The Extra Step

When New York City Ballet principal Ashley Bouder heard she’d be dancing Giselle, she was excited—and nervous. Bouder had already danced Aurora and Odette/Odile at NYCB, but the Romantic-era Giselle was a lifelong dream. “It had been one of my absolute favorites since I was a child,” she says. Opportunity knocked in 2008 when legendary prima Carla Fracci, then director of the Rome Opera Ballet, invited Bouder to dance the part in Italy. Bouder had watched American Ballet Theatre perform Giselle many times, and she’d also seen videos of several celebrated interpretations, Fracci’s included. But tackling the role herself required some more research.

 

Even the most iconic roles are not carved in stone. Ballet is a living art and, without stepping outside the bounds of the choreography and a particular production, most dancers legitimately strive to make a role their own. One way they accomplish this is by doing their homework, researching every aspect: the style, the music, the cultural history of the era. It could be paintings, decorative arts, books, lithographs, period movies—anything that stirs the imagination. You can’t dance a princess if you don’t grasp the concept of royalty. You can’t be Giselle unless you can enter the mind of an innocent country girl in medieval Europe. Bouder says growing up in rural Pennsylvania and being “kind of shy” helped her identify with Giselle. “You draw on personal experience where it helps.”

 

Ballerinas mostly come to a major role within the comfort zone of a home company. There will be directors, coaches and other dancers to guide them. Ballet mistress Karen P. Brown, who staged Kansas City Ballet’s production of the romantic classic, encouraged first-time Giselle Tempe Ostergren to study various Giselles on video as a way to see how different dancers approach the role. Brown says she tries to guide a dancer while still offering some leeway.

 

Bouder, by contrast, had to do a lot of prep work alone before her two weeks of intensive rehearsal one-on-one with Fracci. A friend lent Bouder British dance historian/critic Cyril Beaumont’s 1945 book, The Ballet Called Giselle. It’s a trove of information that Bouder admits she found almost overwhelming, but it helped her clarify her own approach. “It made me more decisive about what I really wanted to do, particularly about how I identified with the character’s innocence.”

 

Films of past interpreters can provide invaluable insight into a well-known part. Some clips, like those in Jacob’s Pillow’s new Dance Interactive, are available for free online (danceinteractive.jacobspillow.org). But keep in mind that Google can’t get you everywhere. For New York dancers, the invaluable dance division of the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts has 22,700 films and videos, about half of which are of ballet, says assistant curator Charles Perrier—and very little of this precious footage can be found on YouTube. (That’s not to mention the rest of the dance division’s remarkable collection, which includes choreographic notes; dance biographies and histories; taped interviews with dancers and choreographers; and original costume and set designs.)

 

In fact, since all footage of Balanchine ballets is protected by the Balanchine Trust, when it comes to his works, the library is the best place to go. Unless, that is, you have access to one of the dancers who worked with Mr. B himself. San Francisco Ballet principal Sarah Van Patten, who dances leads in such touchstone Balanchine works as Serenade, The Four Temperaments and Jewels, says listening to former NYCB stars—Allegra Kent, Suzanne Farrell, Violette Verdy and, of course, her own director, Helgi Tomasson—helps her achieve her objective of “trying to keep the ballets as honest to the choreographer’s intention as possible.” And with Balanchine, says Van Patten, the music is everything. “In approaching a new role of his, you need to listen to the music first, and know it inside out.”

 

Since narrative ballets are often built on literary foundations, going back to the story is a good starting point. Czech-born Jirí Jelinek, currently a principal with National Ballet of Canada, learned John Cranko’s Onegin as a member of Stuttgart Ballet, but had previously danced a version by Russian choreographer Vasily Medvedev in Prague. Both, like Tchaikovsky’s opera, are based on Alexander Pushkin’s verse novel. “The first thing I did was read the book,” says Jelinek. “It gave me a feeling of the character, that Onegin comes from a different, aristocratic world.”

 

When preparing to dance the female lead in another famous Cranko work, Romeo and Juliet, Miami City Ballet’s Jennifer Kronenberg also returned to the literary source, Shakespeare’s text. Kronenberg watched film interpretations of the play, too—Franco Zeffirelli’s from 1968 and Baz Luhrmann’s 1996 version—before continuing to videos of several different ballet adaptations. “It’s important to do that kind of research well in advance, if possible,” she advises. “It will help later with how you inflect the choreography.”

 

In the end, remember that research should inform but not dictate a performance. “Gather as much information as you can, yet avoid copying others,” Jelinek says. “Absorb everything—but let it help you find your own way with the character.”

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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."

Students of International City School of Ballet in Marietta, Georgia. Karl Hoffman Photography, Courtesy International City Ballet

A Ballet Student’s Guide to Researching Pre-Professional Training Programs

Many dancers have goals of taking their training to the next level by attending full-time pre-professional programs next fall. But it's hard to get to know the organizations without physically experiencing them first. Even when the world isn't practicing social distancing, visiting a school or attending its summer program isn't always possible. So, what can students and their families do to research programs and know what might work best for them? Who do you reach out to, and what are the questions you and your parents should be asking?

Here, pre-professional-program leaders share some practical advice for taking the next step in your dance training.

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American Ballet Theatre corps member Rachel Richardson. NYC Dance Project, Courtesy Rachel Richardson

ABT’s Rachel Richardson on Performing With Her Hometown Company, Eugene Ballet

When I signed my first professional contract with Eugene Ballet, one of the last things I anticipated was the opportunity to dance beside a member of American Ballet Theatre. Flash forward to the start of our spring season this year, and suddenly I'm chatting in the hallway and rehearsing the Cinderella fairy variations next to luminous ABT corps member Rachel Richardson. When ABT announced it was canceling live performances for the 2020–21 season, Richardson traveled back home to Eugene, Oregon, to be with her family—and this spring joined the company as a guest artist.

Growing up, Richardson trained locally in Eugene before moving to The Rock School for Dance Education's year-round program in Philadelphia. After securing a spot in the ABT Studio Company in 2013, she was promoted to corps de ballet in 2015. This unconventional year marks her sixth season with the main company.

After having the privilege of dancing with her this spring, I sat down with Richardson to discuss her recent guesting experience, how the pandemic has helped her grow and her advice for young dancers.

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