NYCB's men in Rodeo: Four Dance Episodes. Photo by Paul Kolnik, Courtesy NYCB.

Truly Exceptional: Our Top 12 Standout Performances of 2015

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

What left us breathless and wanting more.


Carrie Imler & Jonathan Porretta

Perfectly matched: Poretta and Imler in Forsythe's In the middle, somewhat elevated. Photo by Angela Sterling, Courtesy Pacific Northwest Ballet.

Whenever Pacific Northwest Ballet principal dancers Carrie Imler and Jonathan Porretta take the stage together, the audience expects a great performance. The veteran company members are longtime friends as well as frequent partners, and their ease with choreography and one another always shows. But their technical confidence and mutual trust reached rarefied heights in PNB's all–William Forsythe program last March.

The duo were paired in all three dances on the bill, and their pas de deux in New Suite, in particular, showcased them at the height of their careers. Imler and Porretta not only handled Forsythe's demanding choreography with ease, but they infused it with an obvious love for the movements, for one another and for the audiences. The joy they brought to the program was contagious, leaving the crowd giddy with excitement as they left the theater. —Marcie Sillman

Alessandra Ferri

Master of her craft: Ferri in Woolf Works. Photo by Tristram Kenton, Courtesy ROH.

Alessandra Ferri has long transported us in roles of larger-than-life passion. But portraying Virginia Woolf, a woman who writes difficult novels—that's possibly even harder to pull off. For Woolf Works, Wayne McGregor's first full-length for The Royal Ballet, he insisted that Ferri, 52, be his star. And she fulfilled this assignment with flying colors. As she stood behind a scrim of jumbled words, we sensed her alertness to language. When she extended her lower leg toward the floor, it was not to show off her exquisite instep, but to point to something she'd observed with a writer's eye.

In the third act, based on Woolf's novel The Waves, Ferri projected a feeling of being at one with the water. As she partnered with Federico Bonelli, she swirled with a natural ebb and flow, occasionally dragged by an undertow. Although we knew this was her character's chosen way of dying, there was something serene about the way she finally got pulled under. Ferri invited you into the tragedy with a lyrical intensity. —Wendy Perron

Matthew Rich

Rich made his last Cedar Lake performance unforgettable. Photo by Shoko Takayasu, Courtesy Jenny Lerner.

The gloomy crowd that shuffled into the Brooklyn Academy of Music in June looked like a funeral procession. They were there to see Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet's final performances; they were prepared to grieve.

Instead they found joy, of a deliciously campy variety, in Richard Siegal's adrenaline rush of a world premiere, My Generation. And especially in Matthew Rich, the ringleader of its Technicolor circus. Hair whipping, limbs lashing, Rich attacked the choreography with the full-body exuberance that had become his signature during his decade with Cedar Lake. He has the rare ability to be at once arch and earnest, to give us a sly wink even as he's selling the heck out of Siegal's over-the-topness. Somehow, he managed to make lip-synching along to The Who's "My Generation" look, well, cool. It was his party—and nobody was crying. (There's no need for Rich fans to cry now, either: He's taken his considerable talents to BODYTRAFFIC in Los Angeles.) —Margaret Fuhrer

Misty Copeland

Grace under pressure: Copeland (with James Whiteside) in Swan Lake. Photo by Gene Schiavone, Courtesy ABT.

Fans of American Ballet Theatre's Misty Copeland would have cheered at anything she did, so it was automatic that her first Swan Lake in New York City would get a standing ovation. But Copeland's sold-out debut was also artistically satisfying, especially her Odette. For a dancer who consistently brings fire and joy to the stage, portraying the white swan was a challenge. But coached by ABT ballet master Irina Kolpakova and artistic director Kevin McKenzie, Copeland took her time expressing Odette's sadness of being under a spell. Her long limbs extended into space with pathos, settling into exquisite lines. Her head and neck were beautifully expressive, and she took comfort in her closeness to Prince Siegfried (danced with ardor by James Whiteside). Her magnificent timing allowed us to feel the pull between fear and hope, sorrow and romance.

As Odile, Copeland lost her balance during her fouettés, finishing with pirouettes from fifth—yet she remained unshaken and in character. Her artistry under pressure obliterated any worries about whether she deserved her promotion to principal—the first African American woman at ABT to do so—less than a week later. —Wendy Perron

The Men of Justin Peck's Rodeo: Four Dance Episodes

A true band of brothers: NYCB's men in Rodeo: Four Dance Episodes. Photo by Paul Kolnik, Courtesy NYCB.

George Balanchine found rich inspiration in sisterhood, in the strong female communities of Serenade and Concerto Barocco. So when New York City Ballet premiered Justin Peck's Rodeo: Four Dance Episodes—a ballet with a cast of 15 men and a single woman—its band of brothers immediately drew comparisons to Mr. B's women.

But Rodeo, set to Aaron Copland's famous score, is as much a celebration of NYCB's current crop of men as it is a reimagining of the old Balanchinean model. And what men they are! Several principal dancers—including Daniel Ulbricht and Andrew Veyette—lead the pack, bringing sunny energy and powerful athleticism to the first and last episodes. (Ulbricht's series of decelerating turns in the final movement is as funny as it is astonishing.) The heart of the ballet, though, lies in the lyrical second episode, which Peck devotes to a quintet of non-principals: Daniel Applebaum, Craig Hall, Allen Peiffer, Andrew Scordato and Taylor Stanley. These five find poetry in the choreography's gentle rises and falls, tenderness in its velvety partnering. Together, they paint a sensitively shaded portrait of male intimacy. —Margaret Fuhrer

Emily Bromberg

Bromberg with Andrei Chagas in Heatscape. Photo by Leigh-Ann Esty, Courtesy MCB.

Last spring, in the light-pierced kaleidoscope that is Justin Peck's Heatscape, Miami City Ballet's Emily Bromberg, then still a corps member, glowed. As the lead ballerina in the opening movement, she was a convivial member of a streaming-by posse before commanding center stage with her smitten partner—vital for the democratic dynamics of the choreography. Bromberg's speed, sharp transitions and projection (those jumps with her eyes set on heaven!) have been honed in MCB's Balanchine aesthetic. But this recently promoted soloist also draws elegance from her Kirov Academy of Ballet training in Washington, DC. And Heatscape has helped catapult her career. "I gained a sense of freedom from this that I didn't always trust before," she says. Through her poise, agility and emotional translucence, she reached timeless beauty as an artist. —Guillermo Perez

Laura Hecquet

An étoile is born: Hecquet in her Swan Lake debut. Photo by Ann Ray, Courtesy POB.

After dancing many years as an anonymous swan at the Paris Opéra Ballet, there was a sense of vindication to Laura Hecquet's authority as Odette/Odile in Swan Lake last March. At 30, Hecquet proved she is one of the purest exponents of the French school today, all smooth precision, with fouettés like clockwork. And her instinct for tragedy signaled a born principal: Hecquet's Odette understood her fate from the start, and drew the audience in with elegiac adagio work.

Like her classmate, San Francisco Ballet principal Mathilde Froustey, Hecquet was pegged as a future star when she graduated from the POB School in 2002. A decade as a sujet and a serious knee injury later, it seemed like the company would never give her the opportunity to prove herself. Benjamin Millepied promoted her as soon as he was appointed director last year, however, and again to étoile after her Swan Lake debut—overdue recognition for a ballerina who has long been a class act. —Laura Cappelle

Victoria Hulland

Total focus: Hulland with Ricardo Rhodes (left) and Ricardo Graziano in Monotones II. Photo by Frank Atura, Courtesy Sarasota Ballet.

When The New York Times dance critic Alastair Macaulay named Sir Frederick Ashton the ultimate poet of line in his review of Sarasota Ballet at Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival this summer, he must have been talking about principal dancer Victoria Hulland. As the sole female in the central pas de trois of Ashton's Monotones II, Hulland was a breathtaking study in total concentration. Every second of Ashton's masterwork was performed with equal attention, whether she was reaching for a partner's hand or being lifted from the floor in a dramatic split. And while Ashton's ballet may be spare, it is not cold. Hulland's exactitude and restraint supported the stage's lunar atmosphere with an otherworldly elegance, as if she were an interstellar acrobat from the deep cosmos. She understood Ashton's approach to abstraction, which always feels human, while her musicality mined the wistful, melancholic spaces in Erik Satie's haunting Trois Gymnopédies. —Nancy Wozny

Andreas Kaas

One to watch: Kaas in The Flower Festival in Genzano. Photo by Kyle Froman for Pointe.

When The Royal Danish Ballet: Principals and Soloists brought their self-produced all-Bournonville program to The Joyce Theater last January, they brought along promising corps de ballet dancer Andreas Kaas. And Kaas—who had plenty of featured stage time—more than kept up with his colleagues. A product of the Royal Danish Ballet School, he demonstrated tireless command of Bournonville's vigorous batterie; his explosive jump etched clean lines with diamond-cut precision. But more than that, he was completely invested and alive in whatever role he played. In the pas de deux from The Flower Festival in Genzano, he was sweetly attentive towards his partner (the equally impressive Ida Praetorius), a young lover consumed with affection. He burned with good-humored competition in Bournonville's high-stepping "Jockey Dance," and, later, kicked off the tarantella from Napoli with joyful enthusiasm. In an exuberant program full of company stars, it was apparent that Kaas' own is quickly on the rise. —Amy Brandt

Kara Wilkes

Going all in: Wilkes with Robb Breseford in Writing Ground. Photo by Margo Moritz, Courtesy Alonzo King LINES Ballet.

Few dancers can master the squiggly, daredevil choreography of Alonzo King, including his 2010 ballet Writing Ground. But for Kara Wilkes, a four-and-a-half-year LINES Ballet veteran, the intense emotionality required for the piece's final movement proved more difficult. In it, four men partner (read: pull, lift, prod, catch, support) Wilkes—though it's not often clear if her character is aware of her surroundings. "At its core, the role represents the spectrum of the human experience," Wilkes says. "Sometimes my character is strong and she knows where she's going. Other times she feels tender, vulnerable—even blind."

Wilkes compares the role (which includes laughing onstage and talking to herself) to swimming in the ocean. But there's something extra eerie about watching a ballerina exquisitely extending her leg one second and scribbling imaginary poetry on the ground the next. It takes courage as a performer to lose one's self completely onstage, and Wilkes went all in, shedding her carefully honed technique for moments of utter realness. —Jenny Ouellette

Dana Benton

Steely precision: Benton (with Brandon Freeman) in Traveling Alone. Photo by David DeSilva, Courtesy Amy Seiwert's Imagery.

In Amy Seiwert's Traveling Alone, Dana Benton is a force to be reckoned with. The Colorado Ballet principal, who originated the role with CB in 2012, performed as a guest with Amy Seiwert's Imagery during the company's Joyce Theater debut in August. And though she is petite, with textbook-perfect lines, Benton's dancing was anything but small. She was especially thrilling in the solo moments. Benton attacked Seiwert's precise choreography with ownership, slicing through the air with angular arms and legs, dropping through surprising level changes and luxuriating in off-center balances. While many contemporary ballets rely on ultra-pliable ballerinas to create a central pas de deux, Benton's steely soloing was a refreshing show of strength and confidence. —Nicole Loeffler-Gladstone

Dores André

André, shown here in rehearsal, was a musically nuanced Juliet. Photo by Erik Tomasson, Courtesy SFB.

San Francisco Ballet–goers have come to expect fluid, intelligent dancing from Dores André; with her bent for the contemporary, the 11-year veteran has made a mark in dozens of new and neoclassical works. But when she debuted as Juliet, one of her first performances after being told that she would be promoted to principal dancer at the end of last season, the Spanish-born ballerina reintroduced herself as a compelling actress in command of an earthy, expressive musicality. She read Prokofiev's score like a storybook, dancing with a sensitive timing that revealed nuances hidden in its lilting airs and clashing phrases. Immersed in the music, André drew us into Juliet's emotional world, and we hung on her every step—experiencing her star-crossed arc from naiveté to longing to anguished maturity as if for the first time. —Claudia Bauer

Latest Posts


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.

8 Virtual Dance Performances to Watch in May

As we push into May, the ballet world presents another lineup of exciting digital performances. We've rounded up a few of the season finales, collaborations and special programs coming up this month. Check them out below!

Keep reading SHOW LESS
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

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?

Keep reading SHOW LESS

Editors' Picks