Staatsballett Berlin principals Iana Salenko and Daniil Simkin during a dress rehearsal of Patrice Bart's Giselle. They must undergo regular coronavirus testing in order to dance together.

Yan Revazov, Courtesy Staatsballett Berlin

How Staatsballett Berlin Pulled Off "Giselle" in the Age of Coronavirus

It's 8:24 am on a Tuesday. Even though morning class isn't for another hour and a half, Daniil Simkin is already at Staatsballett Berlin's studios; tests for the coronavirus, a biweekly requirement to dance with his partner, Iana Salenko, need to be submitted before 8:30 am—an inconvenient time, if you ask him. "It's annoying, but I'm just really grateful to be performing again," he says. "You do what you have to do."

Staatsballett Berlin has been back onstage since August. Return has been slow and steady, with dancers first performing solos or pas de deux (composed of people who already live together) in galas. From October 28–30, the company presented an adapted version of Patrice Bart's Giselle, its first full-length production since March. (Due to a surge of coronavirus cases in Germany, November performances have been cancelled.) Pointe took a virtual behind-the-scenes tour to learn what goes into mounting a ballet during a pandemic, including safety precautions, adjustments to choreography, and what it feels like to be back onstage.


Safety First

So far, Staatsballett has only had one coronavirus case. To maintain that record while setting a full-length ballet, strict rules are in place to enforce social distancing. Dancers wear masks any time they aren't dancing, and refrain from physical contact with their colleagues—unless they undergo regular testing. During rehearsals, extra precautions are taken: Artistic staff wear masks in rehearsals, and studios are aired at regular intervals.

Current acting director Dr. Christiane Theobald chose Giselle because of her close contact with Bart, who was willing to adapt the production to the current situation. "The symmetry in Act II allows for more distance, and fewer dancers, without losing relevance," says Theobald. "When I asked Patrice Bart for permission to perform a corona-friendly version, he was on board right away."

Guidelines also make it possible for the audience to enjoy the performances. At Staatsoper Unter den Linden, tickets are limited (a total of 531 per evening, out of 1,224 seats), and audience traffic flow is regulated both before and after the show, and during intermission. Audience members fill out contact forms when buying their tickets, are spread at a distance from one another, and wear masks during their entire visit to the theater.

Yan Revazov, Courtesy Staatsballett Berlin

Salenko in Act I of Patrice Bart's Giselle

Adjusting Choreography

Choreographic changes in group scenes were crucial toward making Giselle safe for the dancers. Bart's assistant, Raffaella Renzi, visited the choreographer for eight days at his home in Normandy to decide on changes before going to Berlin. "We do all we can to follow protocol in rehearsal," Renzi says. "I use my judgment if something doesn't work in the studio." In Act I, changes mean more steps for the men, since all partnering in the corps has been removed.

In Act II, adjustments impact spacing more than choreography. Wilis were reduced to 12 (the production typically has up to 24), plus two soloists. They remain 1.5 meters, or about 5 feet, apart when moving slowly, and 2 meters (6.5 feet) apart when running. For the famed crossing arabesque hops, dancers are staggered and spread farther apart, allowing them to pass each other while maintaining distance.

For the principals, nothing has changed in the pas de deux—but navigating the mad scene in Act I poses a particular challenge. Iana Salenko describes the sensation of unraveling her Giselle while steering clear of her colleagues: "I'm with the group, but I feel more alone than ever," she says. "It's really unfamiliar."

Yan Revazov, Courtesy Staatsballett Berlin

The cast of wilis wear masks backstage before dress rehearsal of Act II

Together, But Separate

The company might be back at work, but the atmosphere is definitely not normal. Dancers train and rehearse in shifts, rarely coming in contact with colleagues in other groups. They wear masks during costume fittings and when walking in the hallways. Corps dancer Katherine Rooke describes the strange dynamic: "We're so used to interacting freely at work. Now we see each other behind masks, and can't touch each other. It's such a different approach."

Backstage, dancers wear masks until just before stage entrances. To have their hair done for the show, they arrive for their appointments right after washing their hair. The crew and orchestra, both crucial parts of bringing Giselle to the stage, though in reduced numbers, have practically no contact with the dancers. But for Rooke, the oddities are worth it: This is her first performance since March.

On a darkened stage with a forest backdrop, a group of 13 ballerinas in long white tutus stand in B+ with their lower arms crossed at their waist. Downstage right, a soloist dancer does a piqu\u00e9 third arabesque on her right leg.

The corps of wilis was reduced to 12 to allow for greater spacing onstage.

Yan Revazov, Courtesy Staatsballett Berlin

Telling a Story

Putting it all together is the final step. As Renzi conveys, this Giselle is a memorable experience for all involved: "The dancers are so eager to perform, and the audience has missed them. Hopefully this story will help everyone forget. It's something very special," she says.

For Simkin, appreciating the present moment is the best way to enjoy his return to the stage. "Uncertainty is the worst part of this time," he admits. "We just can't know when things will go back to normal. But at least we have this chance."

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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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