Curran rehearsing company dancer Erin Langston. Photo by Renata Pavam, Courtesy Louisville Ballet.

Balancing Act: At Louisville Ballet, Robert Curran Pushes the Art Form Forward While Treasuring its Past

This story originally appeared in the December 2015/January 2016 issue of Pointe.

Last August, Louisville Ballet's artistic and executive director Robert Curran met with an anonymous donor in New York. He came home with a check for one million dollars. His lips are sealed, but the donation bodes well for the ballet's future under Curran, whose tenure only began in 2014.

In its nearly 65-year history, Louisville Ballet has experienced quite the evolution: It has transitioned from civic to professional company; is now housed in a spacious facility nestled between downtown and NuLu, the city's nascent but thriving arts district; and has the nationally respected Adam Hougland as its principal choreographer. As the new director, Curran has already laid out bold plans to strengthen the company, including an expanded relationship with the Louisville Orchestra and a broadened repertoire.


Curran comes to Louisville after a career with The Australian Ballet, where he rose through the ranks to principal. After retiring from the stage, he worked as rehearsal director with Bangarra Dance Theatre (an indigenous Australian contemporary company) before applying to Louisville Ballet when previous artistic director Bruce Simpson announced his retirement. Though he was new to directing, Curran came with a management degree and minors in marketing, psychology and human resources in hand.

Curran in rehearsal for "Giselle." Photo by Renata Pavam, Courtesy Louisville Ballet.

Last spring, Louisville Ballet presented its first program of work chosen by Curran, including the company premiere of Serge Lifar's seldom performed Suite en Blanc; George Balanchine's Square Dance, revived after falling out of the regular rep; and a new contemporary ballet, Lucas Jervies' What Light Is to Our Eyes. The mix speaks to Curran's wide-ranging vision. He has frequently said, “This is a ballet company," but knows that troupes must reach forward and backward in the balletic tradition. He has described this as “a very careful balance between respect and irreverence."

In person, Curran is a quiet but intense presence. However, company member Natalia Ashikhmina says that it's in his nature to push. “As soon as you reach the goal that he gave you yesterday, he comes up with the next one," she says. “I expect a certain level," says Curran, adding that he doesn't yell when a dancer disappoints him, but “I am confident in sharing that disappointment."

Curran has exhibited a knack for simultaneously executing several points of his vision: focusing on the art form's tradition, new work, sustainability and building connections within the Louisville arts scene. This season's opener, Curran's new staging of Coppélia, used traditional choreography in an innovative setting: Louisville's Germantown neighborhood on the eve of World War I, with the set and backdrops designed by local artist Jacob Heustis.

Curran plans to expand the rep with more 19th- and 20th-century classics, as well as contemporary ballets. As with Coppélia, he's keen on presenting unique versions of ballets, whether that means fresh designs, settings or other tweaks on classics. He promises Louisville audiences will see works by Balanchine—who had only an occasional presence before Curran's appointment—every season. Case in point: A full Balanchine program is planned for the spring.

Curran with Company Dancer Erica De La O in rehearsal for "Giselle." Photo by Renata Pavam, Courtesy Louisville Ballet.

Curran is equally committed to his dancers. “I want a long-term chance to invest in each of the artists," he says. “I don't feel that 12 months is enough time to truly get to know what someone is capable of." The ballet's roster backs Curran up; it hasn't changed since he signed on.

Ashikhmina adds that, in addition to being artistically supportive, the Louisville Ballet has a wonderful emotional environment. “What's different about the company is this family is really friendly. People care about each other." Ashikhmina's husband, Philip Velinov, is also a member, and they have two children. The company also boasts a high number of dancers with college degrees or those who are currently working toward one.

Next up in March is (R)Evolution, a co-production with the Louisville Orchestra. Though the two organizations have consistently teamed up for Nutcracker, they now have the resources to work together throughout the season. The program, a triple bill by Hougland, including his Cold Virtues, a reinvented Petrouchka and a world premiere, hopefully signals more collaborations to come.

Whether the company is presenting classical or contemporary works, Curran is sure of one thing: “I am committed to the glamour of a night at the ballet," he says, and it all starts with rigor in the studio.

Louisville Ballet At a Glance

Number of Dancers: 23, plus 20 trainees

Length of Contract: 30 weeks

Starting Salary: $400 per week

Performances per year: 4-5 main-stage productions and 2 in-studio productions

Website: louisvilleballet.org

Audition Advice

Louisville Ballet holds open auditions for company and trainee positions every year, usually in February or March. The audition consists of several classes. Curran advices dancers to "show that you are invested, that you have your own goals and objectives. That makes it very clear that you are driven, and it speaks to intelligence. If I can recognize that, I can help. But if someone walks in with a perfect body, perfect technique and an empty head, I don't even know where to start."

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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."

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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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!

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