Margaret Mullin in George Balanchine's "Emeralds"

Lindsay Thomas, Courtesy PNB

PNB's Margaret Mullin Looks Ahead to a Freelance Career and Works Toward a Future in Directing

In addition to cancelled shows, the coronavirus pandemic has disrupted final performances for many retiring dancers. Pointe is giving several retiring principals and soloists a chance to reflect on their careers and offer advice to the next generation.

Let's get one thing straight: Margaret Mullin is not retiring from dance just yet. But the longtime Pacific Northwest Ballet soloist is saying goodbye to company life. A native of Tucson, Arizona, Mullin has spent her entire career at PNB, rising from apprentice to soloist over the course of 12 years. Her dream to dance there started early as a student at Ballet Arts Tucson, and she eventually moved to Seattle to train at PNB School full time.


In addition to dancing leading roles throughout the years, Mullin has also choreographed works for PNB's NEXT STEPS choreographer's showcase, as well as Lost in Light for the main company and Saccade for PNB Professional Division students. She is also the director and producer of the documentary film No Dominion: The Ian Horvath Story, following the life of late dance champion and AIDS awareness advocate Ian Horvath, and hosts her own podcast, "Beyond the Barre." Below, she opens up about what she'll miss about PNB, why she's cultivated interest outside of dance and her big dreams for the future.

You have danced at PNB for your entire career. What is it about the company that feels like home?

For me the feeling of home comes from the people. I feel fortunate to have friends throughout the entire organization beyond the dancers; teachers, development officers, stage crew members, musicians, wardrobe and costume shop members, marketing staff and those who work at our front desk, in our outreach programs and in our box office. There are some truly wonderful people who work very hard for PNB and I will really miss seeing them all the time. They inspire me.

Why did you decide to retire from company life?

I had been craving a change for about three years, but didn't know what that change should be. I finally decided to explore life as a freelance artist so I can continue dancing, but also spend more time pursuing my other passions including my podcast, documentary film, choreography and teaching.


You've nurtured a lot of interests outside of ballet. Why was that important to you?

I always knew I would have to face the transition away from company life one day, and felt determined to do so with grace. I felt strongly that if I could find other things to be passionate about earlier in my career, it would make the shift in my lifestyle and time less painful. So far that has proven to be true! I really miss being onstage, but I am also enjoying all the work I'm doing right now on my podcast and documentary.

The COVID-19 shutdown affected your final performance at PNB. How does that make you feel?

It's difficult to lose the chance to say a formal farewell to the PNB organization and our audience members. They have been a big part of my life. I let myself take time to grieve that loss, which I think is really important. I felt very lucky that I got to share about how this moment has affected me thanks to Minding the Gap [an organization that advocates for improving mental health services for dancers] and their virtual Dancer Town Hall event.

Margaret Mullin, in a blue leotard, jumps into assembl\u00e9 with her arms above her head on a darkened stage.

Mullin in Price Suddarh's Signature

Angela Sterling, Courtesy PNB

What's next?

I'm working towards becoming an artistic director, it's been my dream since I was 10 years old. I've been enrolled in a Mastermind Course for entrepreneurs for a year, and have been attending many webinars from ArtsU (Americans for the Arts), Dance USA, Performing Arts Alliance and National Dance Education Organization to prepare myself. I hope that leadership will be my next big step.

Do you have any advice for young dancers following in your footsteps?

I am excited by the new wave of mental health support for dancers that I see growing online. I would advise all dancers to always take their mental health into account. This is a very difficult and demanding career, and not just physically. Prioritize your health and don't be afraid to ask for help. We need to break the stigma around that and we can do so together.

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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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