London Diary

My name is Amanda Schull. I am a fifth-year corps member with the San Francisco Ballet. During my time with the company I have been lucky enough to travel on tour to several different countries. This past September, SFB stopped in Athens, Greece, before heading to the Sadler’s Wells Theatre in London, England.

This tour was one of the most intense I had experienced with the company. By the time we got to London we had already been on tour for 10 days, and the schedule planned was daunting. We opened three different programs in three days, a total of 11 ballets. I knew our seven shows would be memorable so I documented the experience in a diary. 

Wednesday, September 15
The company arrived in London today. Arriving and checking in is always hectic on tour. We got to our hotel tonight at about 11:30 pm and all 51 of us scrambled to get our luggage from beneath the bus and then made a mad dash to the hotel lobby for our room keys. Adding the element of hunger to the mix, we were a lobby full of cranky dancers. 

Room service was closed, so we wandered the streets in search of sustenance. A group of us found a small Middle Eastern take-out place and wolfed down our falafels before going to bed, because tomorrow morning we start work. 

Saturday, September 18
We can’t get into the Sadler’s Wells Theatre until the day of the first show, so Saturday and Sunday we rehearse in the Royal Opera House. This morning, The Royal Ballet took class in the studio next to us. Their class started after ours, but once we realized they were next door, a bunch of us crammed in front of the viewing window and ogled their class. Sylvie Guillem stood in the corner. I think she is the only female dancer I know that men marvel at just as open-mouthed as women do. It’s crazy to see our principals so starstruck over another dancer. I wonder if any of The Royal Ballet dancers feel that way about us. 

I think one of the most interesting parts of touring is using other companies’ workspaces. Getting to see other professional dancers in class and rehearsal is both educational and relieving. No one looks perfect in class (except maybe Sylvie), and knowing that this is true for other professionals puts many minds at ease. 

Today and tomorrow are long workdays. Because our rep is so ambitious for this tour, SFB flew in our company chiropractor. We also have our physical therapist and massage therapist with us, so what little downtime we have is often spent on body management. I know it sounds like we’re spoiled, but the physical demands are great and it’s hard to take care of injuries while on tour. We don’t have the regular comforts of home, and we spend a lot of time lugging our bags everywhere, so we’re all thankful for the extra therapy.

Monday, September 20
Program 1: Square Dance, Continuum and Le Carnaval des Animaux

Tonight was opening night at Sadler’s Wells. We had class at 11:15, then dress rehearsal from 1:30 to 4:30. I was in Square Dance. After the dress, we got our notes onstage. The artistic staff seemed a little anxious. Opening night in a city as culturally aware as London means we need to be at our best. 

Then Helgi [Tomasson, SFB artistic director] gave us an inspirational “just go out there and dance!” talk. It’s relieving to hear that he is aware of our stress level. By the time you get to opening night, if you don’t already have the technique, it isn’t going to happen in the next couple of hours. 

Dress finished at 4:30 and there was just enough time to grab a snack, collect our thoughts and do it all over again for the 7:30 curtain.

Backstage, our crew sets up small tables with everything we could possibly need for the performance, including emergency sewing items (needles and thread of all colors), safety pins, Band-Aids, Neosporin, Advil, colored markers for costume camouflage, tissues, hairpins, hairspray, toe tape and a box of rosin.

Before each show, the girls usually congregate around the rosin box and discuss the upcoming ballet while we put on our shoes. Tonight we discussed our collective nervousness. Balanchine’s Square Dance is one of the most demanding ballets—both physically and technically—any of us has ever performed. The guys seemed calmer. I don’t know if they really were or if they just wanted to appear macho. 

Throughout the ballet, my partner, Garrett Anderson, talked to me onstage. He knows I like the verbal encouragement. It seems silly, but it really helps to have someone cheering you on when you feel you are reaching your physical limit. 

Whenever possible, I try to connect with the other dancers onstage. We are each other’s support system, especially when we are away from home. Tonight when I looked at my fellow dancers, I was humbled. Everyone looked great, especially Tina LeBlanc; she danced like she had lightning bolts shooting through her feet. 

We hit our final pose and the audience roared on the blackout. Square Dance is so technical that it sometimes doesn’t come across to an audience unless they understand ballet. This audience did. Whenever I question why I do what I do, I am reminded when I bow. Perhaps it is the validation or the confirmation that all we put ourselves through is appreciated. Today we put ourselves through a lot.

Back in the dressing room, the corps girls spent at least 15 minutes dissecting the ballet from top to bottom. We broke down each little section and imitated ourselves doing every step, each one of us exaggerating our flaws more than the last. After exerting so much energy I think we all needed a little comic relief. 

After the performance, one of our principals and resident choreographer, Yuri Possokhov, asked me if Square Dance was “hard.” What? Hard? That doesn’t even encompass it. He said we all looked so calm and controlled. That is a huge compliment, considering we all felt as though we were going to die of exhaustion. 
There was a reception in the theater lobby after the performance. Everyone there was very complimentary about the show, but the party didn’t last very long. We have to do it all again tomorrow. 

Tuesday, September 21
Program 2: Ballo Della Regina, Concerto Grosso, Study in Motion and The Four Temperaments

Like yesterday, class was followed by dress rehearsal onstage. I misjudged the amount of time I had to get ready for Balanchine’s Ballo Della Regina and ended up doing rehearsal pretty cold—not good for a jumping variation.

Because of that, I was disappointed with how my rehearsal went. After Ballo, a couple of the corps girls who had been watching from out front complimented me. It’s funny how much a peer’s praise can lift your spirits when you need it. 

I returned the favor by watching The Four Temperaments (also choreographed by Balanchine) from the house. When I went onstage afterward, everyone was hungry for corrections and advice, especially the girls. Sometimes on tour, the little things get overlooked because of time constraints, and we often rely on each other for feedback.

Wednesday, September 22
Program 3; Allegro Brillante, Paquita Pas de Trois, 7 for Eight, and Rush 

I feel like I’m living in the movie Groundhog Day. Again we had class, dress rehearsal and then the performance. I danced in Christopher Wheeldon’s Rush . During class, Tina LeBlanc slipped and twisted her ankle. She dances so much on this tour, she is the last person we need going down. She performed through the pain, but after the show she was pretty uncomfortable. 

Tomorrow we repeat Program 1 again. No more dress rehearsals!

Saturday, September 25
We’re done! The final stretch was pretty rough, but surprisingly, for a tour this intense, there were very few incidents. 

Tina ended up having to take off a show because of her ankle, so Vanessa Zahorian stepped in for her in Square Dance. She and her partner, Guennadi Nedviguine, hadn’t even touched each other since last season, six months ago. She had one rehearsal the day of her performance, but she remembered all of the choreography and nailed the show.

I think everyone is ready to go home. Before the performance tonight I saw three of the moms in the company, Katita Waldo, Kristin Long and Tina LeBlanc, do a huddle and cheer, “We’re almost there! Tomorrow we get to see our babies!”

It made me realize how much these women sacrifice for their work.

After we finished, Helgi bowed onstage with us. When the curtain came down, he gave us a little “congratulations” speech.  He was really pleased with our tour, which of course made all of us happy.
After the show a group of us went out for a “tour-well-done” dinner and toasted ourselves—how egotistical—but we deserved it. It was finally time for vacation!


Amanda Schull is a member of the San Francisco Ballet corps de ballet.

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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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Abra Geiger, from the 2019 YAGP Season Finals. VAM Productions, Courtesy YAGP

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