Words Into Movement

Audiences’ fascination with ballets based on Shakespeare’s plays shows no sign of diminishing. The beauty of his language and the complexity of his characters, whether comic or tragic, historic or fantastic, continue to challenge choreographers to match their artistry with his. Last October, American Ballet Theatre added another play to its growing list of Shakespeare ballets when it premiered a uniquely dark adaptation of The Tempest by artist in residence Alexei Ratmansky. The company will reprise the production during its Lincoln Center season this spring.


ABT’s artistic director Kevin McKenzie hired Mark Lamos, director of Connecticut’s Westport Country Playhouse, to be the company’s dramaturge and act as a consultant for Ratmansky. “Alexei had already filled a notebook with ideas before I arrived,” Lamos says. “Basic patterns had been set for every scene, but dancers were encouraged to improvise.”


 Ratmansky also passed up the opportunity for ballet fireworks if a simple gesture would better suit Shakespeare’s purpose. In one scene, Prospero (Marcelo Gomes), exiled duke of Milan and now ruler of the island where he had been a castaway, confronts his treacherous brother Antonio (Sascha Radetsky). Does Prospero burst onstage in a grand jeté followed by a double tour to celebrate having his brother in his power? No, he slowly advances toward Antonio, stops a yard or two away and holds out his hand. Awestruck, his brother returns the crown he had stolen years ago. “Some 60 words of text had been distilled into a restrained gesture that reveals Prospero’s refusal to be vindictive,” says Lamos.


Fortunately, there’s no shortage of opportunities for showstopping roles in Shakespeare ballets. Just look at Mercutio in Kenneth MacMillan’s Romeo and Juliet and Puck in Ashton’s The Dream or Balanchine’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Brash defiance is their specialty. In The Tempest, Ratmansky created a variation of the pas de deux to demonstrate the power Prospero has over Ariel, his resident sprite and servant. As embodied by Daniil Simkin, Ariel repeatedly hurtles across the stage to leap into his master’s arms with such gravity-defying ease he seems to have helium in his veins. Their encounters are anything but affectionate, however; Prospero, who alternates promising Ariel his freedom with assigning him another task, always holds him out at arm’s length in midair to remind him who’s boss.


In one scene, Shakespeare actually requires a pas de trois that has taxed the ingenuity of stage directors and versatility of actors for centuries. The resident monster Caliban and two drunken sailors must roll around under a stinking cloak, swigging whiskey all the while. No problem at ABT: Ratmansky’s ingenuity and the agility of Herman Cornejo as Caliban and Craig Salstein and Julio Bragado-Young as the sailors turn this demanding grapple into an inspired entanglement that’s over all too soon.


The vastness of the great plays have given directors and choreographers ample room for many highly “personal” productions—some valid, some inspired, some outrageous. Ratmansky brings his Tempest to a haunting conclusion that concentrates on Caliban as the performance ends. Instead of remaining offstage after his exit as he does in the play, he is now onstage when the rest of the cast sails away. He becomes a tormented grotesque, skittering across the space in growing desperation as the fact of his isolation sinks in. The stage darkens as he shreds the pages of Prospero’s precious book of charms, which he lacks the ability to read. The bleakness of his solitude drives him mad, but it brings a new, bitter logic to Shakespeare.


Harris Green is a New York City dance writer.

 

 

Storm-Tossed Dancers
The Tempest’s three principal men—Marcelo Gomes, Herman Cornejo and Daniil Simkin, all veterans of MacMillan’s Romeo—found Ratmansky’s Shakespeare adaptation made special demands.


As Prospero, Gomes has to embody authority every second he’s onstage. That task was no stretch for someone with his magnetic presence, but it may account for the effect in the only scene in which he demonstrates Prospero’s magic powers. “I have this great staff—not some puny magic wand—but what do I do with it?” he asks. “Alexei worked out a set of flourishes I perform not only before but behind me when I draw the charmed circle.” This ritual has the short-lived brilliance of a lightning bolt—it’s over in seconds.


Simkin, who is rarely still as Ariel, was sustained by the genuine outrage the play aroused in him at his character’s unrelieved servitude: “Prospero is always reminding Ariel he will release him as a servant, but treats him like a slave. He promises him freedom but always delays it.” Simkin’s every entrance reflected Ariel’s airborne essence and his yearning for freedom: “Alexei didn’t want symbolic movement, “ he says. “You needed to be expressive, to dance for the ‘big picture,’ to show what you feel, not pantomime it. ”


Cornejo’s Caliban offered a radical departure from his usual virtuoso parts. “I have only one jump,” he says. He also has his own approach to acting: “I like to rehearse without knowing too much about the part.” Ratmansky’s demand that he be “grounded” was enough to keep him close to the floor. With Cornejo’s exuberance suppressed, Caliban becomes a broken, piteous creature and The Tempest a work of dark, unsuspected depths rarely shown in the theater. —HG

 

 

Celebrating Shakespeare
Ballet companies all over are celebrating the 450th anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth with new productions and revivals based on his plays (see Call Board for an interview with Royal Danish Ballet artistic director Nikolaj Hübbe about his new Twelfth Night and “Wheeldon’s Winter’s Tale,” a behind-the-scenes peek at his new work for The Royal Ballet). Here’s a sampling:

Atlanta Ballet will stage Stephen Mills’ Hamlet, April 11–13; Joffrey Ballet will stage Krzysztof Pastor’s Romeo and Juliet, April 30–May 11; Scottish Ballet will present Pastor’s Romeo and Juliet at Sadler’s Wells in London, May 14–17; Stuttgart Ballet will present John Cranko’s version of Romeo and Juliet, select days June 12–July 29; Houston Ballet will stage John Neumeier’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, September 4–14.

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."

Louisville Ballet in Andrea Schermoly's Rite of Spring. Sam English, Courtesy Louisville Ballet.

Inside Andrea Schermoly’s Arctic "Rite of Spring" at Louisville Ballet

South African–born choreographer Andrea Schermoly is no stranger to challenges, and she's often on the move. Among an extensive portfolio of productions created for companies worldwide, she has also tackled reimaginings of Martha Graham's Appalachian Spring and Judith as one of three artists in residence at Louisville Ballet.

Schermoly is also no stranger to film, having created a digital short called In Passing for the Ashley Bouder Project in 2015. But her most recent film project for Louisville Ballet, a new version of the iconic Rite of Spring, breaks ground—or, rather, ice—with its fresh, arctic take on the Stravinsky masterwork.

Keep reading SHOW LESS
Tanya Howard in rehearsal Trase Pa. Photo by Karolina Kuras, Courtesy of NBoC.

8 Virtual Dance Performances to Watch in May

As we push into May, the ballet world presents another lineup of exciting digital performances. We've rounded up a few of the season finales, collaborations and special programs coming up this month. Check them out below!

Keep reading SHOW LESS

Editors' Picks