Sydney Dolan

Vikki Sloviter

Sydney Dolan Takes Center Stage at Pennsylvania Ballet

This is Pointe's Summer 2020 cover story. You can subscribe to the magazine here, or click here to purchase this issue.

Just days before the world shuttered under the strain of the coronavirus pandemic, and the curtain came down indefinitely on dance companies everywhere, Pennsylvania Ballet soloist Sydney Dolan debuted Gamzatti in La Bayadère with captivating ease. Her jumps soared, her technique was sound, and her cheeky smile paired with exquisite port de bras was beguiling. Though she didn't know the company would soon cancel the remainder of its season, her beautiful performance acted as a kind of send-off into the unknown.

Dolan's career could be described in one word: charmed. At just 19 years old, she's flown through the ranks at PAB, debuted a long list of roles, won a Princess Grace Award and been named one of Dance Magazine's "25 to Watch." Yet it's her challenges that have shaped not only her training but her outlook, giving her a solid foundation for becoming one of Pennsylvania Ballet's rising stars.

Dolan leaps through the air in a yellow and white tutu onstage

Dolan as Gamzatti in Pensylvania Ballet's La Bayadère

Arian Molina Soca, Courtesy PAB

An Unconventional Education

Dolan began dancing at age 3 at Burke Civic Ballet in Northern Virginia. A few years later her family moved to Cary, North Carolina, where she picked up her training more earnestly at International Ballet Academy. There she met teacher Miguel Campaneria, who would eventually become her sole coach and mentor. "As soon as I saw her dance for the first time, I knew she was special," says Campaneria. "She had a light about her."

At 12, after a fallout between Campaneria and IBA was magnified by a subsequent noncompete contract, Dolan had to choose between a traditional conservatory dance education and a somewhat nomadic training experience with her beloved teacher. "I chose to go with Miguel," says Dolan. "I trusted him. He could see things in me that other teachers couldn't."

The next two years proved challenging. In order to abide by the noncompete, Dolan had to travel 25 miles to take class from Campaneria in rented studio space. Though 10 others initially joined their venture, the setup proved difficult for many of them, and by the end it was just Dolan, Campaneria and one other student. The training schedule also required her to transition to online schooling.

"We had a two-hour-long class in the morning, followed by solo rehearsal, and then we'd return at night to do the same thing over again," says Dolan.

She had few performance opportunities, so they focused on competitions. "Those two-minute variations at three competitions per year were really the only stage experience I had," says Dolan. What's more, this unusual training structure strained her family's time and finances. "It was a sacrifice for my family that I'm not sure many would make."

On the other hand, Dolan says, "I learned independence. If I didn't have that intensive one-on-one time, I don't think I would have progressed the way that I did." Once the two-year noncompete contract was up, Dolan's parents helped her teacher open the Campaneria Ballet School in Cary, where Dolan spent her next year of formal training, and met her eventual boyfriend, Austin Eyler.

Dolan wears a long floral dress, and stands with on point with her left leg in front attitude

"I know I can't skip out on those extra 10 minutes of practice just because I made it in a magazine," says Sydney Dolan

Vikki Sloviter

An Unexpected Career Start

In the summer of 2016, Dolan and Eyler attended Pennsylvania Ballet's Company Experience week, an intensive taught by artistic director Angel Corella. After the first day, Corella pulled them into his office and offered them trainee positions, with the promise of a second company contract by that January. "I was struck by her technique," Corella says. "She has beautiful lines, she has excellent turns, she is very professional. I knew I wanted her in the company."

Then Corella asked for their ages—he thought Dolan, then 15, was older. Though her age presented hurdles—in terms of finishing her education, finding proper housing, and complying with child employment laws—Corella decided she was worth it. Dolan herself was less sure. She had made great progress with Campaneria and didn't know how her parents would feel. Then, one week before PAB's season started, Corella let Dolan know that two second company contracts were immediately available for her and Eyler—allowing them to bypass the trainee level entirely.

Campaneria was concerned. "I have seen dancers get everything at a young age, and it's too much too soon," he says. But, Dolan says, "I just felt strongly it was the right choice." Following her gut instinct, she accepted.

Dolan in a pass\u00e9 on pointe holding a star wand, in a long pink tutu, against a backdrop of children angels dressed in pink.

Dolan as the Sugar Plum Fairy in Nutcracker

Alexander Iziliaev, Courtesy PAB

Second Company Life

Dolan's first company rehearsal with PBII was for Nutcracker, and it was like drinking water through a fire hose. Outside of a few videos, it was her first time seeing George Balanchine's choreography, let alone dancing it. "I had to pick my jaw up off the floor," Dolan says. "It was the most basic choreography, but I couldn't stop bumping into people." Suddenly, she was going from one-on-one coaching to dancing in the corps every day. "I lacked experience working with other people. It took a while to get used to."

Throughout the year she developed crucial skills for corps work, such as communicating constructively and developing spatial awareness. "I learned what it was like to be in a company rehearsal and proper etiquette," Dolan says. She also got the stage experience she'd lacked. "We were in every main company performance," she says.

She struggled to fit in, however, and often felt the need to earn the respect of her fellow dancers. She was a sophomore in high school, taking online classes and living with relatives in the area, while her PBII colleagues were over 18. "In the back of my head there has always been a voice asking me if I deserve to be where I am at this age."

Rising Through the Ranks

In 2017, one year after joining PBII, Dolan became an apprentice. Corella, noting her nerves of steel, started pushing her instantly. By the time she finished the season, she'd performed Lilac Fairy in The Sleeping Beauty, Dewdrop in George Balanchine's The Nutcracker, the pas de trois in Swan Lake and the soloist in Balanchine's "Rubies." She joined the corps de ballet in 2018, rising to demi-soloist for the 2019–20 season. Then in October, after her debut as a Flower Girl in Don Quixote, Corella promoted her to soloist. "Her dancing in Don Quixote was something we had never seen before—I had to promote her," Corella says.

Despite her success, Dolan admits to having her fair share of insecurities. One, her turnout, stems from a comment she overheard about herself at a competition years ago. "To this day I work tirelessly on it." Yet she doesn't let those anxieties keep her down for long. "I try to tell myself that there isn't a single dancer out there who isn't insecure about something."

"It's clear to everyone in the company that she is where she is because of her technique, artistry and commitment to the company," says Corella. "If anything, she can take it easy sometimes."

Dolan in center stage supported by Baca, she stands on point in a front attitude with her arms in the air, in a pale green and yellow tutu

Dolan with Sterling Baca in La Bayadère

Alexander Iziliaev, Courtesy PAB

Looking Ahead

Outside of ballet, Dolan is a self-proclaimed homebody who loves knitting and reading. She developed a love of cooking from her father, a chef. "For me, it's all or nothing," she says. "If I cook, I have to make something extravagant." She also enjoys writing, a passion she says she inherited from her mother, and keeps up with a blog ( she started when she was 16.

Eyler also plays a starring role in her story. After meeting at ballet school, a friendship blossomed. "Over time our connection grew and we started dating," Dolan says of the corps dancer; they now live together. "We're such bunheads—if I'm struggling with something, he has an eye that I trust." Beyond dancing, the two love to explore Philadelphia's restaurant scene.

As for Dolan's future at PAB, Corella doesn't beat around the bush. "I, of course, hope she will be a principal dancer. She is very special, and it would be hard not to acknowledge that."

Dolan tries to stay grounded: "I know I can't skip out on those extra 10 minutes of practice just because I made it in a magazine," she says. "I don't want to stay stagnant." Still, the accomplishments come with pressure. "But it's good pressure. Constructive pressure."

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."

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.

Keep reading SHOW LESS
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.

Keep reading SHOW LESS

Editors' Picks