Frances Chung as the title role in Christopher Wheeldon's Cinderella. Erik Tomasson, Courtesy SFB.

What Goes Into Lighting a Ballet? A Conversation with Lighting Designer Natasha Katz

Six-time Tony Award-winning lighting designer Natasha Katz has lit such Broadway musical hits as Frozen, Hello Dolly! and A Chorus Line. She is also one of choreographer Christopher Wheeldon's biggest collaborators, designing the lighting for works such as Broadway's An American in Paris, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Cinderella, a 2012 co-production of San Francisco Ballet and Dutch National Ballet. Shortly after SFB opened their 2020 season with Cinderella last month, Pointe caught up with Katz to talk about her career, her collaborative relationship with Wheeldon, and the lighting profiles of co-productions.


What does a psychiatrist's daughter bring to lighting a stage production?

I was brought up to look at all sides of things and to delve deeply into their emotional and psychological meanings. Nothing was black and white! Maybe it explains why I became a lighting designer. Aside from the art and craft of my work, I have to look at the whole picture: scenery, costumes, music; I have to talk to the artistic director, dancers, to fully explore the story. I have to give my father, Dr. Joel Katz, credit for raising me to be someone who takes the world into consideration when I design lighting.

How did you get into lighting design?

It's a college major these days, and so people dream about it as an ambition. I came across it accidentally, at Oberlin College, where I did everything in the theater, and got my first lighting internship. That's true for most lighting designers of my generation, Beverly Amos, for example. Jennifer Tipton started as a stage manager.

Joseph Walsh, as the Prince, with Esteban Hernandez and members of San Francisco Ballet in Christopher Wheeldon's Cinderella

Erik Tomasson, Courtesy SFB

Do you consider lighting design an art or a craft, and if both, where does one bleed over into the other?

We consider ourselves designers and artists. The craft is what we use to implement the art. It's like a painter's paintbrush or sculptor's tools. We're often called "technicians," though that's not how we think of ourselves, partly because you can't really put your finger on the lighting when you watch a show. It lives in realm of the subconscious. Do you even notice lighting? For lighting to be good, it shouldn't be noticed. That's where the subconscious lives: in the unnoticed world.

Christopher Wheeldon's Cinderella was a co-production of SFB and Dutch National Ballet. What must you take into consideration for a co-production, different from one that is underwritten by a single company?

A co-production has the potential to be complicated. Cinderella was an unusually complicated lighting experience. We began working on it in Amsterdam, where a lot of things are different. They speak a different language, so you need a translator. All the equipment and how we control it via computer is completely different than anything in the U.S. Then there are cultural differences. For example, they take breaks a lot more often, so if you have four hours budgeted, a big part of that consists of breaks. The next step is translating the ballet's libretto into a repertoire lighting plot.

Frances Chung and Joseph Walsh in Christopher Wheeldon's Cinderella

Erik Tomasson, Courtesy SFB

What is a "repertoire lighting plot"?

With major ballet company productions around world, it's typical to see three ballet works in one night, or see three on one night and a different three on alternate nights, or one program at a matinee and a different one in the evening. The stage crew loads in shows, and the technicians have to hang all the lights in one setup for all the productions and then switch from one to the other from that single setup, because you can't rehang lights between pieces or even programs. Over the years, something called a repertoire lighting plot has come into being. It's like a libretto for lighting that allows you to quickly switch for each work. You'll see one dancer with a single "down" light from above on her that's been built into a repertory lighting scheme. There are instances where the dancer is placed at quarter line and center line only because the lights can't change from piece to piece. These constraints are sometimes the very thing that make a work so good, and though the audience can't see the motive, choreographers know house limitations, and stage accordingly.

Are cues identical for each cast?

If there's a principal who, because of skin color for instance, looks different than what you've planned for, yes, the lighting has to be changed. That's a technical issue, resolved to get to the intended idea. It's up to the resident lighting designer to make the call. For example, I can't make that choice in San Francisco because I'm not there, and just like a ballet master "takes care" of a given piece in the absence of the choreographer or stager, the resident lighting designer does the same for lighting it.

Esteban Hernandez (seated) with Elizabeth Powell, Ellen Rose Hummel and Sarah Van Patten in Christopher Wheeldon's Cinderella

Erik Tomasson, Courtesy SFB.

What is the collaboration process like with the choreographer, set and costume designer and artistic directors, especially for a co-production?

Cinderella, from a collaboration point of view, was last done in San Francisco in 2013, and in Amsterdam 2012. Christopher Wheeldon has the most amazingly precise, insightful vision of what the piece is. Before the costume and set designer comes on board, Chris has worked on the libretto with long-time collaborator, Craig Lucas. Then, Chris, as creator, meets with set and costume designer Julian Crouch, whose ideas are themselves so unusual. I come into the picture next, and because setups might be different from one theater to another, I have to think about one lighting scheme in Amsterdam, and one in San Francisco. We generally begin working on the project about two years before it opens.

How do you resolve big differences of opinion or approach?

It doesn't happen, in the sense that we're all working toward the same goal. "I want blue." "No, because you used red in the last scene." You talk it out. Decisions are, as a rule, collaborative and consensus driven. I can't think of a single time where it hasn't been.

Frances Chung with Alexander Reneff-Olsen, Daniel Deivison-Oliveira, Max Cauthorn and Steven Morse in Cinderella.

Erik Tomasson, Courtesy SFB.

How much of your professional life are family and friends in touch with?

They're very much in touch with it. What nobody but my kids understand is the hours that a lighting designer keeps. Five pm, when most people on their way home from work, is the start of the second half of our day. We can be in the theater from 8 am to midnight for weeks.

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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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