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For Late Starters, How Hard Is It to Become a Professional Dancer? 3 Who Know Offer Their Advice

The ballet world is filled with stories of dancers who first pointed their toes as toddlers and became professionals as teenagers. But what about those who started ballet as teenagers—and then realized that they wanted to make it their career? Their experience can be as thrilling as it is overwhelming, and also inspire a bit of panic. Late starters might wonder: "How will I ever catch up to the level of my peers, and what do I need to do to make that happen? Is it too late for me to ever become a professional?"

When Minnesota Ballet dancer Ximena Azurmendi took her first ballet class at age 13, falling in love with ballet was the furthest thing from her mind. In the summers she would study jazz and aerial dance in her hometown of El Paso, Texas, and her mother and aunt suggested she give ballet a chance. Still, she resisted the idea. "I thought ballet seemed boring, but my mother, who wanted to be a dancer when she was younger, kept encouraging me to take classes," says Azurmendi.

It wasn't long before she changed her mind about ballet. "My mom was like, 'I told you so.'" By age 15, Azurmendi realized she wanted to try to become a professional.

Wearing a white practice tutu, beige bralet and pointe shoes, Ximena Azurmendi performs a large split sissone outside in front of a grove of pine trees.

Minnesota Ballet dancer Ximena Azurmendi took her first ballet class at age 13.

Alan Huerta Photography, Courtesy Minnesota Ballet

For Alejandro González, who grew up in Venezuela, beginning ballet lessons at 16 also started as a way to improve technique in genres he was already training in—in his case, break-dancing and contemporary. He'd also been around ballet for years since his sister, Karina González, now a principal with Houston Ballet, performed with Ballet Teresa Carreño in Venezuela. "When I'd go to watch her perform, I was always paying attention to what the guys were doing onstage. I liked watching their jumps and turns," he remembers.

It was Karina who first suggested that he give ballet a try. For Alejandro it started as a hobby, but, after a year of training, Karina noticed a lot of improvement and suggested he attend the summer intensive at the Houston Ballet Academy, where he trained for two years. He went on to attend Oklahoma City Ballet's summer intensive in 2017 and was offered a studio company position. Two years later, he was promoted to the corps and will continue into the 2021–22 season as a soloist.

In front of a Kingdom of Sweets backdrop ,Alejandro Gonz\u00e1lez performs a split jump in second position during a performance of The Nutcracker, his arms reaching for his feet. He wears loose-fitting pants and blouse made of shiny green fabric, a Russian fur hat and black boots.

Alejandro González in Oklahoma City Ballet's Nutcracker

Jana Carson, Courtesy Oklahoma City Ballet

For Azurmendi and González, ramping up on classes during their first years of training helped them begin to catch up with their peers. Azurmendi's family relocated to Florida so that she could train with Magaly Suárez at The Art of Classical Ballet before attending Alexander W. Dreyfoos School of the Arts. (She continued private lessons with Suárez when possible.) González trained every day and supplemented his regular ballet schedule with classes for students ranging from 6-year-olds to adults. In the age of digital media, the two dancers also say watching ballet videos online helped them gain better understanding of the art form.

Taking lower-level classes is a strategy for late starters recommended by San Francisco Ballet School teacher Jason Ambrose, who began ballet at age 17. "I don't think beginners realize how easy it is to learn bad technical habits and how hard it is to relearn correct technique," he says. Ambrose credits his own progress in ballet with taking classes with younger students during his early years of training, as well as performing modified combinations in his regular classes at the direction of his teacher, Ana Maria Martinez of the Virginia Beach Ballet Academy. "Learning steps slowly and correctly is the foundation of technique," he says.

Jason Ambrose, shown from the chest up, smiles towards the camera. He wears a hunter green shirt, silver necklace and silver hoop earrings.

Jason Ambrose

Chris Hardy, Courtesy SFB

Finding balance between having realistic expectations and not getting discouraged can be an uphill battle for late beginners. While it's important for all dancers to focus on their individual journeys, Ambrose also believes that late beginners who want to become professionals need to pay attention to their peers in order to have honest self-evaluation. "The ballet world is very competitive, and the higher you aim your sights, the fewer job opportunities are available," he says.

Yet evaluation of one's abilities is not the sole responsibility of ballet students, who are often very hard on themselves. If you are a late starter, your teacher can make or break your experience. You want to work with a motivating, encouraging instructor you trust. "My teacher, Ana Maria Martinez, was very honest with me about time being of the essence, but likewise was persistent and patient," says Ambrose. "When I first started ballet, I would sometimes skip class for a week because I was so discouraged. But she would call me and say, "J. Ambrose, are you coming to class? I want you to come."

The million-dollar-question for those who want to go professional is always: "Is it too late?" The answer is ultimately up to each dancer, but Ambrose encourages the choice, despite what one's detractors might say. "Why not? Go for it," he says. "No matter what happens, I think you can have peace with an experience when you know that you gave it your all. At the end of the day, the only thing you will regret is not trying."

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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."

Kaatsbaan Cultural Park artistic director Stella Abrera and executive director Sonja Kostich. Photo by Quinn Wharton, Courtesy Kaatsbaan Cultural Park

The Inaugural Kaatsbaan Spring Festival Brings Together Leading Figures in Dance

The rollout of vaccinations is helping the U.S. turn a corner during this coronavirus pandemic, and artists and audience members alike are looking forward to enjoying live performances once again. It couldn't be more perfect timing, then, for the inaugural Kaatsbaan Spring Festival, which will feature 16 presentations on two outdoor stages in New York's Hudson Valley. Taking place May 20–23 and May 27–30, the festival brings together luminaries from multiple disciplines, including dance, music, poetry, sculpture and the culinary arts.

"During a challenging year such as this, we really wanted to provide artists from various genres opportunities for support and work," says Sonja Kostich, Kaatsbaan Cultural Park's executive director.

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Ballet West’s New Web Series Documents an Uncertain November

If the story of a ballet company presenting performances amidst a global pandemic, a divisive presidential election, and uprisings for justice sounds like it was made for TV, Ballet West has a series for you. In The Balance: Ballet for a Lost Year is a nine-episode documentary about BW's November 2020 performances, which took place at Salt Lake City's Capitol Theatre. The series premieres Friday, May 7, on Ballet West's social media channels, with a new episode released every Friday. (Viewers can also unlock all nine episodes on Ballet West's website starting May 7.)

For a month filmmakers Diana Whitten and Tyler Measom of Skyscape Studios had unlimited access to company class (divided into pods to abide by COVID-19 restrictions), rehearsals for new ballets by Jennifer Archibald and Nicolo Fonte, and interviews with artists and administrators. Some of the series' most fascinating insights come from people's different ways of navigating uncertainty, and how this connects to the arts.

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