Rachel Hutsell Photographed for Pointe by Jayme Thornton.

New York City Ballet's Rachel Hutsell Is Turning Heads in the Corps

This is Pointe's June/July 2018 Cover Story. You can subscribe to the magazine here, or click here to purchase this issue.

"I'm very cautious by nature," Rachel Hutsell says over herbal tea at Lincoln Center between rehearsals. You wouldn't think so from the way she moves onstage or in the studio. In fact, one of the most noticeable characteristics of Hutsell's dancing is boldness, a result of the intelligence and intention with which she executes each step. (What she calls caution is closer to what most people see as preparedness.) She doesn't approximate—she moves simply and fully, with total confidence. That quality hasn't gone unnoticed.


Even though she has been at New York City Ballet for less than three years, Hutsell, 21, is regularly cast in a wide variety of repertoire. She has already collaborated with several choreographers, including Troy Schumacher, Gianna Reisen, Peter Walker and Justin Peck, on new works. "She's not afraid to make mistakes," says Peck, who has used her in two premieres, The Most Incredible Thing and The Decalogue. "And she's open to exploring new movements."

In Peter Martins' "Eight Easy Pieces." Photo by Paul Kolnik, Courtesy New York City

A Most Important First Year

Openness like Hutsell's is an essential quality in a young dancer at NYCB, a large company where a new arrival can easily get lost. An apprentice walks into a fast-paced environment in which corps roles must be learned in quick succession and executed at a very high level, right away. "I got my first taste of real independence and professionalism, but it was really hard," says Hutsell, who became an apprentice at 18. She had to perform 20 corps roles and learn even more than that as an understudy her first year. "It was a definite shock." For newcomers, there is the added pressure to be seen as uniquely valuable—after all, an apprentice is not guaranteed a permanent company spot.

Hutsell was soon aware that there were eyes on her. Toward the end of her apprenticeship, the company went to Paris, where it performed for three weeks at the Théâtre du Châtelet. While there, she was called to understudy some big roles, including the third-movement soloist in George Balanchine's Symphony in C. Though she has yet to perform it, being asked to learn the choreography made it clear that opportunities were likely to come her way. "There was an added intensity," she explains, "because it was like, 'They're watching. They're really watching. You'd better be good.'

Two weeks after the company's return, she was offered a corps position. Soon, she was working with NYCB's then-ballet master in chief Peter Martins on a revival of his 1980 ballet Eight Easy Pieces, an experience she considers a milestone in her young career. He gave her lots of feedback, she says, even molding the role a little bit to her strengths. Early on, her dancing caught the attention of a senior colleague, Troy Schumacher, who began working with her while she was still an apprentice and invited her to perform with his own company, BalletCollective. He had been struck by her work ethic: "I noticed her attack and drive in our morning class. When grand allégro came around, I would watch Rachel."


Discovering Balanchine

Hutsell wasn't always destined to end up at NYCB. Growing up in Houston and Katy, Texas, with two younger sisters and busy doctor parents, she went to Allegro West Academy of Dance. The school followed the Royal Academy of Dance curriculum, a gradual, methodical approach that stresses placement and clean technique. It wasn't a natural fit, at least at first. "I was a very energetic child, and I had this expansive imagination that took a lot to rein in," says Hutsell.

The Hutsell family. Photo Courtesy Hutsell.

The daughter of a Caucasian father and an African-American mother, Hutsell was also one of the few dancers of color at the school. (Eventually, her sisters Regan and Rosalyn joined her.) But it was never an issue, she says, because the studio was small and extremely personal: "I had my sisters. There wasn't a whole lot of diversity because there weren't a whole lot of us." She could also rely on the protective guidance of her mother, Romanda, who had herself been a member of a small company called Southwest Jazz Ballet before going to medical school and becoming a pediatrician. Her mother was a model of work ethic: In between making house calls, Romanda homeschooled her three girls to be more involved in their education and upbringing.

At 15, after entering several editions of the Youth America Grand Prix competition (where she didn't earn any medals but got a sense of the larger ballet world), Hutsell auditioned for the School of American Ballet's summer program and got in. Afterwards, she was hooked; the Balanchine technique just seemed to fit her body. "It was so powerful and so athletic, the big jumps and the quick preparations. I went from being afraid to do a double pirouette to confidently doing doubles, even triples."

After that summer, she was asked to stay on at SAB for the school year. She was delighted. But it was also at the larger school, where there was only one other African American in her class, that she became more aware of ballet's racial disparity. "I was like, 'All right, there's two of us. Something's wrong here.' " The imbalance is also apparent in the company, though that is beginning to change, with the arrival of promising young dancers like Olivia Boisson, Christopher Grant, Preston Chamblee, India Bradley, Kennard Henson and Hutsell herself. She sees this as an encouraging sign, especially when she visits her sister Rosalyn, now 14 and currently enrolled at SAB: "I'm really happy to see the new classes there. There are more brown faces. Things are changing."

With members of NYCB in Gianna Reisen's "Composer's Holiday." Photo by Paul Kolnik, Courtesy NYCB.


Finding Balance

For Hutsell, NYCB now feels like home. The schedule can be grueling—she danced nine different corps roles and one featured role during the winter season—but she realizes that it's a necessary rite of passage. "The time of rest will come, but it's not now," she says. "Now I just need to keep pushing." There is a long list of roles she'd like to take on one day. At the top are Juliet ("I'll take any version") and Dewdrop in Balanchine's Nutcracker.

Hutsell balances the intensity of her rehearsal schedule with an interest in literature. Her favorites include Pride and Prejudice and The Catcher in the Rye, and she writes poetry on the side. Writing helps her process her experiences and overcome moments of doubt and stress. Once her career is a bit more settled, she hopes to start college. Maybe, she says, after she stops dancing, she'll study to become a marine biologist.

Rachel with her sisters Regan (far left) and Rosalyn, both of whom are serious ballet students. Photo Courtesy Hutsell.

Her sense of balance has helped get her through the current period of turbulence at NYCB, with the departure of Peter Martins after allegations of sexual harassment and violence against dancers (which he denies, and an independent investigation was not able to corroborate). As has the sense of camaraderie within the company. "I think as a collective we're banding together and lifting each other up," she says.

This upheaval, however dramatic, hasn't shaken her sense of herself, or her future, no matter who takes the reins next. (The company is currently being directed by a four-person interim artistic team led by ballet master Jonathan Stafford.) In a way, Hutsell is lucky that she's still starting out; she hasn't spent years forming an artistic identity, or conforming to one director's tastes. "I'm still creating myself," she says, "so for me, there will be no need for a remake."

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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."

Tanya Howard in rehearsal Trase Pa. Photo by Karolina Kuras, Courtesy of NBoC.

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