Reel Problems

When you say “audition reel” to artistic directors, you’ll probably hear a groan. Screen­ing reels is a tedious process. They sit through dozens each year, growing frustrated by the lack of good footage and getting queasy from shaky camera work.

But if you put together an impressive package, a reel can be a quick, easy foot in the stage door. Just make sure to steer clear of a few all-too-common bloopers.

 

Showing the Wrong Footage  

 

Tailor the material to the stage of your career. “I don’t need to see accomplished dancers taking barre. Show excerpts from performance,” says Pennsylvania Ballet Artistic Director Roy Kaiser. “For students, I want to see classroom work—I’m considering them for our second company or an apprenticeship, so I’m looking for solid, clean technique to build from.”

 

If you only have performance footage of corps work, scrap it—directors don’t want to have to follow a buried-treasure map to pick you out. Instead, film a variation, pas de deux, coda and contemporary work in the studio.

 

Gordon Wright, director of The Harid Conservatory, has his graduating students film barre, center, pointe work and a variation. Make sure to include an adagio, turns and grand allegro. Never choose a variation that’s too difficult—well-executed steps are always more impressive than sloppy tricks.

 

Monotonous Material

 

Most artistic directors want to see a range. “If you just do Kitri, we wonder if you can do anything else,” says Nadia Thompson, ballet mistress at Milwaukee Ballet. 

 

But be smart: Don’t include material simply to prove you’re versatile. “Know who you’re auditioning for so you can present something that reflects how you’d look in their rep,” says Russell Kaiser, assistant artistic director at Boston Ballet.

 

That might mean you’ll need to make more than one DVD. Dancer Damien Drake put together one with Nutcracker footage and another with just contemporary work. “I thought showing only contemporary would make a more concise video that would stand out from the crowd,” he says. It worked: After sending the contemporary DVD and then taking company class, he was offered a contract with Nashville Ballet.

 

Long Is All Wrong

 

Your DVD will be met with varying degrees of patience. “If it’s long, I’m just never gonna watch all of it. Choose highlights that really showcase your talents,” says PAB’s Kaiser. Most directors suggest a run-time between 5 and 20 minutes.

 

If you haven’t grabbed their attention within the first 60 seconds, chances are any material you put afterwards won’t be seen. “I get an impression of a dancer almost immediately,” says PAB’s Kaiser. Put your most impressive work first.

 

Some directors like dancers to introduce themselves to get a sense of their personality; others think it wastes time. Either way, BB’s Kaiser says to be sure to write your name and contact information on the actual DVD in case it gets separated from your resumé.

 

Omissions Are Obvious

 

Even if you’re not a great turner, don’t leave out those pirouettes—directors will assume the worst. “We notice omissions much more than something that’s slightly weak,” says Thompson. “If you don’t show any jumps, we wonder what’s wrong.”

 

Take Off the Junk

 

“My biggest pet peeve is how many dancers wear leg warmers or something baggy,” says PAB’s Kaiser. When you cover up, it sends a message that you’re insecure about your body. Women should stick to a leotard, footed pink tights and pointe shoes, and men should wear full-length tights plus a fitted t-shirt. Stay away from black, which can be hard to see on film. “Avoid turtleneck leotards or fancy designs that affect the line of the neck,” says Wright. “It’s better to err on the side of too conservative.”

 

Bad Quality = Bad Mood

 

 “Sometimes the quality is so bad we can’t even tell if their feet are pointed,” says BB’s Kaiser. “When you present something like that, it’s hard for us to judge whether we’re interested.”

 

Make your video easy on the eyes. “Distracting camera work drives me crazy,” says PAB’s Kaiser. Zooming gets confusing. Just show a broad shot of the stage or studio, but not from so far away that they can’t make out your line.

 

Most important, be sure directors can watch your reel! “You’d be shocked at how many DVDs don’t work,” says Thompson. “Sometimes we can only watch it on a Mac or by using a certain computer program. Always check that it works on a regular DVD player.”

 

Drake suggests asking friends to take a look. “Have as many people as possible watch it to make sure it flows well, everything is efficient and there’s no annoying blank spots between clips,” he says. Any feedback you get will help create a stronger presentation. Merde!

 

Jennifer Stahl is senior editor of Pointe.

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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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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.

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