From left: Elwince Magbitang and Raye Vince Pelegrin. Erica Wolf, courtesy Magbitang and Pelegrin.

Meet Two JKO Students from the Philippines Being Mentored by Stella Abrera

Training in Manila, Philippines may seem a world away from dancing with the big ballet companies in New York City. Yet in April 2018, local ballet students Elwince Magbitang and Raye Vince Pelegrin, both 17, shared the stage in Manila with leading dancers from American Ballet Theatre in the benefit gala An Intimate Evening with Stella Abrera & American Ballet Stars. Little did they expect that their performance as toreadors in the Don Quixote Suite would land them at ABT's prestigious Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School.


Stella Abrera, the first Filipino American principal dancer at ABT, created the gala to support the Center of Excellence in Public Elementary Education, or CENTEX. CENTEX provides education and performing arts training, among other activities, for children from economically disadvantaged families in the Philippines. It was Abrera's idea to include local ballet students in the production. Magbitang and Pelegrin, students at Manila's Steps Dance Studio, were selected by Sofia Zobel Elizalde, their artistic director and the gala's chair, to perform with Abrera and her colleagues (among them Gillian Murphy, Isabella Boylston and Blaine Hoven). During master classes and rehearsals for the show, the boys caught the eyes of both Abrera and her husband, ABT Studio Company artistic director, Sascha Radetsky.

From left: Pelegrin, Abrera, Magbitang and Radetsky pose for photos during the CENTEX gala in the Philippines. Courtesy Pelegrin and Magbitang.

"They are both clean technicians, with solid alignment, buoyant jumps, natural turns and senses of lyricism and musicality," says Radetsky. Soon after the gala, he sent the boys' audition videos to Cynthia Harvey, artistic director of the JKO School, who accepted them for the 2018-2019 school year.

"I was thrilled and ecstatic because I knew that it would be a great opportunity and a fun experience for me," says Pelegrin. Magbitang, a CENTEX scholar himself, felt both surprised and blessed. "My dream even before we got accepted to JKO was to become a professional dancer at ABT," he says.

It Takes a Village

They have come a long way from their humble beginnings.

Pelegrin hails from Pasay City, Philippines, the son of a limousine driver and call center agent. He began his dance training at age eight, studying ballet, jazz and modern dance at Steps. He was inspired by his two older brothers, who also train at the studio, and received a scholarship under the Steps Dance Studio Foundation.

Magbitang grew up in Manila and began dancing at Steps at age nine. His father works as a driver, while his mother is a housemaid. He was a CENTEX scholar from kindergarten until sixth grade.

Helping the boys transition from their simple life in Manila to the Big Apple required the support of many people.

Their artistic director Sofia Zobel Elizalde and her husband, Patxi Elizalde, provided everything from airfare to dorm room necessities like groceries, bedding and appliances. She also helped the boys secure sponsors to assist with daily needs like winter clothes, transportation and other living expenses. Meanwhile, through Elizalde and Abrera's support, Capezio provided the boys with dancewear when they arrived.

Once they were set up in the city though, it was time to learn how to fend for themselves.

"I became really independent when I moved here," says Pelegrin. "I learned a lot of things like doing my own laundry and budgeting my money."

The young men admit to feeling homesick, but check-ins with family through FaceTime has helped. The resident assistants in their Upper West Side dormitory also planned fun birthday activities. "We didn't feel we were away from home," said Pelegrin.

Learning from the Best

They typically train from 1-6 pm each day in JKO's Upper 2 pre-professional division. In addition to daily technique class, their curriculum includes men's variations, Pilates, modern and character dance, pas de deux, men's strengthening, and music. Lately they have also been rehearsing for JKO's spring performances at The Joyce Theater April 26–27. Mornings and evenings are devoted to academic classes, which are done through an online program.

"My favorite part about training at JKO are the classes taught by amazing teachers like Cynthia Harvey and Robert La Fosse," said Magbitang.

"I remember when I took my first class here," said Pelegrin. "I was really nervous and shy because I didn't know anyone. I was also star struck when Ethan Stiefel taught our class!"

Their teachers have not only taken notice of their dancing, but their professional demeanor as well. "Vince and Elwince have brought a quiet and humble discipline to the school," says Harvey, adding that they have impeccable manners. "They're both very different in their dancing. Vince is elegant, pure and light in his work, while Elwince is a firecracker. Retaining their individuality, and in fact, finding strength in their differences will benefit them both."

Magbitang (back left) and Pelegrin (front center) with JKO School students volunteering at the Family Friendly Matinee during ABT's Fall season at the Koch Theater. Photo courtesy Raye Vince Pelegrin.

Motivation Through Mentorship

Abrera has also taken them under her wing. "Stella checks in on the both of us as a mentor," says Pelegrin. "She watches our classes and asks us how we are doing and if we need something. She has also been so kind to treat us both to dinner."

After their performances at the Joyce, Magbitang and Pelegrin will have an end-of-year meeting to learn if they will continue on at the JKO School for the following year. Whatever the outcome, they both acknowledge that there is much to look forward to.

Following an audition in January, Magbitang was chosen to perform as a super in the world premiere of Alexei Ratmansky's The Seasons at the Metropolitan Opera House this spring. He will also be attending the Pacific Northwest Ballet summer intensive under full scholarship. Meanwhile, Pelegrin will be attending the ABT New York Summer Intensive, as well as Kaatsbaan's "Extreme Ballet" summer program, both with full scholarships.

Abrera is filled with pride at watching these dancers from her homeland. "Having seen how far these young men have come fills me with such joy," she says. "They work very hard and don't take this opportunity for granted. They have many people rooting for them in Manila. I am so excited to watch their careers blossom!"

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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."

Students of International City School of Ballet in Marietta, Georgia. Karl Hoffman Photography, Courtesy International City Ballet

A Ballet Student’s Guide to Researching Pre-Professional Training Programs

Many dancers have goals of taking their training to the next level by attending full-time pre-professional programs next fall. But it's hard to get to know the organizations without physically experiencing them first. Even when the world isn't practicing social distancing, visiting a school or attending its summer program isn't always possible. So, what can students and their families do to research programs and know what might work best for them? Who do you reach out to, and what are the questions you and your parents should be asking?

Here, pre-professional-program leaders share some practical advice for taking the next step in your dance training.

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American Ballet Theatre corps member Rachel Richardson. NYC Dance Project, Courtesy Rachel Richardson

ABT’s Rachel Richardson on Performing With Her Hometown Company, Eugene Ballet

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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