Maria Riccetto in her dressing room at Ballet Nacional de Sodre

Santiago Barreiro, Courtesy Riccetto

María Riccetto Talks About Her New Role as Artistic Director of Uruguay's Ballet Nacional de Sodre

On January 1, 2021, Uruguayan ballerina María Riccetto officially became the new director of her national ballet company, Ballet Nacional de Sodre. Seldom has the selection of a new leader felt so apt. Riccetto's career has been a model of hard work, perseverance and attention to craft, rewarded by recognition and responsibility.

Many ballet lovers in New York City remember Riccetto with great fondness. The former American Ballet Theatre soloist, born and raised in Uruguay, had a very particular quality: the ability to transmit a combination of affability and joy, in roles like the young girl in Le Spectre de la Rose, or Twyla Tharp's Known by Heart, or even as a flower girl in Don Quixote. When she danced, you felt you knew her.

In 2012 she returned to Montevideo, her native city, at the invitation of Julio Bocca, who had just taken the reins at BNS. It was one of the most significant decisions of her career. She became the troupe's leading ballerina, performing every important role in the repertory. In 2017, she was awarded a Benois de la Danse for her performance of Tatiana in John Cranko's Onegin.

Along the way, she became a household name in Uruguay, as universally recognized as the country's soccer champions. Since last year, she has been a fixture on the Uruguayan version of the TV show America's Got Talent. There is even a line of perfumes named after her. "Floral, with a hint of jasmine," she told me.

So it makes perfect sense that, after retiring from the stage at the end of 2019 at age 39, she would be tapped for the company's top job. When I caught up with her in early February, via Zoom, she spoke from her new office, with a photograph taken during one of her performances of Giselle behind her. What follows is an edited version of our conversation, translated from Spanish.

With her brown hair in a ponytail, Mar\u00eda Riccetto wears a blue face mask and looks to her right, directing a group of dancers who also wear masks in a large dance studio.

Riccetto during a rehearsal at Ballet Nacional de Sodre

Camila Damiani, Courtesy Riccetto

Congratulations on your new position. Not only are you the new director of the national ballet company, but over the last decade you've really become a national figure. How does that feel?

[Laughs.] Well, don't forget we're a little country! It's nice to have such a warm relationship with your audience and with the people around you. Usually, it's only our soccer players who get that kind of recognition.

What is the COVID situation like in Uruguay at the moment?

Things have been managed quite well here. We had a small spike in January, but nothing like Argentina or Brazil. Uruguayans are generally very respectful and responsible. People wear masks, and the vaccines are on the way. Last year, the theaters had to shut down for several months. We opened A Streetcar Named Desire on March 12, and the next day everything closed. Then we had a season starting in August, during which the company premiered a ballet by Marina Sánchez based on the novel La Tregua, by Uruguayan writer Mario Benedetti. Then there was another shutdown at the end of the year. Our next season will open with Streetcar on March 18, and all indications are that it will go ahead. There are strict protocols in place, and theaters will only sell 30 percent of tickets.

In this photo shot from behind, Mar\u00eda Riccetto wears the ragged dress costume and short wig from the ballet Manon and stands center stage, holding a large bouquet of flowers and waving to the audience. The packed crowd is on its feet, cheering her final bow.

Riccetto takes her final bow during her 2019 retirement performance of Manon.

Santiago Barreiro, Courtesy Riccetto

Do you miss dancing?

Not at all! I think it's because I don't have any regrets. If I were still yearning for a role I never got to dance, or a choreographer I never got to work with, it would be different. But I felt that it was the right time to retire, while I was still dancing at a high level. It's how I always imagined it. And it was the right age: 39, halfway through life.

So many dancers have had to forgo their farewell performances because of COVID, but your timing was perfect: Your last performance, of Manon, was on December 28, 2019. What was it like?

I'm so grateful for that memory: of the theater bursting with people, and dancing a work like Manon, which had never been done in Uruguay. I just wanted to enjoy that moment, the feeling of sharing everything with my colleagues and with the audience. The energy was incredible. I've thought often of all the dancers who weren't able to have their farewell onstage.

What are your plans for the company?

I've been thinking hard about what ballets I want to bring. These are hard times economically. We have to think about doing local productions, and productions we already have in house. Beyond that, every new director has similar plans: to expand the repertoire, tour, build on the existing base. I'd like to bring more Balanchine. And I've reached out to Luis Ortigoza, the new director of Chile's Ballet de Santiago, about doing co-productions. And I'd like to give the dancers the opportunity to create new works. I've been talking to Gemma Bond and Benjamin Millepied. I think it's good for a director to take risks, but I also have to keep in mind that this is a state-run company, and that my salary and the salary of the dancers are paid for by the whole country.

Are there Uruguayan choreographers you're excited about?

We've been working a lot with Marina Sánchez, who I've known since we studied together at the national dance school. She was a soloist at the company before starting to choreograph, and now she's the company's deputy director. La Tregua was her fourth ballet for the company. And I'd like to do a choreographic workshop. We were supposed to do it last year, but it had to be called off because of the pandemic. It's so important to allow the dancers to try things, to see if this is a path they might want to take later on in their careers.

Wearing a bright pink gown with a plunging V-neckline, Mar\u00eda Riccetto sits cross-legged on the television stage of Got Talent Uruguay and smiles confidently towards the camera.

Riccetto on the set of Got Talent Uruguay

Got Talent Produccion, Courtesy Riccetto

You were a judge on the TV show Got Talent Uruguay. What was that like?

Yes! It made me feel useful in a different realm besides ballet. I've always wanted to be open to other worlds outside of my own, and to learn new things besides dance. And there was such a great energy on the show. Lots of people involved. It was nice to be part of that. I had a lot of fun.

I see there's a new biography about you, by Lucía Chilibroste, entitled El Equilibrio de Bailar (The Balance of Dancing).

It came out at the end of last year, with a very good publisher here, Aguaclara. Lucía is a history professor and dance lover who approached me about six years ago. She did a lot of research, and even went to New York to interview Kevin McKenzie, Irina Kolpakova and several of my former colleagues. She tells the story very well, and I was really moved when I read it, because when you're living through experiences, you don't really realize everything you've gone through. You don't see it until you read it all in one sitting.

What has it meant to you to return to Uruguay, to your own country, and have the career you've had there?

It means everything. When I left I thought I would never return here as a dancer. I imagined finishing my career in the U.S. and then coming back here afterwards, to a house near the ocean. But to have had the opportunity to come home and dance, and to have had that connection with the people here, and to be close to my family and friends, that was so important to me. I'm very grateful for that.

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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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Schermoly is also no stranger to film, having created a digital short called In Passing for the Ashley Bouder Project in 2015. But her most recent film project for Louisville Ballet, a new version of the iconic Rite of Spring, breaks ground—or, rather, ice—with its fresh, arctic take on the Stravinsky masterwork.

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