Director's Notes: The Maverick in Monaco

Les Ballets de Monte-Carlo is Jean-Christophe Maillot’s personal playground.

Box-office pressure doesn’t seem to be part of the vocabulary at Les Ballets de Monte-Carlo. For the past two decades, this maverick company devoted to the sleek neoclassical work of choreographer-director Jean-Christophe Maillot has been steadily supported by the micro-state of Monaco. Ballet after ballet, the 50-strong ensemble collectively makes Maillot’s vision come alive.

Yet even Les Ballets couldn’t escape the financial crisis. In 2011, Monaco’s previously ample dance funding was in trouble. Maillot took the opportunity to suggest a radical pooling of dance resources across the city. “The country is so tiny that you can’t have competing institutions,” he explains. The company merged with the Académie Princesse Grace and the international festival Monaco Dance Forum to create a comprehensive platform for training, creation and production that would absorb a 25 percent overall cut. The effort saved enough money that the principality has since spared dance in further rounds of austerity measures.

Once a creative hub for Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, Monaco went back to its ballet roots in 1985 by launching Les Ballets de Monte-Carlo, spearheaded by Her Royal Highness Caroline, the Princess of Hanover. The company initially struggled to find its niche, however, and in 1992, found itself director-less for nearly six months. When Maillot was in town to create a new ballet, Monaco’s head of culture asked for his advice on what to do next. The conversation reached the ears of Princess Caroline. A few days later, she offered him the directorship.

Maillot was then at the head of a national choreographic center in Tours, France, following a dancing career with the Hamburg Ballet. He was initially ambivalent about the offer: “I asked them to take me on as artistic advisor for a year, to see how it would go.” He went back and forth between Tours and Monaco for a season but soon realized Monaco was the place for him. “Contemporary dance was experiencing a boom in France at the time. Ballet was considered passé, and I felt pressure there to move away from my roots,” he explains. “But Monaco wanted a neoclassical company, and I realized it was what I needed, too.”

His first task was to define the creative identity of Les Ballets, and the distinctive look the company has polished over two decades owes much to Maillot’s own work. With over 35 new creations in 20 years at the helm, he has developed a style geared toward chic visual effects and a contemporary theatricality. Although international critics haven’t been unanimously kind to his work, dancers are drawn to his relentless focus on the intention behind each movement: His spare, prop-less Roméo et Juliette tells the story solely through choreography that is at once classical and modern, while Altro Canto and other short ballets showcase his trademark elegance and flair for metaphorical motifs.

Maillot has also steered the company’s repertoire in unexpected directions during its seasons at the small, ornate Salle Garnier, nestled inside the famous Monte-Carlo Casino, or at the modern Grimaldi Forum. The Ballets Russes and Balanchine repertoire was an important component in the 1990s, but in recent years guest choreographers have run the gamut from Marie Chouinard to Alexander Ekman, Alonzo King and Marco Goecke. Les Ballets mostly tours with Maillot’s in-demand story ballets, however. (The company will bring his LAC to Costa Mesa and New York City in March.) He says the main purpose of guest creations is not to cater to audiences, but to feed the company creatively. “I follow my instinct,” Maillot says. “I would never hire someone who doesn’t bring something to the dancers as people.”

In many ways, Les Ballets is a true dancer haven. The beautifully airy headquarters offer state-of-the-art facilities, including a hot tub and a cafeteria. There are few rules within the company, and the dancers earn a comfortable salary with a permanent contract. But it is a trade-off: In return, Maillot expects his dancers to be self-sufficient and ready to expose themselves in the creative process.

This relaxed yet intense environment has attracted mature dancers who often join from other companies to further their creative connection with Maillot. The epitome of his style remains his longtime muse, the tall, androgynous and marvelously fluid Bernice Coppieters, who now assists with revivals.

Meanwhile, Monaco’s government continues to invest in the company. For them, Les Ballets is an opportunity to show Monaco in a new light, far removed from the coverage in tabloids around the world. The Princess of Hanover remains the company’s biggest supporter as well as a close friend of Maillot’s, a situation he admits is exceptional in that it comes with no strings attached. “I’m completely free. There is no judgment, no comment on anything I program.” He also relishes the pace and flexible structure the financial backing affords the company, with no more than 80 performances a year and extended periods devoted to creation.

Until recently, Maillot refused most requests to stage his works on other companies in order to preserve the specificity of Les Ballets. He has agreed, however, to create a new Taming of the Shrew for the Bolshoi in 2014, and recently choreographed a work for Diana Vishneva, which she will perform in Monaco this December when the city celebrates Maillot’s 20th anniversary at the helm. “I can do it now because the company’s identity is firmly established,” he explains. “Neoclassical companies look so alike nowadays. What we do can be criticized, but isn’t it wonderful to be unlike anyone else?”

At A Glance

Les Ballets de Monte-Carlo

Number of dancers: 50

Length of contract: Permanent

Starting salary: 2,500 euros per month

Performances per year: Around 20 in Monaco, 40 to 50 on tour

Website: balletsdemontecarlo.com

Audition Advice

Maillot doesn’t hold open auditions; dancers can submit a video year-round. Promising applicants spend a few days in Monte Carlo to see how they fit with the company. “It’s a personalized process,” Maillot explains. “I may work with them on excerpts from the repertoire. I pay special attention to the upper body, but above all, I need to know what kind of person the dancer is.”

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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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