Director's Notes: The Little Company That Could

Iain Webb is bringing international recognition to Sarasota Ballet.

Iain Webb describes himself as “a total bunhead.” To prove it, he takes out his iPhone and brings up a photo of Michel Fokine’s death mask, explaining that it’s part of his personal ballet library in his home. Also in that collection? A photograph of Webb himself hanging a 12-foot Sarasota Ballet banner. “It would have cost $100 to pay someone else to put it up,” he explains, with a chuckle. “I needed that hundred dollars to buy my dancers one and a half pair of pointe shoes.”

Since becoming Sarasota Ballet’s artistic director in 2007, Webb has stretched the resources—and artistry—of the company in some jaw-dropping ways. Out of a modest $4.1 million yearly budget, Sarasota Ballet has presented 53 company premieres and 33 world premieres in just seven seasons. Ticket sales have quadrupled. And the troupe has gained international recognition for its interpretations of Sir Frederick Ashton’s ballets. Yet Webb candidly admits that since he arrived, “We’ve literally almost closed three times.”

Webb, 55, feels at home in the underdog role. As a dancer at The Royal Ballet, he suffered from such bad stage fright that he ended his soloist career early to do character roles instead. (“That way I could hide,” he says.) After retiring from the stage in 1996, he became a rehearsal director for Matthew Bourne, then assistant director for K-Ballet Company in Japan, while also putting together galas and festivals where he presented former Royal Ballet colleagues, like Johan Kobborg. “I liked staying behind the scenes, organizing everything,” he says, “but I was getting old, and it felt like directing was the next level up.” So when Sarasota Ballet was looking for a new leader at the end of 2006, he took the gamble and applied.

The troupe, founded in 1990, had never garnered a lot of attention under its former artistic directors, contemporary choreographer Eddy Toussaint and then Royal Ballet alum Robert de Warren. By the time Webb arrived, it was also riddled with financial problems.

“I remember thinking, ‘This might not last more than a year, so I’d better put together a season that’s going to make me smile,’ ” Webb says. “And also something that’s going to put this company in the history books.” To do that, he convinced Bourne to let Sarasota be the first ballet company to perform his Infernal Galop, and he brought in Hans van Manen to stage Grosse Fuge. He also presented a double bill of Ashton’s Les Patineurs and The Two Pigeons during his second year with the company.

The repertoire over the past seven seasons has been carefully calibrated for the Sarasota audience, which is largely filled with “snowbirds” from the Northeast who have high classical standards set by major companies like American Ballet Theatre and Boston Ballet. Rather than compete, Webb found that by embracing his inner bunhead he could create his own niche: historical one-acts. “I looked at all the companies that were at our same level or the next level up, and they were all doing very similar rep,” Webb says. “If we were going to survive, we had to do something different.”

In particular, Webb gravitated to Ashton’s one-acts, and Sarasota Ballet now has more works by “Sir Fred” than any other American company. “His ballets are so musical, and I love how he always gets the female dancer to look like a woman,” Webb says. “People don’t do these works much anymore, but they need to be seen or else they will be lost.” Both Webb and his wife, former Royal Ballet dancer Margaret Barbieri (who is now Sarasota’s assistant director), were coached by Ashton during their performing careers and bring firsthand knowledge to the work. Some British critics have written that the company’s grasp of Ashton’s style surpasses even The Royal Ballet’s. This May, Sarasota’s four-day Ashton festival will showcase 11 of the choreographer’s ballets, along with films and lecture/discussions. Ticket orders from as far away as Europe were placed months in advance.

Webb has leveraged his high-profile connections throughout his tenure. One of his first steps as director was flying to London to have tea with Lady Deborah MacMillan to ask if he could get a couple of Kenneth’s ballets. Christopher Wheeldon once offered up a piece after Barbieri mentioned Sarasota Ballet’s struggles to the choreographer’s parents one night. And when Sarasota Ballet’s star dancer retired just before a production of Giselle in 2009, Webb got out his address book and was able to announce to the press just four hours later that Alina Cojocaru and Johan Kobborg would be performing instead.

How has he financed this? In the beginning, many of those connections offered their services for limited fees. Webb also used much of his own money at first to cover expenses like physical therapy and costumes. Since then, a handful of donors who believe in his vision have paid off the company’s debts and funded items like last season’s pay raise for the dancers.

The company still lacks the finances for more seasoned dancers’ paychecks, and Webb admits that many of his company members are very green. But he’s found a hungry group (almost all are now his hires) who work to meet the high standards he sets in order to attract big-name choreographers to Sarasota. Webb’s also working on building talent from the ground up: In 2012, Sarasota Ballet launched the Margaret Barbieri Conservatory of Dance, a full-time pre-professional training program designed to be a feeder for the company.

Webb is realistic about his company’s place in the larger dance world: “If I weren’t the director, I would probably think, ‘Well, I don’t know if they should quite try to do that rep.’ ” But he will never put a work onstage that he isn’t proud of. And he refuses to let the company’s modest reputation stop him from trying to create something that will make him smile. It’s in part thanks to that ambition that, earlier this year, he was awarded a 10-year extension of his contract. “We’re never going to be one of the big companies,” he admits, “but we’re going to have something that’s unique.”

 

 

At a glance

Sarasota Ballet

Number of dancers: 43

Length of contract: 36 weeks

Starting salary: $350 per week

Performances per year: 7 productions, an average of 32 shows

Website: sarasotaballet.org

 

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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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