Caralin Curcio at the International Summer Course for Professional Dancers. Photo Courtesy Kathleen Breen Combes.

Not Just for Kids: Summer Programs for Professional Dancers Provide the Perfect Opportunity to Grow

While New York City Ballet was off last August, corps member Sasonah Huttenbach was hard at work at the Danish Ballet Masters program, a two-week Bournonville workshop in New York City led by former Royal Danish Ballet dancers Mogens Boesen and Linda Hindberg. While they have always offered a student intensive, last summer Boesen and Hindberg added a program for working dancers. “A lot of professionals just lean toward open classes or giving themselves class during layoffs, but sometimes you need the basics because you're rehearsing and performing so much," says Huttenbach, who attended the student intensive twice before joining NYCB. “It was great to spend time off perfecting my alignment and technique."

Wondering about how to spend your summer layoff weeks this year? While teaching or performance gigs are good ways to stay busy, off-time can also be perfect for brushing up your technique, exploring another style and networking with a broader range of dance professionals. From big cities to the beach, programs geared towards professionals can help reinvigorate your career and remind you that you can always go back to summer camp.


Hone Your Technique, Find a Mentor

Boston Ballet principal Kathleen Breen Combes spends her summers at the International Summer Course for Professional Dancers in Las Palmas de Gran Canaria, which takes place in Spain's scenic Canary Islands during the last two weeks of July. The annual, yet unofficial, meeting of a small group of international dancers became an official program last year. The intensive is run by former Lyon Opéra Ballet dancers Anatol Yanowsky and Carmen Robles (the parents of Combes' husband, former Boston Ballet principal Yury Yanowsky) at the Choreographic Centre of Las Palmas de Gran Canaria.

“You work on rep all season, so this is a chance to fine-tune your technique," Combes explains. “No matter your rank, you come here and we work hard, together." Yanowsky and Robles alternate teaching an intense daily technique class from 12 pm to 2 pm. “They don't want to change your style, but are focused on making your style as clean as it can be," says Combes. Studios are available in the afternoon for working on gala pieces or choreography, and if you can still walk, evening floor barre and technique classes for pre-professional students are also open to the group. Most recently, Combes has used the summer program to get back in shape after having her first baby. And she admits it doesn't hurt to be getting your butt kicked five minutes from the beach.

Shelby Elsbree at the International Summer Course for Professional Dancers. Photo Courtesy Kathleen Breen Combes.

In addition to working on her technique, Huttenbach credits the personal attention she received from Boesen and Hindberg with helping her make the transition from student to company member. “When you get thrown into the company, it becomes all about self-motivation," says Huttenbach. “Linda and Mogens became my mentors and gave me advice on how to work throughout the year, so now every morning for company class I think about their corrections and things they have told me."

Supplement Your Repertoire

Summer can also be a time to learn new repertoire and push yourself out of your comfort zone. At Springboard Danse Montréal, professional and advanced pre-professional dancers ages 19 and up spend three weeks every June immersing themselves in cutting-edge choreography with an impressive roster of international companies and emerging choreographers. Aspen Santa Fe Ballet dancer Evan Supple auditioned for Springboard before graduating from Marymount Manhattan College. “I was eager to go," says Supple, “but then I realized that I wanted to be more focused on ballet." Supple decided to go for it anyway, and the overall experience—including daily ballet, modern floorwork and Gaga classes, in addition to rehearsing and performing Alexander Ekman's Cacti—was life-changing. “I learned new concepts and ways of moving," he says. “A big shift happened in my brain and I began to see less separation between ballet and contemporary dance." Likewise, the class he was most afraid of, Gaga, gave him some nuggets of wisdom he thinks about every day as he takes barre.

For Huttenbach, studying Bournonville repertoire, with its focus on foot articulation and petit allégro, has only made her Balanchine work stronger. She received one-on-one coaching during two-hour Bournonville variations classes; each dancer is assigned an individual variation and encouraged to tell a story through classical movement. “You don't always get that in the corps," explains Huttenbach.

Evan Supple. Photo by Michael Slobodian.


Broaden Your Professional Circle

A huge benefit to attending a professional summer program is being able to network beyond your company. For instance, Danish Ballet Masters includes classes with Royal Danish Ballet artistic director Nikolaj Hübbe. Last summer in Las Palmas, “there were dancers from Berlin, Copenhagen, Boston, Alberta and more," says Combes. The international mingling can create a cross-pollination of ideas and increase your knowledge of what is happening in the larger dance world.

At Springboard, Supple found camaraderie with a talented crop of young dancers, “the future of the dance field," he says. “Everybody that goes there is a working dancer or ends up working, so there are no slackers and there is always a positive energy." What's more, he also met the artistic staff of Aspen Santa Fe Ballet during one of the program's weekend auditions. After keeping in touch and completing a follow-up audition, he received a contract for the 2016–17 season. Even for those who are happily and gainfully employed, it is always a good idea to remember that the dance industry, like every industry, thrives on personal relationships—you never know what the fruit of sowing such seeds will be.


Know Before You Go

Like most professional development opportunities, these programs come with a price tag. However, if you plan in advance you can keep an eye out for cheap airfare and share housing costs with other dancers.

International Summer Course for Professional Dancers in Las Palmas de Gran Canaria: 360 euros for two weeks of technique classes; evening classes à la carte. For now, as the program remains intimate, it welcomes any dancers currently in a professional company. centrocoreografico.com

Danish Ballet Masters: $350 for one week or $650 for two weeks of morning Pilates and technique classes. (For professionals, there is an option to attend two weeks of full days for $1,350.) Professionals must submit a CV to be accepted. danishballetmasters.com

Springboard Danse Montréal: $1,750 for three weeks, housing not included. Audition in person or mail in an application. springboarddansemontreal.com


Traveling?

Look into classes in your destination area. Pacific Northwest Ballet corps dancer Madison Taylor, who spends several weeks in New York City each summer, takes class from Nancy Bielski and Wilhelm Burmann at Steps on Broadway. While traveling through France and England in 2015, she took open class at London's Pineapple Studios and with the company at Paris Opéra Ballet. “It never hurts to ask," says Taylor, remembering her surprise when POB artistic staff said yes to her query about joining company class. She ended up getting a tour and experiencing a raked floor for the first time. “I learn something new about my dancing everywhere I go and with each experience. Different perspectives come back with me."

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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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