Former New York City Ballet soloist Savannah Lowery, here with Evan Swensen, came out of retirement to perform as the Sugar Plum Fairy in Westside School of Ballet's Nutcracker. Photo by Todd Lechtick, courtesy Lowerey.

Coming out of Retirement for "Nutcracker": Why Former Dancers Love Returning to the Holiday Classic

The holiday season is a time when dusty ornaments and wreaths get trotted out of their boxes for their annual moment to shine. For Jennifer Goodman, there's another item she looks forward to pulling out of the back of her closet: pointe shoes.

Goodman, 45, retired from full-time company life over 10 years ago. She kept performing here and there until 2015, when she transitioned to teaching yoga and ballet. Yet she still gets back onstage for Nutcracker.

"I've said 'one more time' for so many years now," says Goodman. "But my body is still capable, it's held up, so I just keep coming back."

The seemingly endless number of regional Nutcracker productions creates a "gig" market where dancers can find a bounty of performance opportunities. The high demand for performers is also a chance for those who have otherwise retired to get back onstage.

While the occasion to perform again is welcome for many, getting in tights-and-pointe-shoes-shape once a year is challenging. We spoke with three retired dancers to find out how they do it.

Luke Joiner helps Jennifer Goodman with a back walkover onstage during a Nutcracker performance. They both wear harem pants, and Goodman wears a sparkly top.

Goodman with Luke Joiner in Nutcracker's Arabian pas de deux.

Courtesy Goodman.

Adapting Repertoire and Choreography

Goodman, who danced with Joffrey Ballet for 16 years, performed Sugar Plum either there or on gigs throughout her career, and as a guest artist after retiring. But three years ago, at 42, she pulled her calf and glute during a performance. She had to get through the show without being able to lift her leg past 45 degrees or do fouettés.

She thought it might be time to hang it up and sat the next Nutcracker season out. But the following year, she wondered if another role might work. Goodman asked a school she often performed with about dancing Arabian instead of Sugar Plum, and they went for it.

"The role has less pointework and a lot of back bending and splits, which I'm able to still do well because of my yoga practice," she says. The shows went well, and they invited her to reprise the part this year.

Michael Breeden, in a blue jacket and white tights, reaches for his partner's right hand during a performance.

Michael Breeden, who retired in 2017, decided to take on some Nutcracker gigs this year.

Michael Raneri, Courtesy Breeden.

Michael Breeden, 32, retired from the stage in 2017 after a 12-year career, mostly with Miami City Ballet. He now spends his time staging ballets, teaching, and co-hosting the podcast Conversations on Dance. But this past spring, Tom Gold asked him to perform with his company, Tom Gold Dance.

"I knew I wasn't in the shape I had once been in, and every dancer is afraid of being seen as 'in decline,'" says Breedan, who had only taken class here and there because of a lingering foot injury. "But I just got over that because I wanted to dance."

The shows went well in part because Gold was willing to adapt the choreography to his abilities. This encouraged Breeden to take on some Nutcracker gigs, even though this meant facing white tights and a classical variation. But he realized he was free of the sky-high standards of professional companies like Miami City Ballet.

"There are some steps that my foot won't allow me to do anymore," he says. "If I can't do a one-legged jump, I just make it two legs instead."

Luke Joiner lifts Jennifer Goodman, who wears a pink tutu,  into a "fish" lift backstage.

Goodman and Joiner as the Sugar Plum Fairy and Cavalier in 2015. After suffering an injury several years ago, Goodman now performs Arabian, which is easier on her body.

Courtesy Goodman.

Staying—or Getting Back Into—Shape

Goodman and Breeden both say that they try to take class more regularly during the year to make Nutcracker season less painful, but that other commitments usually wind up getting in the way. That can make for a difficult start to the season.

"You have the honeymoon period where it just feels so good to move again," says Breeden. "But then the pain comes."

Goodman says the key is giving yourself enough time to get back into it. A month before performances, she tries to take class more frequently, if not always daily, and also stays in the studio after class to do some pointework and rehearse her role in small doses.

Savannah Lowery, 35, a former soloist with New York City Ballet, retired in 2018 to pursue post baccalaureate studies and apply to medical school. When she was asked to take on a Sugar Plum gig this year, she felt ready because she continues to take class daily on pointe. However, that didn't shield her from the pain of dancing a grand pas de deux.

"When we first started rehearsing, every piece of skin on my toes fell off. It was raw and bloody. It was horrible. I couldn't tape my toes enough to where they wouldn't hurt," says Lowery. "And stamina, even just running the variation was such a task. It was like, 'What did I get myself into?'"

The difficulty was frustrating on an emotional level because she wasn't able to satisfy the perfectionism ingrained in her from so many years in a company.

"You have to go through a few ugly versions before you get there," she says. "It can be hard when you see you're not at the level you were once at."

Learning to Enjoy Performing in a New Way

Evan Swensen lifts Savannah Lowrey high into the air during a Nutrcacker performance. She wears a pink tutu, tiara and pointe shoes, he wears a white jacket and tights.

Lowery feels a newfound freedom dancing Nutcracker now that she is retired from NYCB.

Todd Lechtick, Courtesy Lowery.

Lowery persisted through the initial difficulty and says that ultimately, she felt free dancing in a way she never experienced at NYCB.

"Nutcracker has been a nice distraction," she says. "It used to stress me out so much. It was my job and I wanted to do it so well. Now it's kind of a stress reliever from what else is going on in my life."

Gigs also offer the freedom to choose how many shows a dancer wants to do, unlike in a company, when there could be over 30 shows in a season.

"When you're in a company and forced to do it, it can be like, 'OMG, I'm so sick of it,'" says Goodman. "Now I kind of yearn for it."

Like many dancers, Breeden knows that he's dancing on borrowed time but plans to keep enjoying it while he can.

"I won't do this when I'm 50, but it's great to have this extended twilight," he says.

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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."

Michael Cairns, Courtesy Orlando Ballet

Returning to Live Audiences: How 4 Companies Have Gotten Back Onstage

Performing in front of live audiences again has been every ballet organization's goal since the COVID-19 pandemic began more than a year ago. With vaccinations on the rise and light appearing at the end of the tunnel, companies are slowly starting to come back to in-person shows.

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