Melanie Hamrick in Balanchine's Valse Fantaisie. Marty Sohl, Courtesy ABT.

Melanie Hamrick Is Saying Goodbye to American Ballet Theatre, but Has Big Plans for the Future

Melanie Hamrick has been an undeniable force in American Ballet Theatre's corps de ballet for the past 15 years (16 if you count her time in the Studio Company, she points out). Her technical precision, combined with her luxurious quality of drawing each step out so that it melts into the next, has made her a standout whether she's dancing a featured role or in a corps of swans. On Saturday, she'll take her final bow with the company in Balanchine's Theme and Variations, with just a tiny bit of nerves. "I've always been a calm performer, but this fall season I've been quite nervous," she explained after rehearsal on Thursday. "I want to take in every moment and really enjoy it. I got quite emotional earlier this week because I'm going to miss my friends," she says, adding, "But I'm excited for the next chapter."


That next chapter includes spending time with her partner, Rolling Stones frontman Mick Jagger, and their son. But she's not retiring from dance completely. Hamrick has a growing interest in creating her own work, having made her choreographic debut earlier this year with Porte Rouge. The piece, which featured music by the Rolling Stones, had its premiere in Russia at the Mariinsky Theatre's Creative Workshop of Young Choreographers and later at Youth America Grand Prix's Stars of Today Meet the Stars of Tomorrow Gala. "I had a lot of fun with that process, and I'm looking forward to working on choreography and developing new ideas." Read on for more about her ambitious new plans, her thoughts on dancing and motherhood, and her advice for young dancers in the corps.

Why did you decide to retire now?

I enjoy dancing and I enjoy the performance aspect, but over the past year, it was hard for me to stay motivated on layoffs. And I was like, "Maybe this is a sign." And then I got so excited when I choreographed Porte Rouge. I had this new motivation and thought that I could enjoy trying out some other styles. I started taking contemporary and hip-hop classes last year. It was so funny to be in the back of the class in my sneakers for hip-hop, but it made me smile. I love ballet so much, but over the last year it was becoming a chore to be in ballet class. And I don't ever want to feel that way or lose my love of it. I wanted to leave on a high note and while I'm happy.

Hamrick as the Fairy Candide in Alexei Ratmansky's The Sleeping Beauty.

Gene Schiavone, Courtesy ABT

Do you have a favorite role you've performed with ABT?

I love Apollo and Caroline in Lilac Garden and Olympia in Lady of the Camellias. I think it's been 10 years since we performed Lady of the Camellias, but I loved dancing Olympia so much because it was such an acting role, and the costumes were so beautiful. It was a full-length, and I felt like I could really get into a character. I went and saw the opera, La Traviata, I read the book, it was the whole process that was quite cool.

How has becoming a mother influenced your dancing?

I used to analyze every step, and then when I had my son, I was like, "I don't have time to analyze, I need to get onstage." I would be showing up an hour before the show and just barely getting ready in time and thinking, "Well, I've got to trust myself that I know it." I enjoyed not overanalyzing anymore, because I think sometimes you lose the fun when you go too deep.

Hamrick as a Flower Girl in Don Quixote.

Rosalie O'Connor, Courtesy ABT

What will you miss most about dancing with ABT?

I'll miss the dancers—that day-to-day camaraderie with people who share the same passion you do, and their feet hurting as much as your feet are hurting. It's really special. Everyone says, "ABT family," and people kind of giggle, but it really is.

What's next for you?

I'm going to choreograph, and I'm also getting into the creative direction. I can't say much about it yet, but I'm developing a new project that's like a rock-dance festival with Joanna DeFelice, who choreographed Porte Rouge with me earlier this year. It was fun to be at the Mariinsky Theater in Russia and to see people wearing Rolling Stones T-shirts in the audience who had never been to the ballet before. I loved that idea, of making ballet more accessible. After you go to a concert at Madison Square Garden, you walk away and you're hyped up and you want to go dancing. I want people to feel like that with ballet and dance. I want to develop it with fashion, art, music, and dance, so that maybe it won't be the dance aspect that pulls people to the theater, maybe it will be fashion, for instance. It's a big project and it's risky because it hasn't really been done before, but hopefully we can make it work.

Hamrick as the Winter Fairy in Sir Frederick Ashton's Cinderella.

Gene Schiavone, Courtesy ABT.

What are you looking forward to most about retiring?

I'd really like to develop my skills as a choreographer. And, of course, I'm looking forward to spending time with my son and my partner and just enjoying life a little bit. It'll be my first time in 20 years not doing Nutcracker, so that might feel weird, but it will be nice to enjoy December. It's such a beautiful time in the city, and I'm looking forward to being with my son and taking him to different shows.

Do you have any advice for young dancers?

Don't try to fit into a mold. The corps de ballet is so beautiful and wonderful, and while the beauty of it is dancing in unison, keep your uniqueness. When I was young, I took so much on—I wanted to make this person happy and that person happy—that I sometimes lost what was special about me. Don't lose sight of that. Trust your instincts and work hard, but remember it's okay if you have a bad couple of days. Go to the movies, take a deep breath, relax, and go back in fresh.

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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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