Diana Yohe and Joseph Parr in Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre's Fireside Nutcracker, a new original production available on YouTube from December 17–31.

Kelly Perkovich, Courtesy PBT

"Nutcracker" 2020: The Creative Ways Schools and Companies Are Keeping the Holiday Tradition Alive

As COVID-19 lockdowns, restrictions and mandates have forced ballet companies to alter their seasons, many have transformed the ways they bring performances to their audiences. The time-honored Nutcracker is no exception. While some companies, like Orlando Ballet, Ballet San Antonio, Oklahoma City Ballet and Alabama Ballet continue to perform the beloved ballet in theaters (albeit shortened versions adjusted for social distancing), others have had to get especially creative. From filmed virtual productions to drive-in nights to interactive tea parties, we love seeing these new nutty twists on the holiday classic! Read on to see how ballet companies and schools across the country are keeping the Nutcracker tradition alive this year.


"Nutcracker" Online

Without the ability to perform live, the vast majority of companies are engaging with audiences virtually. For example, Ballet Memphis, Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre, Island Moving Company and Avant Chamber Ballet have redesigned their Nutcracker for the camera, creating original, made-for-film versions that viewers can watch from the comfort of their living rooms. These films showcase performances onstage or even in site-specific locations, like historic Victorian homes or outdoor parks, adding an extra-special twist to the holiday tradition.

Other companies, like Richmond Ballet, State Street Ballet, Eugene Ballet, San Francisco Ballet, Texas Ballet Theatre, Ballet Met and Pennsylvania Ballet (and so many more!) have chosen to share recordings of past live performances. Some streaming options are on-demand; others are exclusive to a one-view experience but may include bonus material, like behind-the-scenes footage, family packages, extended viewing periods and virtual activities.

Countless schools and community productions are showcasing their Nutcrackers through online streaming and webcast events, too. For example, Michigan's Interlochen Arts Academy is streaming a new staged production, with socially distanced choreography and digital sets to allow more space onstage. Evergreen City Ballet of Renton, Washington, is presenting Nutcracker Suites, a series of on-demand docu-dance films celebrating the ballet's story and history and featuring three different casts of students. And Magic City Nutcracker, a nonprofit organization in Alabama, has cast 88 dancers from 18 different area schools for its online Nutcracker production, filmed at the Birmingham Botanical Gardens.

"Nutcracker" Goes Interactive

If you've ever wanted to meet with your favorite Nutcracker characters, now could be your chance! The Sugarplum Fairy gets tech-savvy as companies offer virtual tea parties, meet-and-greets, craft activities, dance lessons and more. This season, The Washington Ballet, Los Angeles Ballet and Pennsylvania Ballet are all offering opportunities for audience members to engage with their favorite Nutcracker characters via Zoom and other platforms, in true 2020 holiday spirit. Kansas City Ballet hosted its virtual Dance-A-Story: The Nutcracker workshop for children ages 2 through 7, combining live reading, music, props, costume show-and-tells and dancing.

"Nutcracker" Outdoors and On Site

Who says The Nutcracker needs to stay inside the theater? Earlier this month, The Dallas Conservatory performed a 45-minute version of its production outdoors at Klyde Warren Park. Miami City Ballet is also taking advantage of its sunny weather with 14 performances of George Balanchine's The Nutcracker in Miami's Doral Park. Socially distanced seating and other safety protocols will be enforced.

Other companies have opted for site specific performances, dancing through flower gardens and inside large mansions reminiscent of the famous Stahlbaum abode. Ballet des Amériques has set its immersive production of The Nutcracker: Drosselmeyer's Workshop at the historical Wainwright House in Rye, New York. Audiences are limited to very small groups and are required to wear masks for safety precautions. Similarly, BalletCollective's Nutcracker at Wethersfield is staged both inside the Wethersfield Estate and around the grounds.

"Nutcracker" at the Drive-In

Some companies have taken their Nutcracker to the drive-in, where viewers can tune in on their FM radios and watch from the safety of their cars. City Ballet of San Diego, for instance, is revving up for live outdoor performances at the Del Mar Fairgrounds this weekend. Others, like Atlanta Ballet (which is also streaming its Nutcracker on-demand) and Presidio Dance Theatre, offered a traditional drive-in movie screening of a previous year's performance.

Ballet Arkansas is taking a drive-by approach with its 2020 Winter Wonderland, teaming up with the Arkansas Arts Center to transform Little Rock's Main Street into an immersive Nutcracker experience. Audiences can drive through a series of decorated outdoor scenes as company dancers perform excerpts from its annual production, bringing the stage to the streets of Little Rock.

"Nutcracker" on TV

Many of us already planned to watch the usual holiday television specials, but this year you might be able to catch your local Nutcracker on TV, too! Colorado Ballet, Nevada Ballet Theatre, Nashville Ballet, Boston Ballet, Ballet Memphis and Ballet West, have partnered with their local broadcasting stations to air their productions. Dance lovers can check their TV listings (some Nutcrackers have multiple air dates) and enjoy the show at home for free.

Of course, these are just a few examples of how the ballet community has successfully adjusted this holiday season. How is your local school or company keeping the Nutcracker magic alive this year? Let us know in the comments—we'd love to hear!

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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."

Louisville Ballet in Andrea Schermoly's Rite of Spring. Sam English, Courtesy Louisville Ballet.

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Schermoly is also no stranger to film, having created a digital short called In Passing for the Ashley Bouder Project in 2015. But her most recent film project for Louisville Ballet, a new version of the iconic Rite of Spring, breaks ground—or, rather, ice—with its fresh, arctic take on the Stravinsky masterwork.

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