Courtesy School of Pennsylvania Ballet

Why It's Never Too Early to Start Prepping for Your Summer Intensive

While many of us are deep in Nutcracker duties, The School of Pennsylvania Ballet director James Payne has been looking further ahead, finalizing preparations for the school's summer intensive programs. In January, he and his staff will embark on a 24-city audition tour to scour the country for the best young dancers, deciding whether or not to offer them a spot—maybe even a scholarship—in the school's rigorous 5-week intensive focused on high-caliber ballet instruction. Though he'll be evaluating aspirants, he urges that as a student, you should be equally selective in choosing programs that could galvanize your training—and possibly even your career.

We got Payne's advice on strategizing your summer intensive plan before the audition cycle kicks in:


It's December—what should students do to start planning for summer intensives now?

"All of the auditions are going to happen in January and early February, so they should do their research to find out where the schools they're interested in are going to be and put together a plan. Don't just show up at random auditions and do the research after. With most places you're going to have 7-10 days to commit before you lose the spot."

What's your take on the train at home vs. train away question?

"That's a controversial discussion. Some feel that kids need to get out there right away at age 11 and go to as many programs as possible. I'm not in that camp. I believe if you have really good training and you're still on the younger end, stay home. I'm not discouraging younger students from attending a program but it's not as important for them. They need to realize that when you're under 13 your participation in a particular program is not going to make or break your career."

A group of young men taking class. They wear grey tights and white shirts. They are in an attitude at the barre.

Courtesy School of Pennsylvania Ballet

And the argument for going away—does that get more important as students get older?

"Certainly! Kids go away for different reasons. It's to compare yourself to other students from other places. It's to get a fresh set of eyes on you to help with some of your training deficiencies. If you're a couple of years out from a company decision, it's much more important to attend a school where a trainee or studio company position is possible. You might attend the summer intensive and maybe they invite you to stay for the full year. It gives the artistic staff the opportunity to work with that student over the course of a longer period to really find out if it's a good fit. It's also important that even if it's not the company of your choice, that the school trains universally, not just in one specific style. Then you're not training for just one company."

What other aspects of a summer program should factor into their decision?

"The city it's located in is important. If you're going to a city that you have no interest in at all, how much fun are you actually going to have that summer? Of course, summer's not just about having fun. But if you're not having a good time outside of the studio, it's going to be difficult to have a good time in the studio. Whether or not there's a demonstration or performance at the end of the summer is another thing. At some programs, the performance has a huge influence on what's done during those five or six weeks. And for me, sometimes that takes over the training side. We do a demonstration, but it's repertoire that we've worked on throughout the summer."

That's what summer is for, right, intense work in the studio?

"Yes. It's to make ballet your sole focus for those five or six weeks. Look at the meat of the program. Is it just a long day or is it a lot of hours in the studio? Some programs say you're there from 9 am to 6 pm, but you're sitting every other hour. Or you're only there from 9am to 2pm and it's straight through. Our kids are here 9 am to 5 pm and they usually only have an hour break."

A partnering class, with two couples in the center of the studio and the rest of the students watching in the back. The young men support the young women in a first arabesque.

Courtesy School of Pennsylvania Ballet

Do you see a lot of improvement from beginning to end?

"It depends on the student. In the ones that embrace what they're being taught, we do see a difference. One of the biggest benefits of going away for the summer is going home with inspiration, with motivation to continue the work throughout the year. Students will obviously be corrected on technical issues and perhaps hearing corrections in a different way from a different teacher may turn that lightbulb on."

If there's something specific you're trying to work on as a student, is that something you can target when choosing a summer session?

"The hard thing is you can't always find that out until you get there. When you look on websites all the programs seem to be created equal. So you should really talk to your peers. Most of the kids who have been going to summer intensives have been going for a while. There are lots of message boards out there. Take all of that with a grain of salt, use it as a collective, not just one person's opinion, but that information is out there."

In a school like SPB, does being connected to a prestigious ballet company influence the program?

"It does. We keep our rep consistent with what Angel Corella wants. Guest teachers are great as long as that's not the majority of the teachers. Even though it's only a five-week program for us, we still want to create that consistency in what we're delivering so that they can get the greatest benefit out of it. If it's contradicting every day, then it's five weeks of master classes. And our curriculum definitely reflects what the company is needing. Our summer intensive is also another way we recruit for the full-year program. It allows us to work with kids on the upper end for a five-week period to see how they work."

Should a scholarship offer be a factor?

"There are two different schools of thought on this, that if they offer you a scholarship they're really interested in you, but that's not the case with all schools. Some schools give out a lot of scholarships. Some don't. Just because they don't give you a scholarship doesn't mean they're not as interested. I'm talking partials. If they gave you a full ride and are paying for your housing then yeah, they're interested. But you have to realize that the more scholarships schools give, the larger the class size is, generally."

How big are your class sizes?

"We try to keep it in the 20s. Just because you have a huge studio doesn't mean you throw 50 kids in there. There's only one teacher. You have to get around to each one of those students at least three to four times in a class, which is what I try and tell my staff. Get to each student. Don't just coach the ones you think are going to be principal dancers someday. If you have that many bodies in the room you no longer teach, you just start giving class and my staff always needs to teach."

Any advice for auditioning students?

"When they take the audition, it's important that they show who they are and not try to be who they think the person at the front of the room wants them to be We really want to have an honest assessment of where they are. I don't want them to have their best class that day, I don't want them to have their worst class. I want to see their regular class."

After all this, how do you really figure out what the best program is for you?

"A lot boils down to their gut and that audition class. Was it purely an evaluation or did they try to motivate you? The students made the effort to come, so we have to give that back. It's not just us checking them out, they're checking us out. What they see in the audition is what they're going see when they walk in our door here in Philly."

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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."

Students of International City School of Ballet in Marietta, Georgia. Karl Hoffman Photography, Courtesy International City Ballet

A Ballet Student’s Guide to Researching Pre-Professional Training Programs

Many dancers have goals of taking their training to the next level by attending full-time pre-professional programs next fall. But it's hard to get to know the organizations without physically experiencing them first. Even when the world isn't practicing social distancing, visiting a school or attending its summer program isn't always possible. So, what can students and their families do to research programs and know what might work best for them? Who do you reach out to, and what are the questions you and your parents should be asking?

Here, pre-professional-program leaders share some practical advice for taking the next step in your dance training.

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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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