Goh Ballet director Chan Hon Goh

Courtesy Goh Academy

Pre-Pro Priorities: The Top Skills to Focus on During Your Final Training Years

As told to Rachel Caldwell

Finding the right pre-professional training program can be daunting. Then once you're there, what should you focus on in order to succeed? To shine some light on the topic, we talked to five leading teachers and directors who have seen scores of students move on to flourishing ballet careers. Here's what they suggested for young dancers on the pre-professional track.

Chan Hon Goh, Director Goh Ballet

Goh stands at the barre in a pink painted studio, adjusting a young ballet student's arm. She wears a knitted shawl wrapped around her waist and white legwarmers.

"Prioritize artistic interpretation and musicality." —Chan Hon Goh

David Cooper, Courtesy Goh Academy

When choosing where to train, think about what your career objectives are. Do your research and look for a program that is well-rounded and has a proven track record of producing dancers that have gone on to a variety of companies. There's an abundance of schools and information out there, so it can be quite baffling—everyone mentions similar things to entice students to join their programs. Refer back to the school's track record, as well as what opportunities will be offered to you during the course of the next several years. Looking at the backgrounds of the teachers and the director is also immensely valuable—that information is usually readily available on organizations' websites.

If you know you want to explore a career in classical ballet, make sure you get enough of a technical buildup. Prioritize artistic interpretation and musicality. In a world where we're easily impressed by how high the leg is and how many turns one can do, we sometimes fail to see the artistry: the artistic interpretation of a story or a character, and how to bring that character to life. That will add to your dancing immensely.

Alfonso Martin, Artistic Manager and Ballet Master, Tulsa Ballet II

Martin stands onstage with two dancers, using his hands to demonstrate in rehearsal.

"Give your body the best fuel and care it needs to dance again the next day." —Alfonso Martin

Bethany Kirby, Courtesy Tulsa Ballet

First, know what type of dancer you are and what you see yourself dancing. Focus on training that will get you to where you'd like to end up, career-wise. There's a great pool of companies out there, so everybody can find their place.

Nowadays, most companies look for artists who can dance everything. Find the most complete pre-professional training possible—training that offers classes not only in classical ballet, but contemporary ballet, repertory, nutrition and physical conditioning, and that has performance opportunities.

Take care of your body. Dancers often forget to make the most of their time after a full day of classes, rehearsals and performances. It's so important to give your body the best fuel and care it needs to dance again the next day.

Remember that a dance career is a marathon, not a 100-meter race—every day will be different. Set daily goals, try your best and learn as much as you can from everyone around you. There is always something to learn, and you never know who or what will make a difference in your dancing.

Melissa Allen Bowman, Director Houston Ballet Academy

Bowman stands in the studio in warm-up pants and a jacket, adjusting the head of a dancer standing in a front tendu in a roomful of teenage ballet students in pointe shoes, pink tights and black leotards.

"Be open to new ideas and ways of learning." —Melissa Allen Bowman

Amitava Sarkar, Courtesy Houston Ballet

Nowadays you need to be as versatile and informed as possible. Learn as much as you can about different styles, from classical to contemporary. Absorb what you can from each experience and teacher so that you can see what works for you and build on it. Not everything is going to be a perfect fit, and that's okay.

Being able to adapt to different styles and techniques and work with a variety of choreographers will take you far. I find that a lot of dancers come in with preconceived notions, and it's hard for them to take in what they're learning and work with it. Immersing yourself in one technique when you're young sets a strong base, but as you get older it's important to be open to new ideas and ways of learning. It helps you to become a better, well-rounded dancer and more comfortable and confident as an artist.

I often see students fall short because they don't understand something but are too embarrassed to ask questions or are afraid to fail. But that is how you learn.

Victoria Schneider, Ballet Faculty The Harid Conservatory

Schneider adjusts the head of young ballet student in a studio. A ballet close stands posed in rehearsal in white tutus and black leotards.

"Look for a program that offers various dance forms, not just ballet." —Victoria Schneider

Mariana Raya, Courtesy Harid Conservatory

Each school will have its own selection criteria; you won't be accepted into every institution, but that doesn't mean you won't have a professional career. Remain open-minded. A "no" in one place is not necessarily a "no" in your life.

Look for a program that offers various dance forms, not just ballet. I do believe that students should study one particular ballet technique at a time, not mix techniques. I think that working with one teacher consistently is much more productive than switching teachers on a daily basis.

Use your pre-professional years to gain an understanding of how the entire body coordinates together, rather than just focusing on legs and feet. The upper body must be equally developed with the lower body. Also, musicality! Finding musical training will be to your advantage. Artistry, musicality and the mechanics of movement all go hand in hand.

The best preparation for pre-professional training is learning independence. It starts with sewing your own shoes, packing your dance bag every day, being responsible, getting yourself back and forth from ballet class, if possible. It's important to develop as a whole human being.

Michael Vernon, Chair Emeritus Indiana University Ballet Department

Vernon stands in a studio, gesturing with his left hand.

"Learn how to work on your weaknesses, not just your strengths." —Michael Vernon

Christophe Buszkiewicz, Courtesy Vernon

College dance programs today are really different than what they were 10 and 20 years ago—they offer really good pre-professional training. When deciding on a program, research the faculty. Not having heard a teacher's name before doesn't say anything about the standard of their teaching, so really look into their backgrounds.

Wherever you decide to go, performing should be a very important part of the curriculum—not just the amount of performance opportunities, but the repertoire that's offered and the style of the company the school feeds into. Through performing, dancers also learn how to be part of a team, because that's what it's like in a company.

It's also vital that a dancer learn to take corrections very objectively and to be open to suggestions. Learn to take care of your health. These aspects are becoming more and more important as the demands of choreography become more challenging. Learn how to work on your weaknesses, not just your strengths. Become aware of yourself, because everyone has weaknesses, even the greatest dancers.

Tip: "A lot of dancers use summer programs as a way to choose a school," says Vernon. "Directors also use them to scout talent, so an intensive can be a great way to make an introduction"

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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 International City School of Ballet in Marietta, Georgia. Karl Hoffman Photography, Courtesy International City Ballet

A Ballet Student’s Guide to Researching Pre-Professional Training Programs

Many dancers have goals of taking their training to the next level by attending full-time pre-professional programs next fall. But it's hard to get to know the organizations without physically experiencing them first. Even when the world isn't practicing social distancing, visiting a school or attending its summer program isn't always possible. So, what can students and their families do to research programs and know what might work best for them? Who do you reach out to, and what are the questions you and your parents should be asking?

Here, pre-professional-program leaders share some practical advice for taking the next step in your dance training.

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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.

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