Ballet West Academy Professional Training Division student Olivia Book. Haskell Photography, Courtesy Book.

Meet Olivia Book, the Ballet West Academy Student Who Isn't Letting Her Disability Stop Her

When you see Olivia Book dance, you first notice her long lines, incredible control and captivating stage presence. It's obvious why the Canadian dancer received high marks at Toronto's Youth American Grand Prix competition last year—the girl has talent! It isn't until a second or third glance that you realize that one of the 16-year-old's arms is a little different than most. Born with congenital upper extremity limb deficiency, Book's right arm ends just above her elbow and is significantly smaller than her left one. "My right arm, or 'little arm,' has forced me to rely on my left arm for all of my daily life activities," says Book.

Though she's had to work twice as hard at things that might be second nature for many dancers, Book's passion for ballet trumps any of the physical challenges she faces. "I love how beautiful ballet is," she says, "and there are so many professional ballerinas that I admire and look up to. Knowing that one day I could dance that beautifully and make ballet my career makes me so excited."

Book, who trains full time at Ballet West's Professional Training Division, appears to be well on her way to making her dreams of dancing professionally a reality. Pointe talked with Book to learn more about her path to Ballet West Academy and how she manages some of her unique challenges.


Olivia Book, wearing a white tutu with gold trim, does a renvers\u00e9 in attitude with her right leg onstage during a ballet competition. She looks out to the audeince confidently, with her left arm stretched high above her and her right arm extended to the side.

Book performs the Dulcinea variation from Don Quixote.

Danielle Earl Photography, Courtesy Book.

How did you get involved with ballet?

As a young girl, I participated in many sports including ice hockey, basketball, soccer, tennis and long-distance running. But nothing excited me like dance class. I joined my studio's competitive team at the age of nine, and was required to take a minimum of three ballet classes per week on top of tap, hip hop and jazz. When I turned 12, I realized how difficult ballet was and I loved the challenge, so I made it my main focus.

When did you decide to pursue a professional career?

Ever since I was little I've wanted to become a professional dancer, but I never thought that I could because of my right arm. It wasn't until January 2018 that my dream felt like a real possibility. I attended a workshop with two principal dancers from the Royal Danish Ballet, and I was selected to attend the Royal Danish Ballet Summer School for three weeks. That was one of the best days of my life. My summer at RDB made me believe that I might actually be able to make dance my career.

When did you begin training at Ballet West Academy?

In March 2019, while training at Niagara Ballet, I attended my first YAGP in Toronto, Ontario. I placed in the Top 12, and I also received two special jury awards and a scholarship to attend Ballet West's summer intensive. During my first week there I auditioned for the Professional Training Division, and the academy director, Peter LeBreton Merz, offered me a spot to train full time.

How do you practice barre combinations to the left?

When I was younger, and shorter, I was able to hold the barre with my right hand. It wasn't until I started to grow that I could no longer touch the barre. This forced me to do barre as if I was in the center. For difficult combinations, like fondu and adagio, I would have to reach over with my left arm to hold the barre. My teacher was worried this would ruin my alignment and create bad habits, so she had a small barre made that attached to the wall at the height that my right arm could reach.

When I moved to a new dance school I realized that I needed something that could be moved to any part of the studio, but that my right arm could still reach. My dad and I built an attachment that could be secured to any barre. I brought the attachment with me to Ballet West and now I have two so that I don't have to bring it with me when we switch studios.

Olivia Book balances at the barre in attitude derriere effac\u00e9. Wearing a dark gray leotard and skirt, she holds a special barre attachment with her right "little arm." Her teacher, Peter Lebreton Merz, lightly holds her left arm and left foot to help stretch her line. He wearsblue jeans, a blue button-dow shirt and a light gray checked sport coat.

Book with Ballet West Academy director Peter LeBreton Merz. She uses a customized, portable attachment for the barre to help her maintain proper alignment.

Beau Pearson, Courtesy Ballet West

What are some of the biggest challenges you've faced during your dance journey?

Many challenges I deal with on a regular basis have just become part of my life, like putting my hair in a bun and sewing my pointe shoes. One challenge that I've been working through is my confidence. When I was young it didn't bother me when people would stare at my arm, but as I got older I became self-conscious about it. It would make me lose my concentration, and at one point, I only wore leotards with sleeves so that I wouldn't have to worry about people looking at my arm. Lately, as I've become comfortable around the people at Ballet West, I've started wearing leotards that show my little arm.

Has this disability helped you develop your dancing in a positive way that you might not have otherwise?

When I was younger I'd catch myself overcompensating for my right arm, and then I'd have to figure out where my weight was. Now my teachers often compliment my placement and I think that's a strength I developed because of how aware I am of my body and weight distribution.

Also, because of my limited motion in my right arm I'm not able to use it to help me sustain balances and turns like everyone else can. This forced me to use my back muscles, even before I knew that was the correct technique. Thanks to that awareness, turns are actually one of my favorite things to do.

Olivia Book, waering a gray leotard and ballet skirt,  balances in attitude devant crois\u00e9 on pointe while her parnter Kesler Colton holds her waist, his right foot outstretched for balance. He wears a gray T-shirt, black tights, white socks and white ballet slippers.

Partnering with Kesler Colton, Ballet West Academy Professional Training Division student.

Beau Pearson, Courtesy Ballet West

What are your goals for the future?

My main goal is to join a professional ballet company, one that has a healthy environment and that accepts me for who I am. I also hope to inspire children who are aspiring to be ballet dancers. Ballet is hard and can be even harder on a dancer's confidence, so I want to encourage kids and make them believe that as long as they set their mind to it, they can achieve their dance dreams. But more immediately I'm looking forward to working on the next challenge in my dance journey: partnering.

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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."

Michael Cairns, Courtesy Orlando Ballet

Returning to Live Audiences: How 4 Companies Have Gotten Back Onstage

Performing in front of live audiences again has been every ballet organization's goal since the COVID-19 pandemic began more than a year ago. With vaccinations on the rise and light appearing at the end of the tunnel, companies are slowly starting to come back to in-person shows.

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#TBT: Antoinette Sibley in "Cinderella" (1969)

With its fairytale magic and ludicrous stepsisters, Sir Frederick Ashton's Cinderella is full of whimsy and charm. The choreography is also playfully challenging with quirky, intricate phrasing that illuminates Prokofiev's score. Antoinette Sibley, a former principal of The Royal Ballet, revels in the challenges as the titular Cinderella. A master of speed and staccato, Sibley is a frothy delight in her Act II variation in this clip from 1969.

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