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The Big Benefits of Training Locally This Summer

With summer approaching, where you'll train is probably at the forefront of your mind. Major schools are making huge shifts to create COVID-safe dance spaces, including limiting their summer intensive enrollment, and traveling logistics are more complex due to limited housing options. While many ballet schools partner with local colleges to provide dorms for summer students, this year, that isn't a possibility for most. "If you don't have a relative in the area, it's a huge problem," says Lisa Collins Vidnovic, artistic and executive director of Metropolitan Ballet Academy & Company in Jenkintown, Pennsylvania.

If you're unable to attend a large intensive this year, take heart. Big-name schools attached to esteemed companies have their strengths, but more often than you may think, you don't need to go far for top-notch training. A rigorous program in your area, whether it's at your own studio or another within driving distance, may be just the ticket. "It doesn't have to be a large school attached to a major company," says Nancy Davis, artistic director of The Portland Ballet in Oregon, which is offering a four-week intensive this year. "Good training is good training."

Nancy Davis teaching Level 3 dancers at The Portland Ballet.

Blaine Truitt Covert, Courtesy The Portland Ballet

Alexandra Koltun, co-founder and director of Koltun Ballet Boston, points out another perk: By staying local, you'll be near family and friends, and also save on housing, transportation and food. You can then redirect that money toward other training expenses, such as private lessons or costumes for competitions.

Read on to find out why attending a summer intensive at a regional, independent studio is not just a good option this year, but a great option in general.

Varied and High-Quality Training

A lot of smaller studios are staffed and directed by teachers with impressive credentials. (Koltun, for example, trained at Russia's Vaganova Ballet Academy and danced with both the Mariinsky Ballet and Boston Ballet.) And they often curate their summer faculty roster with just as much intentionality and standards as those of larger programs. At National Ballet Academy of Denver, a private studio in Colorado (with a new satellite branch in New York), artistic director Cornell Callender tries to expand his dancers' horizons by hiring guest teachers from a range of training backgrounds, such as Houston Ballet principal Karina González and former English National Ballet répétiteur Yuri Uchiumi. "There is a pool of knowledge and experience achieved from successful careers that each teacher brings into the classroom," says Callender.

Students at the National Ballet Academy of Denver

Courtesy National Ballet Academy of Denver

Many private studios also try to expand their typical offerings during the summer, adding classes such as variations, men's class, partnering and repertoire. Collins Vidnovic, for instance, schedules a contemporary week, Pilates and conditioning on top of her school's ballet curriculum. Lorna Feijóo, artistic director and founder of Feijóo Ballet School in Dickinson, Texas, says that along with ballet and contemporary classes, their five-week intensive will be offering Afro-Cuban dance, music education, and seminars on health, costume history and dance history. And at Portland Ballet, Davis has added a seminar on mental health for dancers.

If there are limited options at your home studio this summer, research what else is in your area. Look for nearby intensives, workshops, master classes or even open classes you can supplement your training with. If you're not sure what to look for, ask your teacher for a recommendation.

Alexandra Koltun with a student at Koltun Ballet Boston

Courtesy Koltun Ballet Boston

A Personal Experience

One of the greatest benefits of training at a smaller studio is getting more individual attention. "When you go to big intensives there are usually so many people in a classroom," says Feijóo, a former principal with National Ballet of Cuba and Boston Ballet. "There's more attention here. The important thing is the quality of the time that you'll spend in that intensive, not the quantity [of dancers]."

Smaller numbers mean more tailored classes and corrections, and stronger connections with faculty. "Small schools have the ability to design the curriculum to suit the individuals," says Callender. "They can set higher expectations that students can then meet at a faster rate. Instructors have more time to evaluate each dancer and offer more personalized advice."

Consider what you want from performance opportunities, as well. Not all summer programs include them, but at a smaller studio you may have a greater chance to shine. "There aren't as many people vying for those roles," says Davis.

Dancers from Feijóo Ballet School

Rhonda Floyd Photography, Courtesy Feijóo Ballet School

Health and Safety Measures

Even with recent COVID-19 vaccine rollouts, health and safety in the studio is still very much a concern. Like many larger institutions, smaller studios have gotten creative and done remarkably well crafting safe class experiences. "As a private boutique school, we took all the measures," says Koltun, adding that they reopened safely (doing away with Zoom classes entirely) by spacing dancers apart, cleaning frequently and limiting the number of people in the building by requiring parents to stay outside. And Collins Vidnovic notes that Metropolitan Ballet will hold its classes partially outdoors this summer.

Consider the space you'll be dancing in and know what your comfort level is with proximity to other dancers. If you stay at your home studio, you'll know what to expect, but if you're interested in attending another nearby school, see if you can visit before you apply. (That said, summer programs are expected to fill up this year due to limited enrollment, so make sure you're proactive in reaching out.)

An outdoor class at the Metropolitan Ballet Academy

Courtesy Metropolitan Ballet Academy

While you may not be able to attend a large conservatory or company-affiliated intensive this year, don't write off the smaller schools that enrich your community. If you stay put and train exclusively at your home studio, remember that your teachers know and care about you and will be able to provide the guidance you need. "The trust between teacher and student," says Koltun, "accumulates during the year and expands even more during the summer."

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

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To any pre-professional dancer vying for a company position, auditions are a familiar and often dreaded scene: Hundreds of hopeful young graduates flock to an audition site, pin a paper number to their dance clothes and try their luck. But only a few will receive full-time contracts with companies—the rest will go home disappointed, potentially facing a gap year as they try to figure out next steps.

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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The event, hosted by Bussell and actor Ore Oduba, a "Strictly Come Dancing" winner, will feature performances by Ballet Black, Birmingham Royal Ballet, English National Ballet, New Adventures, Northern Ballet, Rambert, Scottish Ballet and The Royal Ballet—marking the first time all of them have performed together on the same program.

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