Michele Wiles (center) with BalletNext dancers. Photo by Nisian Hughes

BalletNext's Michele Wiles on Her Pregnancy Workout Routine & First Post-Baby Performance

As a former principal dancer with American Ballet Theatre and the founder and artistic director of contemporary ballet company BalletNext, Michele Wiles is no stranger to putting in the workin fact, she quite enjoys it. "I'm very much a process person," Wiles tells us ahead of BalletNext's return after a year-long hiatus in which she and her husband welcomed their first child, a daughter. "I've worked very hard to get back here through the pregnancy and birth. It's been a lot of work, but I love work."

Assembling her crew of dancers and four new works (one co-choreographed by and performed with deaf dancer Bailey Anne Vincent), Wiles has been busy preparing for her 2018 season at New York Live Arts, which begins March 6. From staying on her toes (literally) throughout her pregnancy to her post-baby routine, here's how Wiles balances it all.



How did you alter your routine while pregnant?
At first, I kept doing everything, even though you do feel different. I would use small weights, work with the Thera-band and work on the elliptical for at least a half hour just to keep myself going. I've done workouts like the elliptical off and on my entire career, but it had never been my thing. It was something I could do to keep moving but wouldn't hurt me or the baby. I also took full ballet class in pointe shoes. I was tired, but I kept myself going for those first three months because I always felt better if I broke a sweat.

The second trimester is really bliss. You're kind of showing a little bit, but you still feel really good and you can still do things. I was still able to wear pointe shoes, and I did a couple of residencies and choreographed on my company. I was doing planks throughout, and the company would always joke that my baby would be born with abs because I was still planking at six months pregnant.

How long into your pregnancy were you working out?
I feel really lucky because I didn't get sick and pregnancy just agreed with me during the first two trimesters. I started to lose my balance a little bit, so I stopped wearing pointe shoes at eight months. But I still kept moving. I wasn't doing much past barre, but I kept teaching class, which made me feel good. I would walk from 60th street to the Baryshnikov Arts Center on 37th street every day. Walking was really important for me, even up until just a few days before I went into the hospital. I would get on the elliptical for 20 minutes just to get moving. I think it really helped with back pain and just getting the blood flowing. It wasn't about working out, but just moving.

It didn't feel really different until I hit eight months. Then it's for real. Lifting your legs is weird, and I just remember being like 'Wow, I can't lift my leg.' Having danced my whole life and always being able to do that, the last month was tough because you have all this weight on your pelvis.

How long after giving birth until you were back into a workout routine?
I rested about two weeks after giving birth, before starting any routine. I didn't set any crazy goal of 'I'll be on stage in four months.' I just let myself do it naturally. I wanted to breastfeed for a year and really go through that process.

Floor barre has been really big for me in getting my core back after having the baby. I worked intensely with Marjorie Liebert for a year on floor barre. We used a Thera-band for abs and resistance, which has been extremely helpful in getting my pelvis back. I'm still working on it. I couldn't even do grande plié in the beginning because my abs and pelvis had changed. I worked on grande plié for about a monthit was almost like learning how to dance all over again.

Just now, I feel myself really coming back together. Dance is my passion, and I'm so happy that my daughter can see me and the other dancersa group of women getting things done. I don't bring her to rehearsal every day, but she's definitely no stranger to the studio.



How did you put this group together for BalletNext?
All of the girls in the show came to me in one way or another. Violetta Komyshan had been taking master classes since she was 16 and at LaGuardia High School, and she came to some shows and hung out with us. She's 20 now and it just organically happened. Egle wrote me because she was looking for a company since her husband is on the New York Knicks, and Juliet contacted me on Instagram. I auditioned Alice, who was from Alvin Ailey, after I'd just had the baby. Emily and Bailey came from contacts from other things, so it's been a really organic process of getting this together. We've been rehearsing with everybody since around January.

How do you balance putting a show together with having a family?
It's very regimented. I wake up, I pump milk for the day and feed my daughter and care for her, then get myself ready. The babysitter will come in and I'll rehearse for four to five hours, then I come back and relieve the babysitter. When I'm back, I give my daughter dinner and a bath, and she's in bed by 8:30pm. She needs the routine, and she does really well with it. I'm not sleeping through the night now because we have the season coming up, but she is which is great. It's a very grounding experience, and I love it.



How has having a child influenced your work?
It's funny because I just feel like I know exactly where things need to be now. I don't go overboard. I just feel very centered. The other thing is, I can't get hung up on any one thing anymore and obsess over it. There's no room for that because I have to take care of my daughter. It puts everything into perspective. The show feels like another birth in itself. I feel like I'm giving birth to a brand new company again. It's exciting, frustrating, stressfulall of those things. I'm learning how to dance again and my baby is learning how to walk. We're sort of side-by-side getting through it.

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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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