Photo by Todd Spoth, Courtesy Houston Ballet.

Lauren Anderson On Diversity, Legacy and Debbie Allen's Impact On Her Life

When I was a teenager, Lauren Anderson was my generation's Misty Copeland. The former Houston Ballet star made history as the company's first African American principal ballerina in 1990, and her partnership with Carlos Acosta thrilled audiences before he left Houston for The Royal Ballet. Since her retirement in 2006, she's had her hands full as Houston Ballet's program manager of community engagement—yet she still finds time to teach master classes around the world. On April 8­–12, Anderson will be headlining Debbie Allen Dance Academy's "DADA On Pointe" Ballet Intensive, including an exclusive talk-back with Allen on April 8. Anderson spoke with Pointe about the impact the Fame star had on her career, and how she's tried to pay it forward since.


Have you worked with Debbie Allen in the past?

Debbie Allen and I have a long history—she's from Houston. I've never taught for her Academy in L.A., but we've popped up in each other's lives throughout our careers. She was so influential on me when I was younger, starting with Fame—I'd watch it every Saturday afternoon. She was also the first African American student in the Houston Ballet Academy. She and I share the vision that every child should have high quality dance education, period. I am so excited about collaborating—we've been trying to do this for a while.

When you're teaching a master class, what do you focus on?

Definitely musicality, relaxation and control. A master class is a one shot deal—you've got an hour and half, and as a teacher you think, I'm there to change their life in some way or another, to inspire them. My idea in the studio, which I got from my mentor Ben Stevenson, is to create an atmosphere that lets the student know that the possibilities are endless within the confines of classical technique. Each class is different, but by the second or third combination I know what the theme of the day is going to be. My job is to make that theme fit into the combinations that I'm giving.

Your pointe shoes are on permanent display at the new National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, DC. How does that make you feel?

What's cool about it is that my shoes are in a display case along with Dance Theatre of Harlem. My mom took me to see DTH when I was nine. All of a sudden I saw a black dancer go across the stage—and then I saw another one. And I looked at my mother and I said, “Mom! There's a whole stage full of them!" I hadn't seen a black ballerina until then. I knew I didn't look like anyone in my class, but at that point I thought, I can do this.

The influence that company has had on my life is amazing. Virginia Johnson was a ballerina I looked up to. So it's humbling that I'm in the same case with Arthur Mitchell's bronzed ballet shoes and Virginia Johnson's Giselle costume. When I saw my shoes next to them I was overwhelmed with joy. To even think that I'm on the same level—it's still surreal to me.

There's been a lot of attention in recent years about the lack of diversity in classical ballet. Are things starting to get better?

Things are getting different. Of course things are better—we had African American dancers back in the '50s that had to pass for white to get jobs, for instance. But it's still a European art form and there are still people who think the corps de ballet needs to be like the Rockettes. But things are changing, because more and more people are beige. Evolution is going to take over and everyone will be beige soon. That sounds flippant, but it's true. There's more opportunity for people of any nationality or color, but there's also more awareness, especially with social media. We see things as they happen—we watched Misty Copeland's rise unfold in real time! We've had black ballerinas forever, but now they're just more visible, which is good because they're inspiring more kids to dance.

You presented Misty Copeland with flowers during her Swan Lake debut in New York City. Did she contact you beforehand?

She did. I got a call from her manager who extended the invitation—she discussed my giving her flowers and I said I would be honored! And what's neat is that this goes full circle to Debbie Allen. Every time Houston Ballet was in Washington performing at the Kennedy Center, Debbie was at the show (she lived there at the time). I remember we were performing Serenade and I was the Russian girl. Afterwards there was a party and Debbie was there. She came up to me and I was just floored. I said, “It's an honor to meet you! I've wanted to be you all my life!" And she took my shoulders and said, “No, honey—we all wanted to be you." I didn't get it then, but I did later—it was the ballet thing. So I will traipse around America to see dancers—we gotta support our babies! Those mentorship moments are so important. You never know who you're going to affect and how you're going to inspire them.

What was the biggest lesson you learned during your career that you try to pass on to younger generations?

You have to be honest with your weaknesses, you have to be honest with your strengths, and you have to figure out, in the muck and mire of being so young, who you are in the role. We're constantly comparing ourselves to other dancers. But you gotta be real. There's always going to be someone out there better than you. But it's your part, and when you can bring your realness to the technique? There's nothing like 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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