Mariana Fernandes, António Casalinho and Margarita Fernandes in Maina Gielgud's production of Giselle

Tomé Gonçalves, Courtesy Conservatorio Internacional de Ballet e Dança Annarella Sanchez

Maina Gielgud on Staging "Giselle" at One of Portugal's Top Ballet Schools

Conservatório Internacional de Ballet e Dança Annarella Sanchez, located in the small city of Leiria, Portugal, has grown by leaps and bounds since its founding in 1998. Led by Cuban-born and -trained director Annarella Sanchez, the school has received international recognition for its training. Former students have gone on to join major companies, while current ones—notably 17-year-old António Casalinho and 15-year-old Margarita Fernandes—have won top awards at Youth America Grand Prix and other international competitions.

Sanchez frequently brings in guest teachers, among the most respected of whom is former Australian Ballet artistic director Maina Gielgud. This summer, as the students adjusted to COVID-19 precautions, Gielgud staged her full-length Giselle on the conservatory. (The September 20 performance, which starred Fernandes and Casalinho as Giselle and Albrecht, is now available on YouTube.)

Pointe interviewed Gielgud (who will be teaching in Leiria through December) by email to talk about what it's like to stage a full-length Giselle at this exceptional school.


What aspect of the Conservatorio Internacional de Ballet e Dança Annarella Sanchez caught you by surprise?

I went for the first time in January 2019. I expected very talented students, having seen a few at Youth America Grand Prix and on social media. But I was not aware of the wonderful work ethic instilled in every dancer. Their stamina and determination is amazing. They never mark in rehearsal, even when performing such demanding roles as Giselle and Albrecht. During a first run-through of the principals, António Casalinho breezed through the second act, managing to convey only by his acting that he was tiring!

The Cuban school constitutes the basis of the academy's classical technique, so the technical standard is very high. Because of this, there are no limits to suggestions, criticisms and challenges of style, musicality, polish and artistry that one can ask of the dancers, since they are without fear. The joy comes in seeing results of a correction or a suggestion—the very next day—and it is hardly ever necessary to repeat the same one.

What accounts for the outsized results that this relatively small school in a small Portuguese hamlet is getting?

One reason is that only students who really want to dance study there. The school is slightly outside Leiria—with only two supermarkets, a couple of restaurants and a pharmacy nearby—but it has seven excellent studios in an unlikely-looking building. There is a lovely feeling of camaraderie and appreciation for one another's achievements, whether winning a competition or achieving a new technical feat, or, as with Giselle rehearsals, noticing and appreciating newly discovered acting skills in each other.

Another important factor is that Annarella tells it as she sees it, with the students and their parents. Students told me her belief is that to make a professional dancer—besides having talent, desire and the best teachers from early on—it is imperative that parents understand the demands of the profession and what they must do to support their child throughout.

Tomé Gonçalves, Courtesy Conservatorio Internacional de Ballet e Dança Annarella Sanchez

Giulio Diligente and Laura Viola dance the Peasant Pas de Deux.

How do you work with young dancers to elicit a mature and layered emotional response, while ensuring that they remain true to time-honored technique and style?

It is important that they know the history of the work and its best exponents by watching videos (the right ones). As with professional dancers, I workshop with them and change details within the framework that I feel suits them best. It is a pleasure to find with students dancing solo and principal roles that it is possible to discuss how to make the action logical and legible to an audience. This I have found only rarely with professionals, when they are not stuck in their ways. David Hallberg was a wonderful example of being totally open—asking for and suggesting ideas—when we worked on my Giselle with The Australian Ballet in 2018.

One reason why this kind of workshopping doesn't often happen with a professional company is that there is insufficient rehearsal time. Annarella's students learn to be really quick, because she often surprises them with a last-minute performance or competition, with little time to prepare. This equips them well for when they join a company—the experience of being "thrown in," but also of being coached in detail by a variety of top coaches.

What was most challenging about staging this full-length classic?

The greatest challenge was for the peasant corps de ballet to know how to stand, improvise and participate actively in the right amount at any given time. Giselle has a great deal of non-choreographed segments, essential to getting the story across and creating the right atmosphere. It was a question of making the students aware of their placing onstage and of how much or little to react, so as not to upstage the principals, but rather enhance the storytelling overall. A few students cast as Wilis had only just joined the school, so they had to learn how to be an ensemble and stay in line while still dancing full-out.

In Act II, what makes for a good Myrtha?

Technically it is ideal to have a superb jump, good bourrées and strong adagio (for the arabesques penchés in the beginning). Artistically, the dancer has to hold the stage and emanate power. Some are very aloof and cold; others can be clearly out for revenge.

In July they performed only Act II, and Matilde Rodrigues danced the role. Her onstage personality and height made her a born Myrtha. She has since joined Birmingham Royal Ballet. In September, a student named Margarida Gonçalves performed the role. I felt her line, jump, bourrées and technique in general would work well. She's not a natural Myrtha—she worked hard on her interpretation, which grew stronger at each rehearsal.

Tomé Gonçalves, Courtesy Conservatorio Internacional de Ballet e Dança Annarella Sanchez

Margarida Gonçalves as Myrtha in Act II of Giselle

Did any aspect of the production cause you to worry?

My only worries were costuming, and props and accessories. There was no budget, so it became a matter of finding and making do. Families helped: Hilarion's father made the cottage doors, Myrtha's mother painted them. A bench was found last minute in a Chinese-owned shop 'round the corner, which seems to sell everything under the sun, relatively cheaply.

We needed a mock duck or pheasant for Hilarion to bring Berthe. A real one was deep-frozen and brought out the day of performance, feathers and all (but gutted). Berthe's face, as Hilarion presented it to her at the dress rehearsal, was a picture—but she masked it well in performance.

The costumes for the Hunting Party, the Duke and Bathilde arrived thanks to the kindness of presenters of a medieval festival in Leiria. Skirts and bodices from [the school's performances of] La Sylphide were refitted for Giselle, but some had to be remade. In an ideal world, I know Annarella would love to get sponsorship so that there could be a designer for a set and costumes.

As Antonion Casalinho, wearing a purple jacket and tights, lies crumpled on the floor, Margarita Fernandes kneels down and holds his left hand to her cheek.

Fernandes and Casalinho in one of the final scenes of Giselle

Tomé Gonçalves, Courtesy Conservatorio Internacional de Ballet e Dança Annarella Sanchez

How did you manage COVID-19 precautions and social-distancing guidelines?

Masks were worn in the studio corridors, and when not actually doing class or rehearsing. In the theater, they took everyone's temperature on arrival at the stage door. Everyone wore masks backstage, but not onstage once rehearsing.

It was a live performance with socially distanced seating, and the audience wore masks. It was also streamed live.

What is the secret to emerging as a diamond in the rough, whether in good times or bad?

Perseverance, creativity and total belief in the art form—a perfect description of Annarella and how she has built up her academy to where it is now. I have no doubt she will continue on from where it is. A junior company is obviously the next step. As Balanchine said, "but first, a school"—soon, an affiliated company must arise.

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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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