The Next Guys of ABT

Blaine Hoven

By Margaret Fuhrer

ABT corps member Blaine Hoven moves with an understated grace that lends itself well to contemporary repertoire. It suits the fluid yet demanding roles the 25-year-old has created in ballets by Twyla Tharp and Benjamin Millepied. “I love experimenting with my body, which is a big part of contemporary work,” he says. “In Benjamin’s pieces especially, I feel like it’s really me onstage.”

But in a company like ABT, which is stuffed to the gills with virtuoso men, a guy has to be able to conquer the classics, too. Luckily, Hoven has laser-sharp technique—and a stellar classical coach: principal Marcelo Gomes, a good friend who has helped Hoven master roles like Benno in Swan Lake and Benvolio in Romeo and Juliet. “I look up to everything Marcelo does,” Hoven says. “He’s a great technician, of course, but he’s also one of the company’s best actors. He’s taught me how to break out of my shell, get over the awkwardness, and make smaller gestures read.”

Despite ABT’s powerhouse collection of men, Hoven doesn’t feel much competitive pressure. “The boys all feed off each others’ energy,” he says. And no one, he adds, should waste time feeling bad for them. “Most of the women are onstage every night,” Hoven says. “The guys work hard. The girls work harder!”

Fun Facts

-Dream role: Lensky in John Cranko’s Onegin. “I danced the variation a few years ago and the part just clicked with me. It would stretch me.”

-Most embarrassing onstage moment: “The costumes for Michel Fokine’s Polovtsian Dances have these giant bows on them. During one performance, my foot got caught in one of my bows, and I sat down Indian-style onstage.”

-Secret hobby: “I’m actually really into the trapeze right now! I’ve been to a few classes and I’m totally hooked.”

-If he weren’t dancing, he’d be: “An engineer. I’ve always been a huge fan of math and physics. Actually, I’d like to design and engineer roller

coasters. They fascinate me.”

Eric Tamm

By Charlotte Stabenau

Tall, athletic and poised, Eric Tamm seems born to the great classical roles. “I have a passion for Prince Siegfried, and that Tchaikovsky score,” says the corps member. Lucky for him he’s found a home at ABT, where his talent has been nurtured almost from the moment he became an apprentice in 2007.

His big break came the next year when he stepped in to replace an injured Herman Cornejo in Ballo della Regina. Since then his star has been steadily rising, helped by roles such as Des Grieux in Lady of the Camellias, in which he demonstrated his sensitive partnering skills, and an explosive solo as Olga’s Fiance in Ratmansky’s On The Dnieper.

Tamm speaks admiringly about what he has learned from ABT’s established male stars. “David Hallberg is a perfect role model because of his work ethic, his personality and his performance ability,” Tamm says. He sees David Hallberg as “the prince, the classical dancer, ballet in its purest form, and that’s so beautiful.” Tamm also wants to ramp up his versatility through dancing contemporary work, citing a past workshop led by former Forsythe dancer Jill Johnson as an inspiration. “I got a taste of a Forsythe ballet called Steptext, and I’d like to explore more,” he says.

With all the pressure of being in such an exalted company, Tamm cites ABT’s family atmosphere as a tempering force. “We understand we need to perform well, but we’re also having fun,” he says. “We know how to laugh.”

Fun Facts:

-Tamm loves cooking Italian food, reading and going to the movies. “I like activities that let my body rest!”

-Hidden talent: “I can lick my elbow!”

-Dream choreographer: William Forsythe.

-On the side: He’s taking a kinesiology class through the Harkness Center for Dance Injuries, and has taken a writing class and a dance history class through the LEAP program at St. Mary’s College of California. “School is important to me because it gives me that mental stimulation, and continuation of who I am as a person.”

 

Alexandre Hammoudi

By Jennifer Stahl

Like many dancers, Alexandre Hammoudi always dreamed of ABT. As a kid in Paris, he spent hours watching videos of company superstars like Jose Manuel Carreño. But at 20, when his dream came true, he wasn’t quite ready. “I just wanted to turn, jump, do this, do that,” he says. He admits he didn’t yet have the professionalism to focus on less exciting corps work. “It took me a while to realize that if you commit fully to everything, good things will happen.”

Hammoudi’s own career is a case in point. Now in his seventh season as a corps member, he’s begun getting plum parts in high-profile premieres. His nuance and finesse caught the eye of choreographer Alexei Ratmansky, who has cast him in principal roles in On the Dnieper and The Nutcracker. “Ratmansky gets the best out of dancers,” says Hammoudi. “His choreography can be quite brutal, but he goes about it so gently, you don’t even realize it! He’ll say, ‘Can you  lift her in the air, just one hand? No, not two, just one. It’s cool, you’re fine.’ Most of the steps he’s given me, I never thought I’d be able to do.”

With each opportunity, Hammoudi feels a responsibility to live up to audiences expectations. “Ever since Baryshnikov, ABT’s men have really pushed the envelope,” he says. “When I think of who’s filled these shoes before me, it’s a bit overwhelming. I try to enjoy what I’m doing and bring something of my own.”

Fun Facts:

-If he weren’t dancing, he’d be “skiing, surfing, riding my motorcycle. You know, boys with their toys. But it will just have to wait.”

-Dream role: Romeo. “But then the next night I’d want to do Tybalt—he would be such a fun guy to play even though he doesn’t really dance.”

-His sidekick: Leo, Hammoudi’s 95-pound Doberman Pinscher, who sometimes tags along to the studio on Saturday afternoons. “Once, he started barking during a Bayadère rehearsal with Natalia Makarova. I thought she was going to scream! But instead she was like, ‘Oh, what is this?’ and started to talk about all the dogs she had in Russia when she was little.”

-Dream partner: Alessandra Ferri. “I got to be one of seven guys partnering her in Manon. Even though I was just one little piece in the canvas and she was the centerpiece, it felt magical.”

 

 

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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."

Louisville Ballet in Andrea Schermoly's Rite of Spring. Sam English, Courtesy Louisville Ballet.

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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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