Director's Notes: A Perfect Paradox

At Stuttgart Ballet, Reid Anderson embraces the traditional and the avant-garde.

Name the most prominent choreographers and directors in continental Europe, and the list reads like a who’s who of Stuttgart Ballet alumni. John Neumeier, Jirí Kylián and William Forsythe all came up through the ranks of the German company. Four decades after the death of its founder, choreographer John Cranko, Stuttgart Ballet remains a trendsetter under artistic director Reid Anderson, himself a product of the Stuttgart company.

Anderson has mastered an impressive balancing act. Extremes live in peaceful coexistence under the company’s repertory system: On alternate nights, dancers might go from the period costumes of Cranko’s Onegin or The Taming of the Shrew to the sleek leotards associated with its contemporary in-house creations. As many as five or six premieres make their way to the stage each season. Creativity is also encouraged through the Noverre-Society, an organization created in 1958 that supports new works.

Born in Canada, Anderson won a scholarship at age 17, in 1967, to finish his training at The Royal Ballet School. The day before he was due to fly to London, he happened upon a TV broadcast of Cranko’s Romeo and Juliet. It was love at first sight. The production would haunt him through his year at the RBS, and afterward, when he found himself languishing in the ranks of The Royal Opera Ballet, then a sister ensemble to The Royal Ballet. When Anderson learned that Cranko was looking for male dancers for a tour to New York’s Metropolitan Opera House, his parents wired him the money to fly to the audition. Anderson was admitted to the company, which was just gathering steam.

In 1961, Cranko, bolstered by successful creations in London, had taken over the relatively unknown ballet ensemble of the Württemberg State Theatre, as the Stuttgart State Theater was then called. In the ensuing decade, he created some of his best-known works, and the inaugural Met tour Anderson joined in 1969 catapulted the company from unknown entity to overnight sensation. The critics hailed the “Stuttgart Ballet Miracle,” and the name stuck. Anderson thrived under Cranko, dancing roles big and small. “I started to do things right away, and I learnt by doing,” Anderson says. “John was the most open person; his office was the canteen.”

Four years later, however, Cranko’s death left his dancers bereft. Anderson remembers: “He was everything to us, and it was an emotional wrench. I couldn’t even mention his name for 10 years.”

Anderson stayed on as a principal until 1986, gradually taking on teaching and coaching duties. But with his retirement came a desire to strike out from the comfort of Stuttgart. “I could have just become a ballet master, but I thought: There might be more to life than this. I was 35, young enough to learn new things. Becoming a director had always been in the back of my mind.”

And a directorship fell into his lap: A young Canadian company, Ballet BC, asked him to take over. As director, he brought in Kylián and Forsythe works and expanded the company from 12 to 18 dancers. The success didn’t escape the National Ballet of Canada, which asked Anderson to become its director in 1989. But a seven-year tenure there left Anderson weary of fundraising. “I spent all my time raising money,” he says. An abrupt 25 percent cut in the city’s funding in 1995 was the last straw.

The Stuttgart Ballet was looking for a new director at the time, and Anderson, feeling the pull of the company’s state-funded model, flew back to Germany for an interview. The next day, the job was his, but it came with a stringent responsibility: to fire 25 dancers. The company had become calcified at the top, with a mostly unfireable workforce. “In the German system, a new director is allowed to let people go,” Anderson explains. “It was firing people I grew up with, and it was seven months from hell, but it was worth it: When I started in the fall of 1996, I had 21 new dancers”—all his own hires.

Anderson set out to rebuild Stuttgart Ballet from the bottom up, in close collaboration with the John Cranko School, founded in 1971. Two-thirds of current company members completed their training there. Nearly all the principals have risen through the ranks, and the unusually tall men nurtured by Anderson, from Friedemann Vogel to Evan McKie, have won particular acclaim for their strength and charisma. “I love building up dancers, and the word is out: If you’re good enough, you could be a principal dancer by age 22,” Anderson says.

In Stuttgart, Anderson also found the secure funding Canada lacked. Stuttgart Ballet is one the few companies to have weathered the recession unscathed; there is generous public funding for the state theater system, and Porsche is a major sponsor.

Cranko’s legacy remains a touchstone for the company. At least one or two of his ballets return every season. Concerted efforts have also been made to preserve his repertoire by allowing other companies to perform it: “We wanted to make sure that the ballets would live on,” says Anderson. He and his team stage Cranko works around the world.

Stuttgart Ballet also performs a mix of 19th-century classics and 20th-century works by the likes of Neumeier, Kenneth MacMillan or Hans van Manen. Premieres define each season, however, and the Stuttgart’s own school of choreography has developed a recognizable look. New works are typically minimalistic, danced in the barest of costumes, the focus on boundary-pushing articulation and sleek partnering. “On tour in London, a critic mentioned that the dancers had practically nothing on, but it’s just so normal for us,” Anderson explains. “When we do workshops, I tell young choreographers: I want to see steps, creativity, and I would like to see bodies. Dancers have them, so why not?”

Stuttgart’s knowledgeable audience has embraced this ambitious diet, performed throughout the company’s year-round season. Attendance at its 1,400-seat Opera House and 800-seat Schauspielhaus was at 99.66 percent last season. “The audience loves the mix,” Anderson says. “We can do three new ballets by three young choreographers and sell out.”

 

At A Glance:

Stuttgart Ballet

Size: 63 dancers

Starting salary: Company does not release information.

Length of contract: Year-round (including yearly bonus and health insurance)

Performances: 103 to 110 at home and on tour

Website: stuttgart-ballet.de

 

Audition Advice

Stuttgart Ballet rarely holds open auditions. “I prefer to have dancers come to Stuttgart and do class with the company, to see if they fit in,” Anderson says. “I’m a legs-and-feet person, and one thing I always look for is whether the person is truly dancing or not. You should be dancing already at the barre.”

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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."

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

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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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