Marcus Miller in conversation with Merritt Moore and Claudia Schreier. Courtesy National Museum of Mathematics.

For Better Jumps and Higher Legs, Turn to Newton’s Third Law: Merritt Moore and Claudia Schreier Explain The Relationship Between Ballet and Physics

Last Saturday night, I had a balletic epiphany. I wasn't in a mirrored studio taking class or even in a theater watching a performance. This luminous ray of understanding beamed into—wait for it—the basement of a math museum.

The National Museum of Mathematics (yes, that exists) hosted its fourth Quadrivium, a salon focusing on the intersections of music and math last Saturday in New York City. The evening's special guests were none other than ballerina Merritt Moore and choreographer Claudia Schreier.


After Schreier and Moore took their seats next to the event's host, saxophonist Marcus Miller, it became clear how they all had ended up in a math museum on a cold winter's night. Both Moore and Schreier attended Harvard with Miller. Moore was a physics major who went on to earn her PhD in quantum physics from Oxford University, all while performing with companies including Boston Ballet, English National Ballet and Norwegian National Ballet. "Excuse me, I mean Dr. Merritt Moore," Miller corrected himself as he introduced her. Schreier studied sociology and dramatic arts and worked in marketing for Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater before breaking into ballet choreography. Her work has been commissioned by the ABT Studio Company, Vail Dance Festival, Joffrey Winning Works, and many more.

Both Moore and Schreier offered a deep dive into the similarities they find between math, music and dance. And they note how their analytic and creative brains, rather than acting as opposing forces, work in harmony to make them better artists.

Schreier demonstrates

Courtesy National Museum of Mathematics

Schreier explained, "I always start with the music." She listens to a piece "ad nauseam" before steps and narratives begin to flow. Though her counts and the composer's don't always match, they're rooted in the same meter. From there, her choreography blooms into a kaleidoscopic tableau rooted in pattern work. The lines the dancers create are geometric, though they tend to tilt daringly off-axis. Yet in these seemingly chaotic shapes, there's bodily symmetry, Schreier says, whether it's mirrored or rotational.

For Moore, pursuing both ballet and physics has always (perhaps counterintuitively) helped her be more focused and present in each discipline. But it's her direct application of two physical concepts in the studio that I found to be lightbulb moments:

1. Newton’s third law will help your battements and jumps, and prevent injuries.   

"Newton's Third Law: For every action, there's an equal and opposite reaction," Moore explains. Your teachers are basically repeating this when they give the correction "push down to go up" in grand battements and jumps. The force you use to brush into the ground or plié is the same amount of force that will propel the upward movement (minus some lost to gravity and air resistance). Essentially, your jumps and extensions will be much freer if you focus your energy in the preceding downward motion.

Schreier and Moore agree that not fighting against these natural physical forces by over-muscling the legs is a smarter-not-harder approach that conserves energy and prevents injury.

2. Thinking of a pendulum’s kinetic and potential energy makes for better coordination and more emotive dancing. 

Demonstrating with an exquisitely pointed foot peeking out of her black jazz pants, Moore explains that there are two ways to move your leg up and down. You can either use your muscles in a measured way for each distinct motion, or, when the leg reaches its full extension, it pauses at the potential energy peak and then releases its kinetic energy as it falls. Moore prefers the latter; she says to embrace this pause at the peak and let it fall, instead of using your muscles to bring the leg down. Thinking of your swinging leg as a pendulum will help to feel more coordinated than if you think of each component as a separate movement.

And if you fight the physical world's natural forces, you'll also lose the drama that balletic grace embodies. Moving the leg up and down in a flat motion without any peak or pause cuts short the soaring feeling the audience experiences with a suspended leg, turn or lift.

Hearing familiar corrections worded in new ways can make all the difference. And sometimes, apparently, you have to break out the physics textbooks.

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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."

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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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