Precious Adams

Kristie Kahns. Hair and makeup by Kristina Feyerherm.

Precious Adams' Journey from Student of the World to Captivating English National Ballet First Artist

This is Pointe's Fall 2019 cover story. You can subscribe to the magazine here, or click here to purchase this issue.

Precious Adams is sitting in a deck chair in the sunshine of London's Olympic Park. She's on a break from rehearsing Christopher Wheeldon's Cinderella with English National Ballet, where she's been polishing up her comic timing for the role of Sister Edwina (they're not "ugly" sisters in this production). "Working with Christopher Wheeldon is a massive tick on my bucket list," smiles the 24-year-old as she tucks into her lunch.

The Detroit native joined ENB in 2014 and was promoted to first artist, one notch up from the corps, in 2017. For a dancer with such an impressive resumé, that may not seem like a meteoric rise—she trained at Canada's National Ballet School, the Princess Grace Academy in Monaco and Moscow's Bolshoi Ballet Academy before becoming a double prizewinner at 2014's Prix de Lausanne. So as she comes up to five years with ENB, is Adams frustrated not to be moving more quickly up the ranks? "I can't say yes or no because I don't really live with too much expectation," she says, matter- of-fact. "I don't like to be disappointed if things don't go exactly how I want." Rank is less important in this company, she says, because visiting choreographers cast whichever dancers suit the roles. "I'm okay to wait in line, to keep working," she says, "as long as I'm ready when opportunities come my way."

And those opportunities are now coming her way. Adams has been repeatedly singled out by the critics, who gave her the Emerging Artist prize at 2018's UK National Dance Awards, and her career is gaining momentum: Last season she was cast as the Chosen One in Pina Bausch's Rite of Spring ("It's raw and powerful and spiritual," she says); she danced the "Calliope Rag" with panache and pizzazz in Sir Kenneth MacMillan's Elite Syncopations; and over the last two years she's made her mark in ballets across the rep, from the wilting grace of La Sylphide to the strident modernity of William Forsythe's In the middle, somewhat elevated. A powerfully athletic dancer with deep-rooted classical sensibility, Adams' training has given her versatility: the articulated French footwork from her time in Monaco, the flexibility and expansive port de bras from the Bolshoi.

For Adams, the instinct to dance was always there. "When I heard music I always really liked to move, but it wasn't pretty," she says. She'd put a Vengaboys CD on after school and dance around the living room. At age 6, Adams started jazz classes with younger sister Portia (now a dancer with Les Ballets de Monte-Carlo), but it was clear she had a facility for ballet. At Michigan's Academy of Russian Classical Ballet, teacher Sergey Rayevskiy immediately saw her potential. "You can tell by a kid's physical ability and how their mind works whether they will make it or not," says Rayevskiy. "With Precious I knew from the very beginning."

Adams in the "Calliope Rag" from Sir Kenneth MacMillan's Elite Syncopations

Bill Cooper, Courtesy ENB

Adams' drive was also apparent. "When I was 9 or 10 I thought, I really like this. I need to take it more seriously," she says. Her mother, a dentist, and her father, an orthodontist, encouraged their daughters' artistic leanings and Precious' desire to leave home for full-time training in Canada at age 11. When she later won an apprenticeship to a company of her choice at the Prix de Lausanne, it was her mother who suggested she go to ENB, because the company had appointed a woman director, Tamara Rojo. "I'd never heard of ENB at that point," Adams admits, "but she thought it might be a good place to start, because it's so rare to have a female director."

In London, Adams has made a strong impression onstage, and she's been a poster girl for the company (she also does some modeling on the side, when she has the time). Last year, one striking publicity shot for Swan Lake featured Adams looking gorgeous with her long swan arms, her dark skin contrasted against a white tutu. She wasn't performing Odette/Odile, though, and fans on social media called out the company for using a black dancer to prove their woke credentials without actually casting her in a lead role. Adams, however, points out that it's common for the dancers on ENB's posters not to be cast in the parts they're portraying. "It's about grabbing attention, creating an aesthetic," she says. "I'm not going to bog myself down thinking, Oh, gosh, am I being exploited?"

"I'm okay to wait in line, to keep working, as long as I'm ready when opportunities come my way," says Adams.

Kristie Kahns

Adams, who experienced racism while training in Russia, sometimes has opinions on race that she wants to share. "But then my opinions can change," she says. "Real-life situations can fundamentally change your core beliefs, which is hard, because once you put something out there it's on the internet forever. People are like, 'But you said...' Well, I might be thinking differently now."

She did stick her head above the parapet on the subject of tights with her decision last year to wear brown, skin-colored tights rather than pink ones for all her performances. It didn't make sense to her to break up the line of her body, and the decision was supported by ENB, but not all traditionalists agreed. "There are still a lot of black dancers who don't understand why I want to wear skin-tone tights," she says. "They don't see the need. In my mind, it's so logical."

Adams is a logical woman. Even though she's admittedly not a planner, I ask her where she'd like to be in the next decade or so. "It's hard," she says, "because what I want is probably so unrealistic, I don't even like to say it." I assume she's thinking about major principal roles, but she has other ideas. "I know I want to have a family, I want to own property, I want to have a master's degree," she says. "A small business, so that when I transition out of my dance career it's not this devastating thing."

Adams as The Chosen One in Pina Bausch's Rite of Spring

Lauren Liotardo, Courtesy ENB

Hang on, that sounds like someone making plans to me. Adams clearly sees the bigger picture in terms of her happiness. "I've heard [ENB principal] Alina Cojocaru talk about how she's gone through periods where she was sick with anxiety before going onstage. All that pressure that can come with being a principal dancer, for it to go from something that you love to a burden. It's just ballet," she says. "I mean, it's my whole world," she quickly adds, "but I would hate for it to become something that causes me grief."

Not that there's any doubt Adams is wholly committed to her vocation. Friends and coaches all talk about her work ethic. "She's such a hard worker, the determination there is incredible," says ENB's artistic coordinator Jane Haworth. "Every time I see her she's doing exercises," agrees fellow dancer Fernando Carratalá Coloma. "She really pushes herself in rehearsal, and she's always really focused."

Adams with Aaron Robison in William Forsythe's Approximate Sonata

Laurent Liotardo, Courtesy ENB

Yet for all that serious focus, they also tell me how funny Adams is. She jokes dryly in our interview when I ask what she does outside of dance. "I wish I had a really interesting answer for you. 'Oh, I paint these beautiful murals!' But I don't. I just read, cook, watch Netflix."

There's little time for much else until she's ticked some more items off her bucket list: "I want to be Juliet someday," she says. "And Roland Petit's Carmen." She thinks for a moment. "And I want to do a lot of Balanchine, as well. Tschaikovsky Pas de Deux—I wanna do it!" And with her talent, drive and patience, it's hard to imagine she won't.

Training Around the World

English National Ballet first artist Precious Adams had an unusual training trajectory—throughout her adolescence, she studied full-time at three of the world's major ballet academies. "I have a really diverse understanding of the different syllabuses and techniques, which helps to make me a versatile dancer," says Adams.

● Canada's National Ballet School: At age 11, Adams left her hometown of Detroit, Michigan, to train in Toronto for two years. NBS incorporates elements from various classical ballet and contemporary techniques.

● Princess Grace Academy: At 14, she was accepted to Monaco's Princess Grace Academy, where she studied until age 16. "There I learned the French style," she says, which emphasizes lower leg and foot articulation. "It's a cleaner port de bras but not as reserved as the RAD style."

● Bolshoi Ballet Academy: Adams then trained at the Bolshoi Ballet Academy in Moscow until she was 18, where she studied under Irina Syrova and Marina Leonova. (She also learned to speak Russian.) "That's where I got a lot more of my flexibility from and a more expansive port de bras."

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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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