Osipova in "Firebird" with American Ballet Theatre. Photo Courtesy ABT.

Natalia Osipova: Confessions of a Superstar

Press room, Metropolitan Opera House, New York City, before show time (loud bells interrupt us between 7:40 and 8 pm). Natalia Osipova, American Ballet Theatre's 26-year-old star ballerina, has come from rehearsal wearing a purple T-shirt over crocheted tights and down booties. No makeup, heart-shaped face, small features, black hair pulled back, like a fresh-faced elf. Osipova's continent-straddling career—she and fiancé Ivan Vasiliev are also principals at the Mikhailovsky Theatre in St. Petersburg, after their headline-grabbing departure from the Bolshoi Ballet—has made her an international name. She puts feet up on couch, asking if I mind. I don't!

You told me once that your parents moved back to Russia from Israel, and that you spent summers with your grandmother in Israel.
Yes, that's true. It was hard times in the USSR when they were young. They wanted a better life. Israel was a young state. If you had relatives there you could get a visa. But after a while it didn't go well, so they moved back. My sister and I were both born in Moscow.

Parents?
I come from a simple family, you could say working class. Mama went to school, then she met my father. She had a child—and she was a mom. That was her profession from then on, and she did it very well.

What was your father's work?
He was educated as an engineer. But he did sports.


Really, which?
Karate. He was talented. But he got a knee injury. So he went into another sphere. He did everything for the family. He ran around [she waves her arms in the air] so we could have toys and pretty dresses. When I was born, in 1986, the Soviet Union was beginning to break up. People were poor. I feel very grateful to my parents. I never lacked for anything.

Did your father's karate background lead to your studying gymnastics?

Yes. He used to stretch me, and lift me over his head, and do all kinds of interesting things when I was small. I started studying around 4 or 5 at small studios. When I was 8, I got a spine injury. They thought if I continued, I would feel the injury all my life. But after I started ballet it went away.


Where did you start ballet?
I spent some time in Leonid Lavrovsky's private ballet school in Moscow. Then I was accepted into the Bolshoi Ballet's Moscow school.

Did you like it?
No! It was not very interesting. I came from sport! Every day, those same pliés at the barre [she makes a face]. I didn't pay attention to the teacher. I looked out the window. I was more interested in playing street games after school with the other kids. But I was good at ballet.

Gymnastics had helped?
Not entirely. There were problems too. You stand parallel a lot in gymnastics, not turned out. I had to fight to get turnout.

You went into the Bolshoi right out of school?
Yes, they took 4 of us from my class of girls, out of 11.

What role did Alexei Ratmansky play in your career?
Ratmansky gave me my career. He and I came into the Bolshoi together [Osipova into the corps de ballet, Ratmansky as the Bolshoi's new director]. He was young. He noticed young talent. He wanted something new—new repertoire, new faces, fresh air. I didn't dance much in the corps de ballet, but I danced variations and pas de deux. I danced in Balanchine's Symphony in C, the third movement. After one year I got to dance my first major role, Kitri in Don Quixote.

I read in another interview that, after you danced Kitri, people didn't think you could do other kinds of roles.
Yes, Kitri is such a bright role. You do it with temperament. People think that's your “emploi" [the style that suits you]. You have to show them otherwise. Giselle is the first role where I could show I could do other kinds of things.

The Giselle you just danced at ABT with David Hallberg was very powerful. What did you discover in the role this time?
Something about not over-demonstrating love. When we first danced Giselle together, we were like children—very emotional. Very demonstrative about Albrecht and Giselle being in love. Now we're both more mature. We can trust that stage chemistry, which already is deeper. I had the impression onstage that I looked into his eyes, and from that moment I couldn't tear myself away.

What is it like for you, on the stage?
[She thinks.] In Romeo and Juliet, Giselle, La Sylphide, sometimes there's that moment when I can, like, love more than one loves in life. I can feel more strongly than in life.

And Gamzatti in Bayadère, which you just danced here at ABT?
When I was young, and danced it a couple of times at the Bolshoi, I didn't like the role at all. I didn't believe I could be that hard a person—such a bitch. I'm a positive person—I love people. Now I'm older. I've lived through things. It got interesting to become a bad person. I wanted to base the role this time on loving Solor. Everything happens because of love for Solor.

Much has been written about you and your fiancé, Ivan Vasiliev, leaving the Bolshoi for St. Petersburg's Mikhailovsky, about wanting not to be typecast. How do you feel now about that move?
I don't regret the decision. It feels much simpler and easier now without the Bolshoi. Maybe I'm that kind of person—not liking to be tied to one place.

How is it working with Nacho Duato, the new artistic director of ballet at the Mikhailovsky?
It's interesting! He's making a new Romeo and Juliet on me and Vasiliev. It's nice to work there. More peaceful. The theater is smaller, more human-scale. There's a great coach, Zhanna Ayupova. We've worked through several roles together already.

But where's your home?
[Laughs.] We don't have a home now! Our home is where we are working. It's not so bad—I'm here in New York for two and a half months, in a rented apartment. In St. Petersburg I live in a rented apartment. Of course, Moscow is “home"—my parents are there. It's too bad we can't appear as guests at the Bolshoi, but that's their attitude.

What are your dreams for the future?
[Laughs.] I'm full, I'm…[She says a Russian word for this that I don't know. But she wants me to know it, so she looks it up on her iPhone. It means when you've eaten your fill—satiated.] I'm young. I've already done so many ballets. I can't imagine life without dance. But it's not like a religion as it is for some people. In the future I'll maybe have a child, maybe two. I would hope that I could be happy as a woman.

How do you define ballerina?
[Laughs again.] Ballerina! What a term! I suppose I'm a ballerina. I dance all the time. I sew my shoes in the evening. It doesn't matter what they call me. It's the same with reviews. I don't worry about them—good, bad—it's the same to me. I get pleasure from dancing. I feel myself happy. I was born to give people happiness on the stage.

What's the secret of your jump?
[Pauses, laughs.] Nature!

What do you do to relax?
I love to watch films. Not just Russian—Hollywood films, too. I love The Godfather, all three parts. Wonderful atmosphere. I love Al Pacino. But my favorite actor is Tom Hanks. On the surface he looks like nothing special. Then he transforms himself into something different for every role.

What advice do you have for young dancers?
Advice for young dancers? [She laughs.] In school, listen to the teacher. In the theater, listen to yourself. There's nobody but you, finally. Listen to your heart. It will tell you what's interesting for the audience.

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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."

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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Abra Geiger, from the 2019 YAGP Season Finals. VAM Productions, Courtesy YAGP

YAGP Finals Kick Off in Tampa This Week—and You Can Watch Them Live!

In a hopeful sign that things may be slowly getting back to normal, Youth America Grand Prix is hosting its 2021 Season Finals live and in person this week in Tampa, Florida. Approximately 800 young dancers will perform at the annual scholarship audition, held May 10–16 at the Straz Center for the Performing Arts. Over $400,000 in scholarships will be awarded, with school directors from all over the world adjudicating both in person and online. The entire event will be livestreamed on YAGP's website, YouTube channel and Facebook page.

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