A dancer at The School of Carolina Ballet's 2016 summer intensive

Cindy McEnery, Courtesy Carolina Ballet

Summer Intensive Audition Season Is Around the Corner. How Are Schools Adjusting for COVID-19?

It's that time of year again—summer intensive audition season. But as the ballet world continues to adjust to the COVID-19 pandemic, what are schools planning for summer programs? What will auditions be like, and what are schools expecting of dancers? Pointe surveyed schools nationwide for their summer 2021 forecast.

Hopes Are High—but Realistic

Many schools are aiming for on-site summer intensives in 2021; after all, there are safety protocols for in-studio teaching, and coronavirus vaccines are on the way. Harid Conservatory director Gordon Wright speaks for many when he says that "we have every hope that conditions will allow us to offer a traditional, in-person summer intensive next June and July. We hope the most significant difference will be that the students are in our residence hall and studios rather than on our computer screens!" Full- or part-time in-person teaching is also plan A for the School of American Ballet (which is also holding a Young Dancer Virtual Workshop) and the schools of Carolina Ballet, Houston Ballet, Oregon Ballet Theatre, Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre and the Kaatsbaan Ballet Intensive.

Some, like the Dance Theatre of Harlem School, will actually start with online-only programming. "Out of an abundance of caution, we have made the decision to offer our summer intensive in a virtual format," says Robert Garland, director of the DTH School and the company's resident choreographer. "We would move to offering in-person classes or a hybrid if it is safe." On the plus side, Garland says, online-only programming allows greater access and affordability because it eliminates travel and lodging costs.

Two teenage boys in white T-shirts, black tights, white socks and slippers and blue facemasks stand at the barre in a tight fifth position. They hold onto the barre with their right hand and extend their left arms straight out in front of them.

Two students in School of American Ballet's advanced men's class

Courtesy SAB

Those offering in-person sessions are planning on smaller class sizes in accordance with social-distancing rules, as well as mask-wearing requirements and rigorous cleaning. Kaatsbaan has a unique advantage in this regard—its own 153-acre park. "We plan on building a large outdoor studio for our 2021 summer program," says Kaatsbaan executive director Sonja Kostich. "We understand how important it is to have fresh air and ample space for everyone to feel safe." And in case partial or full lockdowns continue into the summer months, all of the schools we spoke to have backup plans with varying degrees of digital instruction.

Dial Up Your Technology

The figuring-it-out-as-we-go approach of 2020 is officially over. "Last year we were all learning," says Houston Ballet Academy director Melissa Bowman. "We've seen dancers improving online, and we have adapted the way we're training." The School of Carolina Ballet is one of many that have leaned into the online format. "We outfitted our studios with portable microphones, cameras and large-screen monitors," says Shelley Jacobsson, director of school operations.

A screenshot of a ballet class on Zoom shows 7 teenage girls and 2 boys practicing second arabesque at the barre in their individual homes. The girls wear black leotards, pink tights and ballet slippers, and the boys wear white T-shirts, Black tights and black ballet slippers.

Students in Victoria Schneider's class at the HARID Conservatory

Courtesy HARID Conservatory

And just as schools are delivering higher-quality content, SAB faculty chairman Kay Mazzo says, "we expect students to be much more comfortable with virtual learning. We doubt they will need much guidance from us on their at-home setups."

Tech savvy matters at auditions, too. Most of the schools we spoke to will hold auditions online: Houston will accept submissions via Acceptd and hold live auditions via Zoom; Ballet Hispánico School of Dance requires a MindBody account; and Carolina, OBT and Kaatsbaan will evaluate applicants via Zoom sessions. Attendance will generally be very limited to ensure thorough evaluation—DTH will limit sessions to just 20 to 25 dancers, for example—and many are on a first-come, first-served basis. Some schools will forgo live auditions altogether, including SAB, which is accepting video applications from U.S.–based dancers for the first time in its history.

A female ballet teacher in a gray puffy vest, white leotard and skirt lifts her left arm up over her head and looks toward her hand in a spacious room with wood paneling. In front of her, a TV screen on a large table shows four rows of squares on Zoom.

Dance Theatre of Harlem artist Amanda Smith teaches a summer intensive class over Zoom.

Will Cotton, Courtesy DTH

And there are still chances to audition in person. In fact, 14 major ballet academies have banded together to create a pandemic-adapted National Summer Intensive Audition Tour, allowing dancers to try out for multiple programs at once. Participating schools will host in-person auditions in their home cities in January or February (converting to Zoom if needed). Dancers can sign up through one of the academies and indicate which programs they'd like to audition for; representatives of all of the schools will observe the auditions via Zoom, and the sessions will be recorded so that they can take a closer look at the candidates. In case of COVID, weather or technical disruptions, NSIA schools will accept video auditions.

Keep in mind that many programs will be accepting fewer students for summer 2021, in order to comply with social-distancing rules and to facilitate online teaching. Visit websites as soon as possible to confirm sign-up deadlines, audition dates and technology requirements.

How You'll Be Evaluated

The past 10 months have proven that dancers can advance while taking class at home, and schools have restored their standards accordingly. "Dancers across the board improved over our virtual summer intensive last year," says Jacobsson. "Our expectations for auditioning dancers will be the same as always—strong technique and ability." That said, schools are also realistic, says Mazzo. "We will not be judging you based on how ideal your dancing space is—it doesn't matter if your barre is a chair or the kitchen counter!"

The small size of live online auditions ensures that you'll be seen. Kaatsbaan, for example, is limiting Zooms to 20 applicants per class so that artistic director Stella Abrera and principal ballet teacher Martine van Hamel can see every dancer clearly, and they will review headshots and first-arabesque images ahead of time so that they are familiar with the dancers before class. "We have also enlisted an incredible group of demonstrators so that Ms. Abrera and Ms. Van Hamel can completely focus on the students," says Kostich.

In a spacious, light-filled dance studio, two lines of teenage female ballet students do a tendu derriere effac\u00e9 in pli\u00e9 on their right leg with their arms in third arabesque. They each wear a leotard in various colors, pink tights and pointe shoes.

Pre-professional students at Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre School

Nicole Sauter, Courtesy PBT

OBT School will record each audition. "There will also be opportunities to see short phrases of movement from one auditionee at a time," says school director Marion Tonner. And given the notorious effect that Zoom has on musicality, "we turn a blind eye to the lag time between music and execution," she says.

Schools doing video applications intend to give them the same diligent focus as in-person auditions. "The plus side of video auditions is that we're able to see dancers up close and focus on one person at a time," says Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre School co-director Marjorie Grundvig. "We can watch a video several times if needed."

And the fundamental rules of auditioning and online dancing still apply: Declutter your space; make sure the camera angle provides a full-height view; label the screen with the name you use on your application documents; wear proper dance attire in a color that pops against your background; show up on time; and listen to the instructions. "If students follow the guidelines that are available on our website, their applications should turn out to be solid," says Wright. "We look forward to receiving them!"

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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."

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Schermoly is also no stranger to film, having created a digital short called In Passing for the Ashley Bouder Project in 2015. But her most recent film project for Louisville Ballet, a new version of the iconic Rite of Spring, breaks ground—or, rather, ice—with its fresh, arctic take on the Stravinsky masterwork.

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