Julia Rowe and Daniel Deivison-Oliveira in Giselle. Erik Tomasson, Courtesy San Francisco Ballet.

Brain Drain: How to Prevent Information Overload in Rehearsals

This story originally appeared in the August/September 2015 issue of Pointe.

San Francisco Ballet corps member Julia Rowe's first run-through of Mark Morris' intensely complicated ballet Maelstrom did not go the way she'd planned. “I went to do my first entrance and blanked—completely," she says. “I'd already had a full day of learning other ballets and my brain was fried, but there was no time to stop, so the music just kept playing. It took me an eternity to get my bearings and remember at least some of the steps, let alone the timing."

Memorizing choreography—and retaining the steps and counts—is a skill as important as pirouettes or allegro, and nearly every dancer struggles with it at some point. New company members may have it especially hard, though, when the sudden challenge of learning a large amount of repertoire in a very short time can overload an already fatigued brain and body. Gaining mental stamina takes time and practice, but there are plenty of strategies to improve your brain's power, speed and focus.


​Lay Some Groundwork

First, give yourself a head start by becoming familiar with the ballet beforehand. Watch a video to get an idea of the piece's structure and style, and listen to the music as much as you can, especially if it's unusual. Joffrey Ballet's Fernando Duarte found that studying the notoriously daunting Stravinsky score to Le Sacre du Printemps actually helped him learn the steps, too. "It was a lot of choreography," he says, "but I listened to the music every day on Spotify to hear the accents and get the counts, and finally I got it."

After Rowe's terrifying blank-out, she had a revelation: "It occurred to me that if I could remember how the music went, surely I'd remember the steps to go along with it. That night, I went through the entire ballet and sang the choreography like words to a song. I did the same thing in rehearsal the next day. It worked! I didn't miss a beat (or a step)."

A woman wearing a winter coat, hat and scarf and headphones walks through a city street at night. We only see her from the back.

Listening to the music can help the piece to sink in.

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So Many Steps, So Little Time

Dancers are trained to be detail-oriented, but when the pressure is on to learn quickly, getting stuck on specifics can slow you down. Take your time—particularly with unfamiliar movement. Watch the choreographer or ballet master move before you try to imitate. "Seeing and absorbing with my eyes first is more beneficial for me and actually makes it easier to repeat it afterwards," says Duarte. "I can understand what they want, and I don't miss things when they're turning or facing backwards."

Focus on the big picture first, advises Rowe. "Establish your outline and then fill in the details," she says. "If you're struggling with a phrase, bookmark it and move on. Nine out of 10 times, it will make much more sense when you come back to it later."

If it doesn't, think about the transitions before and after your roadblock. Jeffrey Stanton, a ballet master at Oregon Ballet Theatre, says, "It's as if you're learning a sentence instead of just words. Connect them all together and train your brain to know what comes next."

Learning Multiple Roles—and Spots

As a new dancer, apprentice or trainee, it's common to understudy multiple roles in one ballet—learning three Snowflake spots, for example—or to be asked to step in unexpectedly for a dancer you're not officially covering. It seems like an impossible task, but Glenn Keenan, a ballet master for New York City Ballet who spent 10 years in the company's corps, tells dancers to concentrate on one thing at a time. "Focus on learning one part really well, and then it'll be easier to learn another one and transfer what you already know. But if you try to learn both at the same time, it's nearly impossible." Prioritize the part you're most likely to perform, but stay aware of what else is being taught. And stay calm. Panic only leads to brain shutoff.

Often, reviewing material on your own is necessary to be completely prepared. Asking other dancers or the ballet master for help after rehearsal is a great way to feel more on top of the choreography—and show you're motivated. And if you're understudying, remember that it's in the best interest of the person you're covering that you know their part, so they'll likely be eager to help. They may even be able to offer insider tips or explain details you missed.

While some people are naturally faster learners than others, memorizing choreography is part of every dancer's life. But remember that your brain is a muscle, too—and with practice, patience and some mental discipline, it will become as flexible, strong and fast as your body.

A woman writes in a blue journal on a white table. She wears a white top and has an iPhone and white mug next to her.

Writing steps down can help to cement sequences in your head.

Getty Images

​Losing Your Concentration?

Staying focused when your body is tired isn't easy, but getting frustrated will only sabotage your ability to learn quickly. Here are some tips for keeping your mental stamina sharp.

  • Visualize the steps, mark them or write them down to cement the sequence in your head without expending unnecessary energy on dancing full-out.
  • Shut out distractions. "Stay in the zone," says Oregon Ballet Theatre ballet master Jeffrey Stanton. "Focus on what you're doing, who you're dancing with, and forget about who's watching from the doorway."
  • To cope with a heavy workload, compartmentalize your day. Concentrate solely on what you're doing at any given moment without stressing over your next rehearsal.
  • When you get a break, take it. Not only will your muscles rest, but your brain will also have a chance to process what it's learning. Setting it all aside for even a few minutes to read, chat with friends or think about something unrelated to dance will help you recharge.

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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."

Students of Canada's National Ballet School. Bruce Zinger, Courtesy Ballet Unleashed.

Ballet Unleashed Aims to Connect Emerging Dancers From 11 Academies With Freelance Opportunities

To any pre-professional dancer vying for a company position, auditions are a familiar and often dreaded scene: Hundreds of hopeful young graduates flock to an audition site, pin a paper number to their dance clothes and try their luck. But only a few will receive full-time contracts with companies—the rest will go home disappointed, potentially facing a gap year as they try to figure out next steps.

Mavis Staines, artistic director and CEO of Canada's National Ballet School, became frustrated with this flawed system years ago. Why were so many talented dancers not being rewarded with work opportunities? And why was the only acceptable form of work a full-season contract, when in the music and theater industries, project-based employment was a legitimized way to build careers?

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Birmingham Royal Ballet in Cinderella. Roy Smiljanic, Courtesy British Ballet Charity Gala

Darcey Bussell Is Putting on a Benefit Gala Starring 8 UK Dance Companies—and You Can Stream It From Home

Planning a major gala during a global pandemic is no easy feat—but don't say that to Dame Darcey Bussell. In an amazingly short time, the former Royal Ballet principal and "Strictly Come Dancing" judge has curated a historic evening to support the dance industry in her home country. The British Ballet Charity Gala will bring eight major UK dance companies together for a live performance at London's Royal Albert Hall on June 3, before it is streams internationally on June 18.

The event, hosted by Bussell and actor Ore Oduba, a "Strictly Come Dancing" winner, will feature performances by Ballet Black, Birmingham Royal Ballet, English National Ballet, New Adventures, Northern Ballet, Rambert, Scottish Ballet and The Royal Ballet—marking the first time all of them have performed together on the same program.

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