Morgan in Mobile Ballet's production of Swan Lake. Photo by Jan Johnson, Courtesy Morgan.

My Way Back to Ballet: Kathryn Morgan on Her Slow-But-Steady Return to Dance After an Unexpected Illness

This story originally appeared in the December 2015/January 2016 issue of Pointe.

Kathryn Morgan was one of New York City Ballet's most promising soloists, until her career was sidelined by hypothyroidism. In 2012, after two years of unexplained energy loss and headaches, and rapidly gaining 40 pounds, she left the company and returned home to Alabama to focus on her health. But she found her way back to ballet on her own terms, starting a popular blog and YouTube channel that over 32,000 subscribers use as a resource. Now, she's dancing again—most recently starring in To Dance, a musical about ballet dancers in Cold War Russia that premiered at FringeNYC; and touring with Ballet in the City, an organization that presents professional ballet performances across the U.S. With more opportunities on the horizon, she spoke with Pointe editor Amy Brandt about calling the shots in her career. —Suzannah Friscia


What was it like after you left NYCB and moved back home?

I had begun to hate ballet. I had begun to not even want to show my face and dance. So when I left, to my surprise it was a huge relief at first. But then the depression set in. That wave of relief brought on an even worse onslaught of medical problems—once the pressure was off, my body blew up, my hair fell out. I started to miss dancing and thought the thing I'd wanted to do forever was gone. My parents would say, “What do you want to do instead?" and I didn't have an answer. It took probably another year or two before I started to want to get back into it or thought that I could.

Did you completely take a break from dance during that time?

My ballet school had a regional company attached to it in Alabama. They were so kind and let me perform, so I danced the full-length Swan Lake, I did Nutcracker, I did a full-length Snow White—sick as a dog! During that time, I also started teaching.

At what point did you say, I can actually make this happen again in my own way?

Last May I started watching YouTube videos and it occurred to me—there are no ballet dancers on YouTube. And to my 15-year-old self, ballet was so secretive. There wasn't even anybody to help me tie my first pair of pointe shoes. I wanted to help other students because ballet is a very selfish industry. I also realized that I was not under a company, and wouldn't have to answer to anybody. So I thought, Let's just try it. I did a couple of makeup tutorials, and I explained what I was going through—rumors had been circling that I was fired. And a year and a couple months later, I've got over 32,000 subscribers and growing.

Morgan with her "To Dance" costar, Jesse Carrey, in the studio. Photo by Erin Kestenbaum, Courtesy Morgan.

You now write an advice column for Dance Spirit. Between that and your online persona, do you feel pressure to always have an answer?

For me the biggest thing is to tell the truth. And I have no problem sharing my own struggles. I'm not a person who has to appear perfect. I definitely feel a responsibility not to lead young dancers astray and say, “Everything in the ballet world is wonderful and it's easy." I love the mysteries of the ballet world and the glamour of it. But at the same time the world is changing, and ballet could be a dying art if we don't keep up with that. I'm all about, Okay, let's pull back the curtain, let's get on YouTube, let's share this with dancers.

How do you manage the workload? Do you have anyone helping you?

I don't have anybody helping me! I do all the editing and uploading myself. I do need some assistance going forward. But I love it.

Since you've started these projects, how much do you feel you've grown as a person and a dancer?

My life has completely changed, because now I know why I do this. What I hear most often is “You're such an inspiration," and that to me is so…not only touching, but also encouraging. I might not be at New York City Ballet anymore, but I can do something totally different and still be an inspiration to students, and show them that even if you're going through something horrible, you can come out of it. It's been an outlet for me. I started it when I was still very, very sick, and it's made me feel relevant again.

You followed a very traditional path at first. Now that you're freelancing, you have to make your own decisions. What's that like?

After several years in a company, you start to feel like you're not doing it for you anymore—you have to please the director. Now I'm doing this for me. It's a choice I've made. I love writing my own rules, I love being able to look into projects that genuinely interest me, like this musical that just came up. I feel like I'm dancing better now than I ever have before. Each day that I get to dance is such a gift; it's not “I have to get up, I have to go to class." It's completely reawakened my love for dance.

What is your relationship with your body now?

For a long time I hated it. I would only ever look at old pictures of myself at City Ballet and think, I have to look like that again. Now, I'm much more accepting of it. My weight is coming off at a slower rate, but I'm okay with the fact that I may never weigh what I used to. I'm not going to jeopardize my health to get there.

What's next for you?

A lot of people ask me if I want to join a company—I can't say yes or no to that. If it's the right company at the right time, maybe. I haven't auditioned yet because I'm not in ballerina-thin shape. But I'm loving pursuing more avenues than just ballet. I'm really enjoying the acting; my best roles at City Ballet were always the acting ones. I have an app out now, and a couple projects coming up. I'm open to anything. I like calling my own shots.

What would your advice be for someone who is going through a really discouraging time?

First, that you're not alone. Everybody—even famous dancers—has something they're dealing with, and nobody's path is the same. Also that you can have success in many, many other areas of your life. And if you're struggling and decide that ballet is something you don't want to fight for, it's totally okay! But if you do want to fight for it, know that if you believe in yourself, it's going to get better. You just have to know why you do it.

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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 Canada's National Ballet School. Bruce Zinger, Courtesy Ballet Unleashed.

Ballet Unleashed Aims to Connect Emerging Dancers From 11 Academies With Freelance Opportunities

To any pre-professional dancer vying for a company position, auditions are a familiar and often dreaded scene: Hundreds of hopeful young graduates flock to an audition site, pin a paper number to their dance clothes and try their luck. But only a few will receive full-time contracts with companies—the rest will go home disappointed, potentially facing a gap year as they try to figure out next steps.

Mavis Staines, artistic director and CEO of Canada's National Ballet School, became frustrated with this flawed system years ago. Why were so many talented dancers not being rewarded with work opportunities? And why was the only acceptable form of work a full-season contract, when in the music and theater industries, project-based employment was a legitimized way to build careers?

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Birmingham Royal Ballet in Cinderella. Roy Smiljanic, Courtesy British Ballet Charity Gala

Darcey Bussell Is Putting on a Benefit Gala Starring 8 UK Dance Companies—and You Can Stream It From Home

Planning a major gala during a global pandemic is no easy feat—but don't say that to Dame Darcey Bussell. In an amazingly short time, the former Royal Ballet principal and "Strictly Come Dancing" judge has curated a historic evening to support the dance industry in her home country. The British Ballet Charity Gala will bring eight major UK dance companies together for a live performance at London's Royal Albert Hall on June 3, before it is streams internationally on June 18.

The event, hosted by Bussell and actor Ore Oduba, a "Strictly Come Dancing" winner, will feature performances by Ballet Black, Birmingham Royal Ballet, English National Ballet, New Adventures, Northern Ballet, Rambert, Scottish Ballet and The Royal Ballet—marking the first time all of them have performed together on the same program.

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