Your Training: The Coach Question

Patricia Zhou remembers hearing her coach’s encouraging voice in her head as she competed at the Beijing International Ballet Invitational in 2010. Now in the corps of Staatsballett Berlin, Zhou says the days Viktor Kabaniaev spent coaching her ranked among the most productive of her training. “He made me practice my entrelacé diagonal over and over to get me to jump more and really kick the front leg. Even when I was tired!” she says. “That made me so much stronger.” Most importantly, Kabaniaev gave Zhou confidence. “I’d never gone to competitions thinking I had to win. But he pushed me, and had me believing in myself—and believing I could place.” Their work together paid off: Zhou left Beijing with a silver medal.

It takes more than dazzling technique to succeed at top competitions. You also need a superb coach. “Your coach is there to be your eyes, your cheerleader and your guide,” says Evelyn Hart, who coaches dancers in Toronto. The best coaches will help you improve your weak spots—and polish aspects of your dancing you didn’t even realize needed work. But finding the right match takes some searching.
 
What to Look For

Good coaches will fine-tune everything: the technical, the artistic and the stylistic details. “Avoid anyone who just runs the variation repeatedly without digging deeper,” says Edward Ellison, a New York teacher who has successfully coached dancers. “Each section of choreography should be carefully dissected, exploring how each individual part of the anatomy contributes to the whole.” Contact dancers who worked with the coach in the past to ask how supportive they felt the coach was, if he or she helped find solutions to the dancer’s problems, and assisted with practical details like costumes, makeup, hairstyle and music.

But to find a good coach for you, take stock of your personal weaknesses. Do you need to refine your interpretation or work on your upper body? Find someone whose dancers show those strengths. Check out online videos of a coach’s past competition winners to see if their style resonates with you. Look at their repertoire, how they accent the movement, and their costume choices.

Lastly, look for a coach who’s been through the competition you’re going to. You want an insider in your corner: someone who will know the level of talent, and understand the psychological pressure. “A coach who’s been before will know the politics of a competition,” Hart says. “It’s stressful: There might be very limited space and time, you might have to rehearse on stage at 3 a.m.—how do you handle that?” A good coach will guide you through it.

What to Ask
Talk frankly about your goals and expectations with a potential coach. What is the time frame? Will he or she come with you to the competition? What will the financial arrangements be? Determine if you will be paying the coach a flat fee or an hourly rate. The best coaches typically command up to $200 an hour, says Hart, and you may need to consider the costs of renting a studio, too. “Don’t be afraid to ask hard questions,” Ellison advises. “Get them to speak honestly about what you need to do to meet your goals, as well as your chances of succeeding.”

How to Know If It’s a Good Match

If you’ve found someone, take a few classes with them to see how you work together, suggests Youth America Grand Prix co-founder Larissa Saveliev (who often offers coach recommendations to YAGP participants). “Find somebody who’s good for you, not just good in general,” she says. “Don’t pick a coach who has a completely different style from what you’re used to.”

Look for a personality you respond to, whether that’s bubbly or demanding. And find an artistic vision you trust. “A coach will do as much as he or she can to help you prepare, but if you don’t have complete and utter willingness to take their advice, there’s only so far you can go,” says Hart. “They have to be the person you believe will take you to the best place.”




New USA IBC Head
Former Miami City Ballet artistic director Edward Villella (who was recently given the American Academy of Arts and Letters’ Award for Distinguished Service in the Arts) will lead the USA International Ballet Competition jury in 2014. He’s taking over from Bruce Marks, who led for two decades. As the American sister of the prestigious IBCs in Varna and Moscow, the Jackson competition is one of the oldest and most respected in the country. Top companies attend to scout dancers, and a USA IBC credit on a resumé is an impressive mark of distinction. ?Organizers are currently accepting applications.
Competition dates: June 14–29, 2014
Application deadline: November 15, 2013
Ages: Juniors, 15–18 years old; seniors, 19–26 years old
Held: Once every four years
Competitors accepted: Approximately 100 dancers
Jury: 13 members, with no more than one representative from any country
Awards: Gold, silver and bronze medals, cash prizes up to $15,000 and scholarships. Companies in attendance often offer one-season contracts and apprenticeships.
Past medalists: Isaac Hernández, Melissa Hough, Misa Kuranaga, Sarah Lamb, Sarah Lane, Daniil Simkin
Feedback: Although jury scores are not released, eliminated competitors are offered a private evaluation session to review the judges’ written comments and suggestions.
Website: usaibc.com



Technique Tip:
?“Your balance is like a baby’s mobile: All the pieces spin together smoothly and surely, but precariously at the same time—because with even a gentle touch, they can all go shaking in different directions. My mother doesn’t have a background in ballet, but one day she explained that to me, and it clicked!” —Tulsa Ballet principal Youhee Son

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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."

Abra Geiger, from the 2019 YAGP Season Finals. VAM Productions, Courtesy YAGP

YAGP Finals Kick Off in Tampa This Week—and You Can Watch Them Live!

In a hopeful sign that things may be slowly getting back to normal, Youth America Grand Prix is hosting its 2021 Season Finals live and in person this week in Tampa, Florida. Approximately 800 young dancers will perform at the annual scholarship audition, held May 10–16 at the Straz Center for the Performing Arts. Over $400,000 in scholarships will be awarded, with school directors from all over the world adjudicating both in person and online. The entire event will be livestreamed on YAGP's website, YouTube channel and Facebook page.

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Kaatsbaan Cultural Park artistic director Stella Abrera and executive director Sonja Kostich. Photo by Quinn Wharton, Courtesy Kaatsbaan Cultural Park

The Inaugural Kaatsbaan Spring Festival Brings Together Leading Figures in Dance

The rollout of vaccinations is helping the U.S. turn a corner during this coronavirus pandemic, and artists and audience members alike are looking forward to enjoying live performances once again. It couldn't be more perfect timing, then, for the inaugural Kaatsbaan Spring Festival, which will feature 16 presentations on two outdoor stages in New York's Hudson Valley. Taking place May 20–23 and May 27–30, the festival brings together luminaries from multiple disciplines, including dance, music, poetry, sculpture and the culinary arts.

"During a challenging year such as this, we really wanted to provide artists from various genres opportunities for support and work," says Sonja Kostich, Kaatsbaan Cultural Park's executive director.

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