Joseph Gorak in "The Nutcracker." Photo by Gene Schiavone, Courtesy ABT.

Prince in Waiting: American Ballet Theatre's Joseph Gorak

It's a beautiful evening in May, but inside the Metropolitan Opera House the atmosphere is hushed and filled with foreboding. As Lensky in American Ballet Theatre's Onegin, Joseph Gorak enters the darkened stage. It is a pivotal scene. Heartbroken over a flirtation between his fiancée, Olga, and his friend Onegin, he is moments away from a fatal duel, and painfully aware of his own mortality. In a lyrical yet powerful solo, Gorak manages a rare feat: He renders the depth and intensity of Lensky's pathos without veering into melodrama. And his portrayal proves the perfect foil to principal dancer David Hallberg's misanthropic Onegin. For a brief moment, the spotlight is all his.

In the last two years, 23-year-old Gorak has emerged as one of ABT's most promising young dancers. While the company abounds in powerhouse men, Gorak is a different breed. He projects a refined simplicity, and his natural facility and crystalline technique have caught the eye of audiences and critics alike. It would be easy for him to simply rely on his high insteps and polished pirouettes to captivate; naturally talented dancers often wear their gifts like a veil, hiding their vulnerabilities behind technique and physical beauty. Yet Lensky proves that Gorak carries a true artist within him. Like many promising dancers, he has reached a critical career juncture. It remains to be seen whether he'll develop the necessary confidence and versatility to grow from standout to star.

“Sometimes Joey's struggled knowing what type of persona to project onstage," says ballet master Clinton Luckett. “Lensky showed a dramatic possession and expressive range in him we hadn't seen before. He's still very young, but there are a lot of possibilities, which is one of the thrills of working with him."

A Lesson in Patience
Born in Fort Wayne, Indiana, Gorak fell in love with ballet at age 4, when his parents took him to see The Nutcracker. His family moved to Texas soon after, where he enrolled at the North Central School of Ballet outside of Dallas. At 14, he attended the Orlando Ballet School's summer intensive, where then-director Peter Stark offered him a scholarship to attend year-round. Rather than ship the young teenager off to Florida alone, his family moved with him.

“It was crazy," he recalls. “We had two weeks' notice before the start of classes, so my dad moved with me while my mother and brother stayed behind to sell the house." His father, who works for AT&T, was able to transfer, while his mother took an open receptionist position at the ballet school. There, Gorak received one-on-one coaching from Stark and the late Fernando Bujones, who at the time was Orlando Ballet's artistic director. “Working with Fernando taught me a lot about precision," Gorak says. “He and Peter really cleaned up my technique."

After OBS's year-end showcase, Bujones offered the 15-year-old a company position with the understanding that he continue training with the school at night and finish academics via correspondence. But that November, just as Gorak was beginning his professional career, Bujones died of cancer. “We were devastated," Gorak says.

While in Orlando, Gorak started training for international competitions. “I am not a competition dancer at all," he says, laughing. “I put too much pressure on myself. I wouldn't watch anyone else—I'd go in, do my variation and leave the building." Nevertheless, he won medals at the 2005 Youth America Grand Prix and Helsinki International Ballet Competition. The following year he was awarded the YAGP Grand Prix—and a spot with ABT II. It was a special moment for Gorak, who'd long dreamed of dancing with ABT.

The second company offered him a safe haven in which to grow. But after two years, Gorak still hadn't received a full-company contract. “It was hard," he says. “The people I had started with had already gotten into the company." He was offered the option to stay on a third year. Discouraged, he auditioned elsewhere but ultimately grew determined to stick it out. “I thought, 'I've made it this far. Let's see if I can really do this.' " His patience paid off: Six months later, in January 2009, he was promoted into the company.

Gorak in "Swan Lake." Photo by Gene Schiavone, Courtesy ABT.

"Always Questioning, Always Pushing"

Gorak's first major opportunity came in 2011, when artistic director Kevin McKenzie selected him and corps member Christine Shevchenko to represent ABT at the Erik Bruhn Prize competition. “Joey is incredibly gifted," says McKenzie. “I chose him because I wanted him to start fleshing out the things he needs more experience with—partnering and dynamic dimension in his dancing."

Gorak's previous competition jitters had alleviated with time, but he felt pressure to represent the company well. While he was preparing, Hallberg took him under his wing, helping him with rehearsals and lending moral support. “David told me to see this as an opportunity to work one-on-one with Kevin, that it's not about winning or losing," says Gorak. “It's the process, the road getting there."

The advice worked: After he and Shevchenko performed the La Sylphide pas de deux and a contemporary piece choreographed by company dancer Nicola Curry, Gorak was announced the winner. Dumbfounded, he had to be nudged forward by McKenzie and Curry to accept his prize. “It didn't hit me—I wasn't expecting them to call my name!"

“A lot of times dancers with high potential don't know how good they are," says Hallberg, who sees similarities in their physique and temperament. “He's always questioning, always doubting, always pushing himself. It's a matter of empowering him, giving him the confidence he needs to push his ability farther." Hallberg has continued to be a mentor to Gorak. “David reassures me of why I'm here," Gorak says.

After the competition, roles started coming: the Nutcracker Prince, a lead in Alexei Ratmansky's Dumbarton, the principal role in Demis Volpi's Private Light. This summer he made his debut as a buttery-smooth Bluebird in The Sleeping Beauty. But his portrayal of the doomed Lensky is particularly notable. “Everything Lensky does comes from the heart. That's why he reacts the way he does when Onegin is dancing with Olga," says Gorak, who spent hours in ABT's video room, researching his character. “I try to immerse myself in the story onstage. He's an honest character, so I need to dance him honestly."

Yuriko Kajiya and Gorak in "Onegin." Photo by MIRA.

Simplicity Over Flash
Gorak's lithe physique and sensitive temperament lend themselves to more elegant roles. "I've always wanted to be princely and handsome," he says, citing Siegfried and Albrecht as dream roles. He prefers simplicity to flash, and feels many of today's male dancers are overly focused on perfecting tricks. "In the end it's not a circus. There's a time and a place for it, but not in white tights."

After a day's work, Gorak makes an effort to leave the studio behind him. "I completely separate ballet from the real world," he says. In the off-season he flies home to Orlando to visit his parents and brother, who has special needs. Someday, he hopes to incorporate his love for animals into a post-dance career. "I'd love to work in animal cruelty prevention," he says.

Luckett and Hallberg both note that Gorak's biggest test going forward will be his willingness to push his boundaries. "Gifted dancers tend to go to their comfort zone and rely on their strengths," says Luckett. "I hope Joseph can continue to grow and round himself out as an artist."

While the current flurry of opportunity might have made a younger Gorak buckle, today he feels more self-assured: "It's not overwhelming me. I'm at an age and a point in my career where I'm ready to do more." Does he think a promotion to soloist is in the future? "I try not to dwell on that," he says. "Each day is a new experience. It's what I make of it."

Hallberg agrees: "When you have the desire and the hunger like he does, it's important to take things into your own hands—and I see that happening."

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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."

Tanya Howard in rehearsal Trase Pa. Photo by Karolina Kuras, Courtesy of NBoC.

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