Real Life Dance: Creating A New Nutcracker in Key West

Nutcracker has gone south for the season. The Key West Nutcracker is set to debut on December 16 and will run through December 18 at the Key West High School, in Key West, FL.


It all started in summer 2001, when producer Joyce Stahl had dinner with her daughter, Julie, at a cozy New York restaurant. Stahl had recently moved to Key West and was in New York to escape the consuming Florida heat. “We started talking about what a Key West Nutcracker would be like," Stahl laughs, remembering that they thought of substituting free-roaming chickens and roosters that are everywhere in Key West for mice and the Rat King.

Both were familiar with the traditional Nutcracker story: Stahl had performed for 27 years as Madame Stahlbaum in the original Princeton Ballet Nutcracker, and Julie had danced professionally with Eliot Feld's company and Hubbard Street Dance Chicago.

The subject planted a seed. “I started to write down ideas on how the traditional story could be made Key West–specific," Stahl says. She wanted to follow Audree Esteé's choreography for the first two scenes of Act I, so she called American Repertory Theatre. “They gave me permission to use the choreography."

Scene three, however, would allow for creative story development, because it was the beginning of Clara's dream. Stahl turned to Angela Whitehill, founder of Burklyn Ballet Theatre, who had directed Stahl's daughters during the early stages of their dance careers.

“I was thrilled!" Whitehill recalls, but she knew the production would not be easy in Key West. Supplies for the costumes and sets such as fabric, ribbon and paint had to be shipped in, as would an excellent choreographer, dancers—and a floor.

Money was the first concern. Stahl contacted local funding sources, including a major bank and nonprofit organization. But none would commit; finally, she got tired of waiting. “So I decided to do it myself," she says. She and Whitehill worked up a preliminary budget of close to $400,000, and Stahl hired seamstresses to begin constructing the traditional Victorian-style Act I costumes that Stahl would design.

“Joyce asked me to design the Act I snow scene costumes and all of the costumes for Act II and [make] them Key West–specific," Whitehill says. “My imagination went wild: snow birds, angel fish, sea anemones, sea sprites, sharks, shrimp.…"

The two decided that all of Act II would take place underwater, with the characters descending from the surface in a diving bell and meeting denizens of the deep, including King Neptune. None of the Act I or Act II costumes would be bought or borrowed; all would be designed specifically for this production. Whitehill hired a costumer in Vermont to work on sea anemones, starfish and sea sprites, a seamstress in Chicago to make snowy egret feathered skirts, and a costumer in Indiana who had special skill in building animal costumes for dance.

At the same time, Stahl hired two well-known Key West costumers: one to build headdresses for roosters and the other to build the chicken costumes.

Then came the question of music. Although a Key West Symphony Orchestra exists and the idea of live music seemed irresistible, Stahl and Whitehill realized the theater would not hold all the musicians, and it wouldn't work to pare the numbers down, so they settled on recorded music.

Next, they cast the ballet. In September, Stahl conducted local auditions for the Act I party scene. “I used Keys Kids, a local children's theater group," she says, filling in adult roles with parents and relatives. “Altogether, we have a local cast about of 45 people."

Whitehill lined up the principal roles. By the end of summer 2005, she had eight professional dancers under contract—four women and four men. These dancers were drawn from companies around the country that do not perform a Nutcracker. For the Sugar Plum Fairy (Sea Fan Fairy in this production) and her Cavalier, Whitehill contracted Wendy Whelan and Nikolaj Hübbe of New York City Ballet.

Whitehill also brought in Alun Jones, former artistic director of Louisville Ballet, for his sense of humor and contemporary choreography, which would be ideal for Act II. “When she said, 'Nutcracker,' “ Jones recalls, “I was about to say no, but when she said, 'Key West,' I said yes!"

Jones adjusted his thinking to the underwater world of Act II. “I decided to have the sea sprites [Arabian] lyrical instead of sexy and provocative and to use veils so there's continual water-wavy movement. I saw the yellow sharks [Russian] as sinister, looking to attack one another; I saw the sea anemones [Waltz of the Flowers] as traditional, because the music is so recognizable, and the story needs to return to its beginning."

Stahl hired an experienced set designer, Michel Boyer, to do the sets for Act I and Act II. Boyer kept to the Key West motif for the Act I party scene. “It'll be an enlarged version of an outdoor backyard with a fence, palm trees and vines," says Boyer. “The sun will be setting, and the clock will show." As Clara's dream develops, the backyard items grow and the tree, a Norfolk pine (very common in Key West), will stretch from 7 feet to more than 20 feet. As for the magical snow forest, “We'll make that into a mangrove swamp with the roots showing," he adds.

By October, the production elements were coming together. Jones would begin working with dancers the last week of November. Until then, he plotted the number of dancers and order for each variation. Boyer (also acting as technical director) continued to build sets, designing stage entrances and exits, planning special effects. Whitehill coordinated schedules and rehearsal spaces, meeting with theater and program staff and crew to decide on logistics. Stahl managed the budget, established where the dancers would stay and coordinated all aspects of the final production. It's Stahl who has the final word: “I kept thinking it would it never happen…but now it is!"


William Noble is the co-author of The Nutcracker Backstage and three other books on ballet.

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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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