Director's Notes: Big, Bold, Bolshoi

New director Yuri Burlaka is leading the historic institution into the 21st century.

Even on a Friday morning in the midst of a three-week tour to London, the atmosphere in a Bolshoi company class is reverential. There’s no chatting or laughing at the barre. The soft-spoken coach, Marina Kondratieva, enumerates steps calmly and thoughtfully. Each dancer respectfully thanks her and the pianist before leaving the room. Their dedication is a reminder of the company’s illustrious history.


Founded in 1776, Moscow’s Bolshoi Theatre has long boasted one of Russia’s preeminent ballet companies. Swan Lake received its première there, and Alexander Gorsky and Leonid Lavrovsky, among others, contributed to its distinctive bold, fearless style. After the Russian Revolution, the company grew close to the Soviet establishment, and produced stars such as Ekaterina Maximova and Vladimir Vasiliev under the 30-year directorship of Yuri Grigorovitch. “Bolshoi” means “big” in Russian, and any artistic director today has to cope with the challenge of bringing a weighty institution, reluctant to change its ways, into the 21st century.


Yuri Burlaka had every reason to be a little intimidated when he was offered the job. “When former director Alexei Ratmansky first mentioned it,” he recalls, “I didn’t take him seriously. It’s a huge company, with so many talented people.” Burlaka and Ratmansky both graduated from the Bolshoi Ballet Academy in 1986, and the two remained close friends. When Ratmansky took the helm of the Bolshoi in 2004, he invited Burlaka, a specialist in historical reconstructions, to stage fragments of forgotten Petipa ballets. Burlaka was appointed ballet master in 2008, and by 2009, he found himself at the head of the entire company.


During Ratmansky’s four years as director, he had instilled a new confidence in the Bolshoi after a decade of turmoil. The ballet world feared the worst for the company when he announced his departure. But his pragmatic successor has patiently followed in his footsteps.


Since his appointment, Burlaka has strived to maintain a delicate but essential balance between the company’s history and its current influences. Grigorovitch’s Soviet-era productions, which include Spartacus and many classics, remain at the heart of the repertoire, but Burlaka has been careful to showcase the other styles in the company’s heritage. Premières have ranged from Burlaka’s re-creation of Esmeralda to Balanchine’s “Rubies” to a new work by Angelin Preljocaj. “There are so many historical layers to the Bolshoi,” he explains, “that as artistic director it would be strange for me to focus on just one.”


Burlaka has planned a number of contemporary premières until 2012. The company will be incorporating the work of such modern Western ballet choreographers as Kenneth MacMillan, William Forsythe, Wayne McGregor and Jirí Kylián into its repertoire for the first time. Burlaka sees this as a gift to “the current core of the company,” the Bolshoi’s celebrated young generation, which includes the likes of Natalia Osipova and Ivan Vasiliev. “The company should learn a new language, a new plasticity,” says Burlaka. “It’s missing from the contemporary Russian ballet education.”


However, throughout both new and old repertoire, Burlaka’s main goal is to preserve the long-standing identity of the Bolshoi. “It’s important not to get lost in the sheer variety of styles one sees now, to take only the best and still stick to one’s traditions. The Moscow school remains defined by its boldness, by its vivid expressiveness,” he says. To keep those traditions alive, Burlaka works hand in hand with the Bolshoi’s many pedagogues (coaches), most of them former company dancers who have devoted their lives to the Bolshoi. Burlaka also depends on Grigorovitch, who has returned to the company as ballet master. Burlaka says humbly, “My childhood was marked by his best productions—I can only feel respect for him.”


Burlaka is careful in building up new talent, with young dancers like Ekaterina Krysanova or Anastasia Stashkevitch currently blossoming in the shadow of the company’s more explosive stars. “I always let dancers test themselves,” he says, “but gradually, without skipping steps: first a variation, then a pas de deux, a small part. Some can make it up to the top, others will stop at a certain stage. Every time it’s an individual story.”


And the dancers’ pride in dancing for the Bolshoi is obvious on stage as well as in class. “I’m pretty sure that every dancer who becomes a part of the company is happy to be here, because they understand what a significant place it is,” Burlaka says. “What matters is for them to find their place within the company, to be comfortable. I try to be honest with them, and can only hope they realize that I love them.”


At A Glance

Bolshoi Ballet

Founded: 1776

Located: Moscow

Number of Dancers: 216

Performances: 151 in Moscow, plus 7 tours in 2010

Contract Length: Year-round



Audition Advice

The Bolshoi does not hold auditions, but only hires students from their own school. (A few foreigners are admitted to the Bolshoi Ballet Academy every year, but they face prohibitive fees, whereas education is free for native Russians.) “When students graduate, a professional can always tell how well they studied, if only by the form of their muscles,” Burlaka says. “And then there are the needs of the theater; we could be looking for a certain height, a good actor or a contemporary-oriented dancer. In the end, our decision is always based on a combination of qualities: whether the dancer studied well, his work ethic, his physical appearance and an extra something that attracts one’s attention.”


Translation by Julia Nikolaeva.

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."

Michael Cairns, Courtesy Orlando Ballet

Returning to Live Audiences: How 4 Companies Have Gotten Back Onstage

Performing in front of live audiences again has been every ballet organization's goal since the COVID-19 pandemic began more than a year ago. With vaccinations on the rise and light appearing at the end of the tunnel, companies are slowly starting to come back to in-person shows.

Keep reading SHOW LESS

#TBT: Antoinette Sibley in "Cinderella" (1969)

With its fairytale magic and ludicrous stepsisters, Sir Frederick Ashton's Cinderella is full of whimsy and charm. The choreography is also playfully challenging with quirky, intricate phrasing that illuminates Prokofiev's score. Antoinette Sibley, a former principal of The Royal Ballet, revels in the challenges as the titular Cinderella. A master of speed and staccato, Sibley is a frothy delight in her Act II variation in this clip from 1969.

Keep reading SHOW LESS

Editors' Picks