him—that without dance, he wasn't "good" at anything anymore. It's taken two years for Carmena to develop more work experience as he searches for a new place for himself in the dance world. And while he admits it's an ongoing journey, the pieces are finally starting to come together.


The Career Transition Conundrum

Originally from Madrid, Spain, Carmena joined NYCB at 18 years old in 1998. He did very well for himself, originating roles in ballets by Alexei Ratmansky, Christopher Wheeldon and Peter Martins, and eventually rising to soloist in 2006. He was an audience favorite, known for his whimsical personality, solid technique and buoyant jumps.

Towards the end of his dance career, Carmena started dabbling in teaching, landing a job leading early morning ballet classes at Barnard College. On summer layoffs, he taught at top-notch summer intensives, including the Royal Danish Ballet. But while these gigs continued after he retired, they alone weren't enough to live on. As Carmena began perusing job listings in the dance field, he noticed a perplexing conundrum: after 19 years in one of the country's largest ballet companies, his "experience" was actually quite limited and frustratingly specialized. Although he wanted to stage ballets, teach students, coach professional dancers or direct a ballet school or a company someday, he was only truly experienced as a dancer and had little to put on a business resumé. How does one make the leap, he wondered, from on the stage to behind the scenes?

Carmena teaching at the Art Of... summer program last year.

Courtesy Carmena.


Building New Experience 

Discouraged, Carmena reached out to Pacific Northwest Ballet artistic director Peter Boal, who had been his teacher when he was a student at the School of American Ballet. Boal reassured him of the commonality of this problem for transitioning dancers and gave him this advice: offer your skills for free and stick those experiences on your resumé. So, over the last two years, Carmena has done just that. He shadowed Boal for a month to learn skills that an artistic director needs, and he watched NYCB ballet master Jean-Pierre Frolich stage and coach various Jerome Robbins ballets. He also offered complimentary master classes and staged an August Bournonville ballet for free on Columbia Repertory Ballet, a dance troupe affiliated with Barnard College. He then stuck his toe in choreographic waters, creating a 10-minute piece with a Spanish flamenco flair for another Barnard group, Columbia Ballet Collective.

On a whim, he sent a video of his ballet to a friend, Chase Johnsey, who was working on the artistic staff of a small dance company in Spain. The two discussed the possibility of Carmena choreographing a ballet for the company, but the collaboration needed to occur at a future date, so he went back to his job search.

Then Johnsey, a former dancer with Les Ballets de Trockadero, called with some news a few weeks later. He was in the midst of starting his own company, Ballet de Barcelona. He had scheduled performances for June 14-16, and he needed a choreographer now. Before he knew it, Carmena had been commissioned to create a 26-minute ballet.


A Big Step Forward

While his 10-minute piece for the CBC dancers served as a starting point for his choreographic skills, Carmena had been given three whole months to create it. This time, he only had three weeks to choreograph a ballet over twice as long. What's more, he knew nothing about the Ballet de Barcelona dancers' styles or capabilities.

Carmena enlisted the aid of his partner and fellow dancer, Marcus Salazar, and the two rented studios to create a bit of the ballet prior to leaving for Spain. After selecting the music—Carmena landed on Symphony in G by the French composer Étienne Méhul—the pair created about three minutes of choreography. But Carmena stopped there. He knew that he didn't want to create a work without its most important component: the actual dancers. Regardless of the stressful time constraints, he wanted a collaborative process, with input from the dancers about how his steps feel on their bodies, particularly the women. (He and Salazar found that choreographing for women in pointe shoes presented a steep challenge. "We can't even try the steps," Carmena says.)

Before leaving for Barcelona, Carmena admitted that he was nervous about leaping so far outside his comfort zone. But he is not putting too much pressure on himself. As he puts it, "I am not trying to be the next Balanchine here!" He is simply on a new journey and is excited for this next stop on the path. Although his transition from NYCB dancer to "something else" has been a process, Carmena feels grateful for it all.

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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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