Dancer Spotlight: Serious Talent

Although she can move with the lightness of a dragonfly skimming a pond, a year ago American Ballet Theatre corps member Meaghan Hinkis scored a great success with ABT II by doing no dancing at all. Last spring, she performed the role of a mourning widow visiting the statue of her assassinated husband in Roger VanFleteren’s pas de deux Pavlovsk. From her entrance through her slow collapse and subsequent gestures of grief, Hinkis’ powerfully restrained command of mime permeated the theater with nobility and loss. Of course the statue (Alberto Velazquez) soon came to life, and the dancing began. By that point, however, we knew we were not watching just another pas for two attractive young people.

 

“I feel most comfortable when I’m onstage,” admits Hinkis, 19. A dancer since age 4, she grew up in Simsbury, Connecticut, and focused on ballet by the time she was 11, when she started at The Hartt School. Two years later, she began going to New York’s Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School, the traditional springboard to ABT II, which she joined in 2007.  She also studied with reknowned coach Fabrice Herrault on her own time.

 

Already an apprentice with the main company when she danced Pavlovsk, Hinkis’ expressive almond eyes and long limbs give her movement eloquence. Although she’s just 5’ 4”, she easily dominates the stage with space-defying speed.

 

Last October, when ABT accepted her into the corps, the company was gearing up to launch a new production of The Nutcracker, choreographed by artist in residence Alexei Ratmansky. By then, Hinkis was an old Nutcracker hand: “I seemed to be dancing it everywhere,” she says, noting that she performed Clara in the Radio City Christmas Spectacular for two seasons when she was younger and more recently danced the Sugar Plum Fairy in The Hague (thanks to ABT II contacts). Ratmansky not only recruited her for the Toy Soldier’s dance in the Act I party scene that he had turned into a pas de deux for the windup toys, he cast her in the December 23 premiere.

 

The honor came as no surprise to her teachers. “Meaghan is a joy to work with because she is hungry for a challenge,” recalls ABT II artistic director Wes Chapman. “She has no real limits. I used to make her mad by saying, ‘I don’t know if you can do this.’ She showed me she could.” 

 

Her maturity was what initially impressed ABT ballet mistress Nancy Raffa. “She immediately adapted to working in the company,” she says. “Her commitment to her career is so serious  that she has no time to be neurotic. Some young dancers always talk about what they are going to do. Meaghan always demonstrates she can do it.”

 

This commitment was amply illustrated at two Nutcracker rehearsals a few weeks before previews began, when Hinkis was alternating work in the corps for “Waltz of the Flowers” with the demanding pas de deux she had been awarded. Although the “Waltz” was still a work in progress at that stage, Hinkis stood out from the other 15 women who were being coached by ballet mistress Susan Jones. It was also obvious that she was already dancing the steps full out, with line and verve to spare and a special twist to the torso in leaps.

 

Then she was off down the hall to a rehearsal with Ratmansky for the rapid-fire pas de deux for her and Luis Ribagorda. “Alexei is a pleasure to work with,” she says. “He tells you what he wants, and you want to do it for him.” While other couples stood by to mark the choreography, Ratmansky patiently clarified the steps that went off like a string of firecrackers and tightened the jagged poses that abruptly ended each phrase.

 

Thanks to Hinkis, rehearsals with the other couples could now proceed smoothly through rough spots. When a woman’s footwork looked uncertain, Ratmansky would call upon Hinkis to demonstrate the correct steps, and she never failed to do so. 

 

Did I mention her middle name is Grace?

At A Glance
Name: Meaghan Hinkis
Age: 19
Company: American Ballet Theatre
Training: The Hartt School in Hartford, CT, JKO, Fabrice Herrault
Dream Roles: Kitri, Aurora, Juliet
Idols: Gillian Murphy, Alina Cojocaru

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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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