CPYB school principal Alecia Good-Boresow teaching class. Photo Courtesy CPYB.

The Mirror: Friend or Foe?

This story originally appeared in the April/May 2016 issue of Pointe.

Suddenly, all I could see in the mirror was a fuzzy, dancer-shaped outline. I had accidentally rubbed out my contacts right before pliés and, frustrated, resigned myself to an unproductive two hours. As class progressed, however, something strange happened: I felt far more relaxed and placed. My balances at barre were steadier, I didn't have a single wobble in center adagio, I nailed every pirouette and even my jumps felt freer. Could the reason for this stellar class be that I wasn't depending on my reflection?

So much of dancers' training is through sight, usually with the mirror as an aid. From toddlers to top-ranked company members, nearly every hour of studio time is spent in front of the mirror, honing technique in class and perfecting choreography in rehearsal. Too often, however, the mirror becomes a crutch, and the very reasons you need it for your training can become detrimental. Luckily, awareness and refocusing can help break the habit.


A Helpful Point of View

There are plenty of reasons why the mirror is ever present in ballet studios. “It's a tool to get symmetry, to get perfect lines, to see the positions that you're supposed to make every time," says Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet school principal Alecia Good-Boresow. Each glance at your reflection is an opportunity to improve your technique. LeeWei Chao, a teacher at the Alonzo King LINES Ballet Training Program, sees the mirror as “a third person," an intermediary between the dancer and instructor. When your teacher corrects you, he says, you can use this third view to help apply it.

In rehearsals, the mirror is a necessary aid in setting ballets—especially, says Good-Boresow, in corps de ballet work: “With the mirror you can make straight lines, make sure that the shapes you're trying to create in choreography are visible to the dancers."


PNB's Margaret Mullin in company class. Photo by Angela Sterling, Courtesy PNB.

From Habit to Hindrance

Constantly staring at the mirror, however, causes as many problems as it solves. Good-Boresow calls dancers' tendency to rely on their reflections “mirroritis." While scrutinizing your image can help you self-correct and improve some aspects of your technique, it can be detrimental to your port de bras and épaulement. When your head and eyes are always focused on your reflection—likely favoring the legs and feet, Chao says—you aren't reaching the full extent of your positions. Your head placement won't match the reach of your lines, and arms become an afterthought rather than coordinated with the movement.

This lack of coordination is more than cosmetic. “If you use your eyes to find balance," Chao says, “you're not using your mind–body connection," and you'll lose stability when static poses become movement. To demonstrate his point in class, Chao will ask his dancers to do an arabesque. Many automatically look in the mirror to find their placement. Next, he'll have them try an arabesque turn. The line they created with the help of the mirror isn't there, and the turn is often unsuccessful.

The problems multiply when transitioning from studio to stage, where the mirror is replaced with the theater's “black hole," says Good-Boresow. Well-rehearsed spacing and traffic patterns devolve into minor mishaps at best—chaos at worst. Pacific Northwest Ballet soloist Margaret Mullin often witnesses this when PNB Professional Division students are thrown into corps spots, as they're unaccustomed to using their peripheral vision. “When dancers have been relying on the mirror," Mullin says, “people can panic onstage."

In addition, when your movement is entirely based off your reflection, it's not coming from within—or projecting out. “You're robotic," says Good-Boresow. “You're not actually dancing." Waiting until you're onstage to make the adjustment is too little, too late.


American Ballet Theatre corps member Gisele Bethea checks her form during grand battements at the 2014 USA IBC. Photo by Jim Lafferty.


Refocus

So, how do you prevent your relationship with your reflection from becoming a dependent one? The most obvious way to gain stability and confidence sans mirror is to practice sans mirror. Both Chao and Good-Boresow will remove the temptation by closing a curtain or by asking the dancers to face the back of the room.

If the teacher doesn't provide this impetus, however, you have to break the habit on your own. When you must use the mirror to check your placement, Mullin says, don't just look for correctness and move on. Instead, pause and internalize what “correct" means on a deeper physical level, maybe even briefly closing your eyes. Sense where your limbs are in space, which muscles are engaged and which have feelings of length or opposition. This trains your muscle memory, allowing you to more easily reproduce the position without the mirror.

Chao recommends taking some cues from modern-dance training, which focuses less on how high the leg is or how arched the feet are. In modern, he says, “you learn how to move." Try bringing this mentality to daily technique class. Instead of obsessing over those last few degrees of turnout, focus on transitions, movement quality and artistry.

Finally, remember that the audience won't scrutinize your technique nearly as closely as you do. The whole point of using the mirror to improve your technique is to eventually take it away. In the end, it matters less how you look. It matters how you dance.


Up Close and Too Personal?

When you dance in front of the mirror for hours each day, it's easy for flaws to become the whole picture. This daily self-criticism, Pacific Northwest Ballet soloist Margaret Mullin says, may lead to insecurities, which can manifest in body issues and anxiety. Here are Mullin's tips for developing a healthy relationship with your reflection:

  • Avoid instant gratification. Mullin has seen young dancers go to extremes—disordered eating, dangerous stretching techniques, et cetera—to try to achieve a certain ideal. Trust that the work will mold your body eventually; forcing it will negatively affect your health.
  • Limit social media exposure. Instagram and Facebook profiles are curated to look picture-perfect. When you're walking around with that ideal in your pocket day in and day out, insecurities are likely to follow you into the studio. Save some “likes" for yourself.
  • Expect change. “I looked incredibly different at 13 than I did at 14, then 15, then 19," Mullin says. She's even seen professionals' bodies change based on their current repertoire. Getting used to the idea of physical changes may help you accept them.
  • Focus on fuel. “Don't let the demons in the mirror affect how you're nourishing yourself," Mullin urges. Yes, dance is an aesthetic art form, but it's also intensely physical. Talent doesn't reside in cookie-cutter bodies, and being thin is far less important than having the energy and strength to do what's required of you.

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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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