Boston Ballet principal Seo Hye Han as Cinderella in Sir Frederick Ashton's Cinderella (Liza Voll, courtesy Boston Ballet)

5 Principal Dancers on the Ballet Steps That Still Challenge Them

Their technique might seem effortless onstage, but even the most seasoned ballet professionals have that one step that still drives them crazy. We asked five principal dancers to open up about the skills they still find challenging, and how they're working to finesse them.


Dana Benton as Kitri in Don Quixote

Francisco Estevez, Courtesy Colorado Ballet

Dana Benton, Colorado Ballet

Step-over pirouettes ("lame ducks")

Lame ducks often feel as funky as their name sounds. For Colorado Ballet principal Dana Benton, the pesky pirouette has always been a nuisance. "They're one of my least favorite turns," Benton says. She has specific memories of a performance early in her career where the turn got the best of her. "During the peasant pas in Giselle, there are a ton of step-overs, and it was just a hot mess—a lot of hopping around," she says, with a laugh.

But after all these years, Benton has finally figured out what works for her: "I have to think about staying upright," she says. She's also scaled back her preparation so she can keep control of the turn. "I almost do a demi-pointe preparation instead of a deep plié, which may not quite be proper technique, but it seems to keep my hips level."

Sarah Lane as Princess Praline in Alexei Ratmansky's Whipped Cream

Doug Gifford, Courtesy American Ballet Theatre

Sarah Lane, American Ballet Theatre

Fouettés

American Ballet Theatre principal Sarah Lane considers herself a natural turner. But when it comes to one of ballet's most famous turns, she often struggles. "With fouettés, I don't always believe in myself," Lane says. She's generally a slower turner, she says, and relies more on feeling out her balance than she does on her spot. Add bright stage lights, and you've got a recipe for the wobbles.

Lane had a memorable fouetté fiasco 10 years ago, while performing Don Quixote in Italy—on a raked stage. She puts it bluntly: "It was rough." Since that minor disaster, she's worked on new ways to keep herself centered and stable during fouettés. "It sounds kind of weird, but sometimes I think about doing a Gyrotonic abdominal 'cradle' position, but without letting my shoulders go forward," she says.

Alexander Peters in George Balanchine's Stravinsky Violin Concerto

Alexander Iziliaev, Courtesy Miami City Ballet

Alexander Peters, Miami City Ballet

Double saut de basque

For Miami City Ballet principal Alexander Peters, the many double sauts de basque—on both the left and the right—peppered throughout his repertoire have proven a challenge. "The step is difficult because it requires strength, coordination, and the ability to really find your center and your spot and that rhythm without having any tangible sense of where the floor is," Peters says. He recalls a performance several years ago where all of those factors got the best of him: He was doing a role that requires several double sauts de basque on each side in Alexei Ratmansky's Concerto DSCH. "I did the first one to the left and it was great, and then I had two more to the right following right after," he says. "By the time I got to the second one to the right, I was on the floor."

Since then, he's learned to fight the urge to muscle through the tricky step. He starts slowly in rehearsal, first marking, and then working his way up to a single saut de basque, or even doing simple step-over turns to get the sensation of "stacking" his body straight on top of his working leg. "I do that to both sides, so I can figure out how much momentum I really need, how I should time the rhythm of my spot, and how quickly I need to arrive in passé," he says.

Han as Coppélia in Coppélia

Brooke Trisolini, Courtesy Boston Ballet

Seo Hye Han, Boston Ballet

Fifth position

Even principal dancers still struggle with the basics—and for Boston Ballet principal Seo Hye Han, sometimes the hardest thing is to make sure she's always hitting fifth position correctly. "Audiences are actually very impressed when you're making super-secure fifth positions, because it's a beautiful line," she says. She says ballets like Swan Lake and Sleeping Beauty are particularly difficult, because their choreography often relies on clean fifths. "The first time I did Sleeping Beauty with Boston Ballet, Aurora's first variation"—a two-minute solo rooted in sequences of fifth positions and arabesques—"felt like a blur, because I wasn't getting the fifth position right."

Han has found that repetition is key. "Before I go onstage, I always try to make fifth position flat and on pointe, every time," she says. "That helps keep me on center and gets me warm, too."

Anthony Huxley in Balanchine's Chaconne

Paul Kolnik, Courtesy New York City Ballet

Anthony Huxley, New York City Ballet

Double cabrioles

Double cabrioles are a bit of a rarity in New York City Ballet principal Anthony Huxley's repertoire, which has made it hard for him to get comfortable with the difficult step. If you don't produce two distinct beats, "sometimes it just kind of looks like you're scratching your foot in the air," he says, with a chuckle. He remembers a performance of George Balanchine's Coppélia where he ended up fudging some cabriole-filled diagonals. "To the right—my more coordinated side—it felt pretty good," he says. "Then I went to the left, and it just wasn't working."

To avoid further foot-scratching moments, Huxley has since become more precise about placement during the grand jump. "I try to make sure I'm crossing my legs enough that they do actually beat on top of each other, instead of just kind of going past each other," he says. "If you don't cross enough, you won't get that nice, inner-thigh feeling of beating 'one-two.' "

Latest Posts


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."

American Ballet Theatre corps member Rachel Richardson. NYC Dance Project, Courtesy Rachel Richardson

ABT’s Rachel Richardson on Performing With Her Hometown Company, Eugene Ballet

When I signed my first professional contract with Eugene Ballet, one of the last things I anticipated was the opportunity to dance beside a member of American Ballet Theatre. Flash forward to the start of our spring season this year, and suddenly I'm chatting in the hallway and rehearsing the Cinderella fairy variations next to luminous ABT corps member Rachel Richardson. When ABT announced it was canceling live performances for the 2020–21 season, Richardson traveled back home to Eugene, Oregon, to be with her family—and this spring joined the company as a guest artist.

Growing up, Richardson trained locally in Eugene before moving to The Rock School for Dance Education's year-round program in Philadelphia. After securing a spot in the ABT Studio Company in 2013, she was promoted to corps de ballet in 2015. This unconventional year marks her sixth season with the main company.

After having the privilege of dancing with her this spring, I sat down with Richardson to discuss her recent guesting experience, how the pandemic has helped her grow and her advice for young dancers.

Keep reading SHOW LESS
Abra Geiger, from the 2019 YAGP Season Finals. VAM Productions, Courtesy YAGP

YAGP Finals Kick Off in Tampa This Week—and You Can Watch Them Live!

In a hopeful sign that things may be slowly getting back to normal, Youth America Grand Prix is hosting its 2021 Season Finals live and in person this week in Tampa, Florida. Approximately 800 young dancers will perform at the annual scholarship audition, held May 10–16 at the Straz Center for the Performing Arts. Over $400,000 in scholarships will be awarded, with school directors from all over the world adjudicating both in person and online. The entire event will be livestreamed on YAGP's website, YouTube channel and Facebook page.

Keep reading SHOW LESS

Editors' Picks