The Soul of a Star

Alina Somova appears in the distance in the plaza on a hot day during the 2011 Lincoln Center Festival:  tall, wedge heels, wide khaki pants, small head, blond French twist, big sunglasses—like a goddess, or an elongated Grace Kelly. This is the Kirov’s youngest ballerina, she of the phenomenal extensions that float up from ground to ear, of the showmanship that looks  both bravura and smooth. At 26, Somova has danced all the major roles. She has beauty, stamina, elegant line. Yet reviewers still can’t decide if she’s a technical wonder with no soul, or a young artist with a soul that’s just not always visible onstage. “Dancer or circus pony?” went a 2009 headline in the London Telegraph. Writer Ismene Brown concluded she was both, but growing in the right direction.

One would expect, given such controversy, somebody either defensive or remote. Somova is anything but. At her Pointe photo shoot, she sweetly puts on the suggested leotard, tights and chiffon skirt, then stands under lights on a white paper square, blond hair loose. The photographer instructs; the makeup guy darts in and out. She strikes a pose on pointe, then another and another. Each position gets a fresh smile for the click. In between she stands in that somehow endearing pointe-shoe-heels-on-floor stance—ready to hear what’s wanted next. There’s an unspoiled girl inside the goddess wrapping.

She seems so nice, one wonders how she got to where she is. The answer has to do, in part, with the mighty Vaganova Academy recruiting apparatus—and with a mom who had high ambitions for her daughter. “My parents weren’t ballet people or even art people,” Somova says. “Papa is a construction engineer, Mama, a nutrition specialist…or she was. She left work to look after me. If it hadn’t been for Mama, nothing would have happened.” 

When she was small, Somova went to a regular St. Petersburg school, then a special math school at her mother’s insistence. Her mother wanted her to excel at sports too, especially her mother’s favorite, skiing. But skiing wasn’t easy in Russia in the 1990s, with the country in the midst of a political and economic transition. “So Mama took me, with baby sister in her arms—and I wasn’t much bigger—to the ‘dance krushok,’ ” a dance “circle” for children. The teachers recognized her physical gifts. When it came time to choose math or ballet, “there was no choice,” Somova says. The dance teachers insisted. She did a pre-curriculum year at St. Petersburg’s renowned Vaganova Academy, then the regular eight-year course. Those teachers pushed too. The last one, Ludmilla Safronova, cooked Somova food at home before dance exams—“meat, for strength,” Somova says. Makhar Vaziev, then Kirov Ballet head, all but promised her a place in the company if she worked on her feet.

Of course, the child had to love what she was doing—and Somova did. Even the drudgery of first-year pliés didn’t spoil her love of dancing. Nor did the grueling commute. The family lived far from the centrally located Vaganova school, on the Vyborg side of St. Petersburg. The little girl had to get up at 6 am for an hour tram ride (if she could catch it), or else a mix of subways and buses, then repeat it all in the other direction. “There were awful crowds—baboulichikis [grandmother types] who never gave you a place. I had to stand—with a backpack bigger than me!”

Somova also admits to a competitive streak. “I always wanted to be best,” she says almost happily. “I had to stand in the center. I liked corrections! If somebody was better, it was a tragedy for me. It was the Kirov or nothing.” 

Once she was in, the red carpet was rolled out for the long limbs and proud bearing. She was cast as Odette/Odile in her first year. “It was crazy for a girl new to the theater to get Swan Lake, when so many wait for it for years,” she says a little ruefully. The next year, 2004, she became a soloist. She was helped by a caring coach, ex-ballerina Olga Chenchikova, who ran a mini-academy for her young charges, giving them floor barres and extra conditioning. “Chenchikova turned an ugly duckling into a ballerina,” Somova says. When Chenchikova left the Kirov with her husband, Vaziev (he took the dance post at La Scala), Somova got another top-notch coach, ex-ballerina powerhouse Tatiana Terekhova. They chose each other, in fact, after working together in rehearsals of Balanchine’s Symphony in C (Terekhova was in charge). “She has the pure Leningrad style, the style of Kolpakova,” says Somova of Terekhova, comparing her to Irina Kolpakova, now a ballet master with American Ballet Theatre. “And she doesn’t try to break me, like some other coaches try to do; she doesn’t want to see a copy of herself. She leaves me my ‘I.’”

But who is Somova’s “I” on the stage, beyond the technical amplitude? The answer depends on the ballet you’re watching. Take Balanchine’s Symphony in C, whose first movement she danced at the Lincoln Center Festival. She loves dancing Balanchine. “Some ballets take energy out of you,” she says. “Balanchine’s ballets give energy back, even if they’re hard.” But the Lincoln Center audience only saw that love in some moments—in the passage, for instance, where the ballerina stabs the ground with her pointes, so overcome with excitement she seems to be doing her own drumbeat. Suddenly, a mad child shone out in Somova’s performance. But in other moments in this brisk and joyous dance, a monotone took over—nice pas de chats; beautiful poses in arabesque; no surprises, and no glee.
 
On the other hand, when Somova danced the Tsar Maiden in Ratmansky’s 2009 remake of The Little Humpbacked Horse, that missing “I” came through loud and clear. She seemed like the good-natured girl of the photo shoot. Ratmansky choreographed his Horse in mock-naïve cartoon style (perhaps in homage to a beloved Soviet animated film), which suits Somova. In a white and gold princess dress, with long yellow braids, she offered audiences not just technical prowess—she whipped through the leaps and turns; she reveled in the funky dance-hall moves—but a radiantly goofy goodness.

Maybe Somova is that rarity in the ballet world: A well-adjusted, happy young woman who happens to have gorgeous technique—and maybe expressing such good-humored effortlessness onstage is hard to do. That’s what the legendary Kolpakova thinks too, after working with Somova last winter in St. Petersburg. “God gave her phenomenal gifts: beauty of line, and an expressive jump,” Kolpakova says. “You can ask her to raise her leg higher, give you a longer arabesque. She does it. But what’s amazing is that it always looks natural, not false. She’s not mannered.”

So the “I” is about buoyant naturalness, or it will be as she grows some more. Somova herself seems to know that there’s an imbalance between her technical mastery and her artistic projection. “I want to work on my acting. It needs lots of work,” she says. “After eight years in the theater, I should be good at technique. As for the acting, I want the audience to watch the ballet like a movie—not the pirouettes, if they’re correct or not, but the image, the whole picture.”

What this writer hopes is that the young ballerina will see, as she grows, that acting can’t be plastered onto the steps: It’s the steps themselves that have to be inflected with personality. But Somova’s on the way to this discovery. Beyond a sunny good nature, she’s also got a healthy appetite—for life, for experience of all kinds, which will show up on the stage. On vacation she loves car trips with friends. Last summer, the Loire Valley; this summer, Scotland. She likes all the simple pleasures: sports, Italian opera, good food. “No diet!” she says, laughing. “I eat everything. I cook, if I have time—simple food, like soup, meat, vegetables. I dream of making cakes! I love chocolate, and fruits, especially apples. If apples are in the fridge, everything is okay.”

The prognosis is excellent for the dancer to win out over the technician. She has her support system in place too, headed by family. Her younger sister, also a dancer (who has yet to find a place in a company) is her best friend. Her mom, always nervous, comes to every performance—“even if it’s better sometimes, for her, not to be there.”  

Audiences need now to sit back, relax and enjoy the sunny girl in the Cadillac body. And wait for her to give the Tsar Maiden treatment to all her roles. Wait for her to let loose and play with the steps.

 

Elizabeth Kendall is a New York dance critic. She is at work on a book about Balanchine's youth in Russia.

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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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