Roman Mejia in Robbins' Dances at a Gathering. Erin Baiano, Courtesy NYCB

Roman Mejia, NYCB's Resident Adrenaline Junkie, Is Taking on a Woman's Solo at Vail

Roman Mejia is only 19, and he has the energy to prove it; in the studio and onstage at New York City Ballet, this standout corps member bursts with a kind of uncontainable ebullience. Like his idol, Edward Villella, he specializes in extroverted, allegro roles: Puck in A Midsummer Night's Dream, Candy Cane in The Nutcracker, one of the sailors in Jerome Robbins' Fancy Free.

More recently, he has caught the eye of several big-name choreographers: In the last few months he understudied William Forsythe's Hermann Schmermann, and strutted his stuff to Kanye West in Kyle Abraham's The Runaway. Alexei Ratmansky, who prepared him for his debut in Pictures at an Exhibition in the spring, is also a fan: "He's like a reincarnation of Eddie Villella," the choreographer said recently. "Great energy and attack, and fantastic technique."


Dovetailing on this momentum, Damian Woetzel asked Mejia and Ratmansky to work together on something for the Vail Dance Festival, where Mejia is in residence for two weeks. Thus was born the idea of adapting Fandango, a high-energy, Spanish-flavored solo the choreographer created for Wendy Whelan in 2010, and later danced by Sara Mearns. This marks the first time the solo has been performed by a male dancer.

While at Vail, Mejia will also be dancing the pas de deux from Le Corsaire with Lauren Lovette, a new ballet by Alonzo King, Tiler Peck's new ballet, and probably one or more last-minute collaborations that emerge in the everything-is-possible atmosphere of the festival.

Recently, Dance Magazine caught up with Mejia between Fandango rehearsals. He was tired—the seven-minute solo is a killer—but undaunted.

This solo has always been danced by women. I hear Ratmansky asked whether you'd be willing to dance it on pointe?

Yeah. At first I thought he was kidding, but then he kind of looked at me like he was serious and I was like, oooh. I considered it for a second, but then I decided maybe not this time. I'm doing a lot more at Vail than I did the last two years.

How did Ratmansky adapt Fandango for you?

He added a lot of jumps, including a series of sauts de basque. That wasn't in the original! And all those turns at the end. I'm planning to end up on the floor, with a blackout. I just tried a move from Le Corsaire, but I don't know if I'm going to do that in performance. I'll figure something out.

What's the hardest thing about the solo?

Just getting through it. The stamina. It's seven minutes, and I have to pace myself. I tend to hold my breath a lot. And up at Vail, you have to learn how to dance in high altitude, where to take breaks, where to rest.

The stage at Vail is outdoors. How do you like dancing so close to nature?

Honestly I love it. It creates a different atmosphere. The first year, I did Tarantella and it was raining and I felt like I was in the middle of a thunderstorm. I kind of used it—it gave me energy.

What do you feel you've learned from working with Ratmansky?

I'm learning about presentation, but also about style. It's about learning to show a style. Fandango is super Spanish-flavored, and I'm finding ways to show that.

Did you watch videos of Sara Mearns and Wendy Whelan, who did the role before you?

The first time I saw it was with Sara dancing. She did it at a gig in South Carolina. It was amazing. And I watched videos of both of them. They were pretty different. The steps were the same, but Sara had a little more attack, and Wendy was more subtle. Wendy was really flirtatious. I'm trying to incorporate both.

Last year you got to work with Kyle Abraham on his Runaway, which was such a hit. What was that like? 

It was eye-opening. I don't usually get to move like that. It was like working with Alonzo King on this new piece, just a completely different movement style for me. And it felt so great to dance to Kanye West. Letting go felt really good.

What was the process like?

Kyle would experiment with different steps, some of which didn't make it into the final ballet, and we even experimented with contact improvisation. That was really strange for me. It took me a while, but eventually I felt like I almost got to that place where I was comfortable trying things and not feeling like the people around me were judging. I felt that working with Alonzo too.

What excites you about dancing?

Definitely the adrenaline rush and the feeling of flying. I'm an adrenaline junkie. I try not to hold anything back. And I love how it makes me feel afterwards.

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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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Students of Canada's National Ballet School. Bruce Zinger, Courtesy Ballet Unleashed.

Ballet Unleashed Aims to Connect Emerging Dancers From 11 Academies With Freelance Opportunities

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Mavis Staines, artistic director and CEO of Canada's National Ballet School, became frustrated with this flawed system years ago. Why were so many talented dancers not being rewarded with work opportunities? And why was the only acceptable form of work a full-season contract, when in the music and theater industries, project-based employment was a legitimized way to build careers?

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