National Treasure

Principal dancer Heather Ogden remembers being called into the studio in May with her colleagues and hearing the announcement that James Kudelka would step down as artistic director on June 30, 2005. “We were stunned that James was leaving,” she recalls, “but almost immediately, everyone was speculating that Karen Kain would be his successor. She had clearly been groomed for the job and was certainly the popular choice. She also understands how this company works, from the bottom to the top, which is a big advantage.”

In fact, Kain was identified as the top candidate for the job long before she was offered the position. “Like many corporations, NBC had in place a written succession plan for senior leadership of the company,” explains David Banks, chair of the board of directors. “The plan singled out potential candidates and was designed to help the formal work of a selection committee, should the need arise. Karen headed the list as possible artistic director. After James’ resignation, we had to decide whether we should conduct a proper search or appoint Karen.”

Jim Pitblado, a past chair of both the NBC board and foundation, was given charge of the succession planning committee. During an intense three-week period, he and his four colleagues conducted a wide-ranging survey of NBC stakeholders, both inside and outside the company, in Canada and abroad.

“Karen’s name kept coming up,” he says. “What really surprised us is that no negative facts of any consequence were mentioned about her. You’d think that over a 30-year career, she might have rubbed someone the wrong way, but not Karen.”

In her former life, Kain had a glittering career as NBC’s prima ballerina and was an international ballet superstar. Penelope Doob, who is head of the dance department at York University and helped Kain write her autobiography, Movement Never Lies, points to the former ballerina as one of the most beloved and recognized cultural icons in Canada, a rare tribute for dance in the starry climes usually reserved for sports figures or rock stars.

After retiring as a dancer, Kain became an artist in residence with NBC in 1997. Two years later, she became artistic associate, which made her an integral part of the top managerial team. Nonetheless, she did not find out until after the fact that she had been identified as the top candidate to succeed Kudelka.

Equally surprising is that she never saw her job as artistic associate as an apprenticeship. Rather, she viewed herself as being part of Kudelka’s support team. It was not until quite recently that she realized these last eight years were on-the-job training for artistic director and began to see herself in that role. Now she is taking on one of the most challenging cultural jobs in Canada.

For her part, Kain is in no hurry to put her own stamp on NBC. “I have a huge respect for the company’s heritage, and I plan to build on that,” she says. “I served under every artistic director, and I appreciate what each brought to the company. The mandate that founder Celia Franca put in place is still valid. Our benchmark is the classical repertory, support for Canadian choreographers and bringing in masterworks of our time.”

But the change in command comes at a difficult time for the company, which has been suffering financially. Kain is reluctant to give a precise number concerning box-office losses, but the 2004-05 season was not a good one for NBC. She uses the word “challenging” to describe the audience drop-off and adds that necessity dictates that she proceed with caution her first few years. “We always budget very conservatively and never plan for full houses, but we’re nervous right now over this nasty surprise and really have to analyze what happened. Are we moving too fast with unfamiliar work? Is the audience drop-off specific to us or to all dance companies? Sadly, people who came to the shows loved them, but not enough of them came. If you asked me to sum up my vision, it is survival.”

Kain is pinning some hopes for renewal on the move to Toronto’s new opera house, the Four Seasons Centre for the Arts, in September 2006. She talks glowingly about the closeness of the stage to the audience, even at the back of the hall. “The European horseshoe shape goes up rather than out,” she explains, “so there are very few bad seats and wonderful acoustics. Everyone can experience the immediate and visceral passion of dance. I hope the new opera house will seduce people into the theater and that we will delight them or even surprise them when they are there.”

The move to the new house will be costly, though, primarily because the company will need more dancers to accommodate the increased number of performances. Currently the company has 60 dancers, including apprentices, but the ideal is 70. Thus, in a time of audience malaise and donor fatigue, the new director has to find the resources for the necessary company growth.

Enlarging the endowment may be one answer. NBC’s endowment is about $11 million, but in comparison to a few U.S. companies with endowments in the tens of millions, this is pitifully small. Part of the problem, according to Kain, is that American businesses and individuals get a complete tax write-off for their donations. In Canada, it is only a 50 percent tax benefit. “We have to convince governments to be smarter about donations to not-for-profit arts organizations to encourage philanthropy,” says Kain.

Since the recession of the late 1980s, NBC has never had, Pitblado points out, “a year of fat on the bones.” Thus, in the current rough times of government funding cutbacks and the fierce competition for corporate dollars, being artistic director of NBC is not without its pitfalls. All see Kain, however, as having the goods to take on the job, and there is, apparently, a steel magnolia that lurks within her charm.

In fact, the word that comes up most frequently to describe her personality is “tough.” NBC principal dancer Jennifer Fournier sees Kain as someone who cares passionately about what happens on the stage. “She is brutally honest and a person who does not settle for mediocrity. You can’t get to the top of the dance world without handling the truth, and that will carry over to her decisions as an artistic director.”

At the same time, Fournier feels that Kain’s greatest strength is her open-door, nurturing attitude. “Karen is very intelligent and emotionally in tune with how things impact dancers,” she adds. “She is also open to new ideas. She never stopped growing as an artist, and she won’t stop growing as an administrator.”

Kain points out that NBC is not a company she is stepping into as part of a career move, but one that she has been a part of her entire professional life. Acting as artistic director will be a labor of love. Nonetheless, she is not rubber-stamping what has gone before, and one picks up a flash of steel when she talks about
raising standards. “When I’m watching from the audience, it is with the eyes of someone who has seen the best in the major dance centers of the world,” Kain says. “Sometimes we are there, and sometimes not. I want us at the top of our game for every performance. I’m ready to take on the challenge.”

Paula Citron is a Toronto-based arts journalist.

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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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