Jillian Davis

THE GINGERB3ARDMEN, Courtesy Complexions Contemporary Ballet

How Jillian Davis Created Her Own Path to Complexions and Learned to Believe in Herself

It's impossible to miss Complexions Contemporary Ballet's Jillian Davis onstage. Tall and glamorous, her commanding stage presence, luxurious movement quality and intuitive musicality have made her one of the company's standout stars. But her road to Complexions was anything but linear. The 6'2" dancer worked tirelessly over several years to find her place in the dance world, ultimately reinventing herself and creating her own path to success. At a time when many early career dancers may be facing uncertainty, her story shows the power of resiliency.

Davis grew up on a dairy farm in Kutzstown, Pennsylvania, where she studied dance at a local studio and in the Philadelphia area, and took private lessons at home. She also started growing, shooting up seven inches over one summer. At 13, she and her family decided to take her daily training up a notch, commuting 100 miles each way to the Princeton Dance & Theater Studio, where she studied under Risa Kaplowitz and Susan Jaffe. By then she was already 5'7", and she soon realized—especially as she started learning how to partner—that her height might be an issue if she wanted to dance ballet professionally.


Jillian Davis, in a black leotard and short, contemporary tutu, stands in fourth position on pointe and reaches over at the waist while holding Kayr Muhammad's hands in a stretched port de bras.

Jillian Davis and Kayr Muhammad in Dwight Rhoden's Love Rocks

Justin Chao, Courtesy Complexions Contemporary Ballet

"I remember Susan Jaffe telling me, 'You're tall, but we think you're strong enough the break the mold,'" says Davis, now 27. "I always kept that in my head, and made it my goal to be strong enough to dance on a soloist level."

At 16 she enrolled in Pacific Northwest Ballet School's Professional Division. The next two years proved very challenging, however. Davis was now over 6 feet, and her growth spurts started taking a toll; she suffered nerve damage in her back and other injuries as a result. And in an early meeting with artistic director Peter Boal, she learned that she had little chance of getting hired at PNB. "With the ratio of tall women to men, they were already at capacity," says Davis. "It makes sense now, but it was hard to wrap my head around at 16."

In 2012, after two years at the school, Davis decided to change her focus. "I was fighting against something that wasn't going to happen," she says, so she enrolled in Alonzo King's LINES Ballet summer program in San Francisco. "I didn't understand the contemporary ballet world at the time, I just knew they liked tall dancers." Then 18, she quickly realized the steep learning curve ahead of her. "They pushed me to move my body in a new way that I didn't understand," says Davis. With her long limbs, she found floorwork especially challenging. But by the intensive's last week, she finally started to feel more confident. "That's when I really fell in love with contemporary ballet."

Davis spent the fall semester training at LINES' school and the following spring studying and performing with smaller contemporary troupes in San Francisco. At the encouragement of colleagues, she moved to New York City later that year to audition for companies while building a freelance career.

Jillian Davis, wearing a gold leotard, stands in arabesque on pointe. She balances her left hand on Brandon Gray's shoulder and holds her right arm above her head while he poses in tendu second with his left foot in demi-pointe.

Jillian Davis with Brandon Gray in Dwight Rhoden's BACH 25

Steve Vacariello, Courtesy Complexions Contemporary Ballet

Within two weeks of her arrival Davis broke her foot, delaying her ability to audition for several months. She started waiting tables and bartending to make ends meet, and once she healed took on small projects with pick-up companies around the city. She also attended Complexions master classes and workshops whenever she could. "I knew about them and loved everything I saw, but I didn't fully comprehend the physicality required to do their work," she says.

Two years passed, and Davis still wasn't performing consistently. "I was getting frustrated—I just wanted to dance, and serving people at restaurants was not my goal," she says. That's when she decided to take matters into her own hands. She had dabbled in choreography while in San Francisco, and had recently created a solo for Missouri Valley College's Emerging Choreographer's Showcase. "I decided if I can't dance somewhere, I'll do my own stuff," says Davis. She started the Jillian Davis Dance Project in 2014, after being selected as a finalist in a choreographic competition. "I worked mainly with friends since I couldn't really pay anyone," she says. "But creating work gave me the chance to be in a place where I wanted to be."

Davis hadn't completely given up on her dream to join Complexions, though. Later in 2014 she attended the company's open call—by then she had become a familiar face at their workshops and auditions—and directors Dwight Rhoden and Desmond Richardson approached her with a job offer. "They said, 'We'd knew you'd be coming and that you'd hand us that resumé. This time, you're ready.'"

Looking back on those early years, Davis says her biggest lesson was learning to believe in herself. "I knew my height was against me, but I also knew I was a strong dancer. As soon as I got past the fact that my height was something I couldn't control, I stopped getting in my own way. And through my choreographic project, I found my own way around it." (She's been so busy since joining Complexions that JDDP is currently on the back burner.)

Davis hopes her story can inspire other struggling young dancers, especially those facing disrupted career plans in the wake of the coronavirus shut-down. "Keep your options open," she says. "It's important to have goals, but don't be afraid to veer slightly off your path; it's difficult to stay on a direct career path." Exploring other interests while you stay in shape, she adds, allows you to feel like you're progressing forward. As for Davis, she just enrolled in an online college course and is brushing up on her algebra skills. "I'm hoping our fall tours happen, but instead of getting stressed I'm going to use this time to grow."

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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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