Orlando Ballet School has been leading the way when it comes to developing successful COVID safety measures without compromising on the quality of training.

Courtesy Orlando Ballet School

Opportunity and Community Take Center Stage at Orlando Ballet's Summer Intensive

Participating in summer intensive programs has long been critical to dancers' advancement—whether still refining their technique or gearing up to make the leap to pre-professional. But amid the coronavirus pandemic and the disruption it has had on dancers' training around the world (which for many has meant months long Zoom classes from home), there's a new level of importance placed on the specialized approach of a summer intensive. Yes, dancers are eager to get back to in-person training, but doing so in a safe environment is of the utmost importance.

Orlando Ballet School (the official school of Orlando Ballet) has been leading the way when it comes to developing successful COVID safety measures without compromising on the quality of training. Working with Orlando health officials, faculty members, and the dancers themselves, school director Phillip Broomhead proudly notes that Orlando Ballet School safely held its in-person summer intensive last year, while the company maintained its full 2020–21 season.

"As dancers, we've always said in the studio, 'You make it happen,'" says principal company and academy teacher Yan Chen, who has been with Orlando Ballet since 1993. "And that's exactly what we did during this pandemic—we figured it out and we made it happen." Here's how Orlando Ballet School created its COVID-safe intensive, and how dancers can still earn a spot for summer 2021.

Diverse Training

"I have a couple of different schedules out for the summer because of COVID policies and procedures," explains Broomhead of Orlando Ballet School's commitment to adhering to CDC guidelines. Currently, the school has developed two in-person programs (a two-week and a five-week intensive for women and men), as well as a two-week virtual course for students ages 11 and up. Both in-person intensives follow the same format, with classes held from 10 am to 5 pm, Monday through Friday, and half days on Saturday.

"They'll have conditioning first, which is anything from Pilates to floor barre or Progressing Ballet Technique with the Bosu balls," says Broomhead, who notes that the staff will be working closely with students on an individual level to avoid injury as they readjust to in-person training. "We want to make this a welcoming place for dancers, and our goal is to be able to help as much as we can to get them back in the studio," adds Chen.

After classes in ballet technique and pointe (or men's class), students will work on a mix of classical solos and repertoire, pas de deux, and a lesson in either contemporary, modern, hip-hop, African or character dance.

"Last year we also started to do extracurricular lessons in costume design with the dancers," Broomhead says of the intensive's comprehensive offerings. "This year I'm expanding that to theatrical design, which includes the stage setting and lighting. There will also be a choreographic workshop element for any interested dancers," says Broomhead, who notes the importance of introducing dancers to every element of the ballet from a young age.

Courtesy Orlando Ballet School

World-Class Faculty and Facilities

In addition to Chen, who formerly danced with American Ballet Theatre and The Washington Ballet, Orlando Ballet's summer intensive includes full-time and guest faculty from companies all over the world, across various styles of dance—something that second company member Kenna Gold notes is particularly advantageous. "I really enjoyed all of my teachers," says Gold, who attended the intensive from 2018 to 2020.

The 2021 intensive faculty roster will also include choreographer and director Jorden Morris, who is a former principal dancer of Canada's Royal Winnipeg Ballet. Morris' Peter Pan was most recently performed by Orlando Ballet earlier this month, while performances of his Moulin Rouge took place last winter.

"If you're seeking a position either in the academy or the second company, it's a great way to get a feel for what the program is like," Gold adds. "My first summer, I learned some pieces of the company repertoire, which helped me see what they were looking for and what kind of rep you might do as a trainee or a second company member."

Broomhead notes that he and artistic director Robert Hill (formerly a principal with American Ballet Theatre, New York City Ballet and The Royal Ballet) will be looking to invite dancers from this year's summer intensive into Orlando Ballet's trainee and second company programs.

Another highlight for the dancers (and Orlando Ballet's staff) is the newly constructed Harriet's Orlando Ballet Centre. Officially opened in January 2020, HOBC's spacious studios allow students to maintain proper distance from one another throughout class. It also allowed the faculty to get creative and hold a COVID-safe showcase for last summer's intensive students by transforming one of its studios into a theater—complete with wings. "Being able to move and travel in the studio after being confined to a living room for months was so liberating," Gold shares.

Courtesy Orlando Ballet School

CDC-Compliant COVID Regulations

Orlando Ballet Orlando Ballet was one of the first schools in the nation to be able to offer its summer intensive in person, and the school and company continue to work with Orlando health officials to ensure that their safety measures are in line with the CDC's latest guidelines. COVID testing is done weekly, and students are grouped according to their levels into pods that are then assigned one studio for the whole day.

"It starts with temperature checks before students even enter the building," says Broomhead, who notes that completing COVID safety questionnaires and wearing masks are also requirements. "When the students get to the studio, they'll find that it has been marked off around the room in six-feet increments, so they can put their bags down in one of those segments and go from there." Orlando Ballet's policies, which rely largely on the cooperation of the dancers, also include walking the hallways single-file and using hand sanitizer before and after class.

"The building is cleaned and sanitized multiple times throughout the day, so that makes us all feel very safe," shares Gold. "We even completed a full season at Orlando Ballet—obviously, it didn't look the same as it has in previous seasons, but we did every performance in a theater, and we all feel very grateful for that."

Orlando Ballet School will be accepting video audition submissions through May 15.

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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."

Kaatsbaan Cultural Park artistic director Stella Abrera and executive director Sonja Kostich. Photo by Quinn Wharton, Courtesy Kaatsbaan Cultural Park

The Inaugural Kaatsbaan Spring Festival Brings Together Leading Figures in Dance

The rollout of vaccinations is helping the U.S. turn a corner during this coronavirus pandemic, and artists and audience members alike are looking forward to enjoying live performances once again. It couldn't be more perfect timing, then, for the inaugural Kaatsbaan Spring Festival, which will feature 16 presentations on two outdoor stages in New York's Hudson Valley. Taking place May 20–23 and May 27–30, the festival brings together luminaries from multiple disciplines, including dance, music, poetry, sculpture and the culinary arts.

"During a challenging year such as this, we really wanted to provide artists from various genres opportunities for support and work," says Sonja Kostich, Kaatsbaan Cultural Park's executive director.

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Ballet West principal Katlyn Addison in a still from In The Balance. Courtesy Ballet West

Ballet West’s New Web Series Documents an Uncertain November

If the story of a ballet company presenting performances amidst a global pandemic, a divisive presidential election, and uprisings for justice sounds like it was made for TV, Ballet West has a series for you. In The Balance: Ballet for a Lost Year is a nine-episode documentary about BW's November 2020 performances, which took place at Salt Lake City's Capitol Theatre. The series premieres Friday, May 7, on Ballet West's social media channels, with a new episode released every Friday. (Viewers can also unlock all nine episodes on Ballet West's website starting May 7.)

For a month filmmakers Diana Whitten and Tyler Measom of Skyscape Studios had unlimited access to company class (divided into pods to abide by COVID-19 restrictions), rehearsals for new ballets by Jennifer Archibald and Nicolo Fonte, and interviews with artists and administrators. Some of the series' most fascinating insights come from people's different ways of navigating uncertainty, and how this connects to the arts.

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