Orr coaching principal Julia Erickson during a rehearsal for La Bayadère. Photo by Aimee DiAndrea, Courtesy PBT.

Steel City Strength: Terrence Orr's Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre Offers Dancers a Supportive and Secure Career

This story originally appeared in the June/July 2016 issue of Pointe.

“I was tricked into it," says Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre artistic director Terrence S. Orr, recalling his introduction to ballet. As a young boy, he wanted to learn acrobatics, but when there wasn't a beginning class available, the studio owner put him in ballet. By the time he realized he'd been duped, Orr was already enjoying it. He kept dancing, becoming a principal with San Francisco Ballet by 17. He then rose through the ranks at American Ballet Theatre, where he also served as ballet master and répétiteur.

These days it's hard to imagine the forthright but affable Orr, now 72, being fooled by anyone. His commanding presence and clarity of purpose have helped position PBT as one of the nation's top regional ballet companies and training schools.


In 1997, Orr replaced former New York City Ballet star Patricia Wilde as director of the company, which was founded in 1969 by Nicolas Petrov and Loti Falk. His accomplishments at the AGMA-participating troupe are noteworthy. After guiding PBT through financial troubles in the early 2000s, Orr oversaw the remodeling of its five-studio facility and acquired housing for out-of-town high school students in PBT School's pre-professional division. Most recently, he spearheaded another expansion of the school, including two new studios and a wellness center.

Orr's vision for the company goes back to when he applied to be artistic director. While Wilde had introduced more Balanchine works to PBT, Orr advocated for a more varied repertoire of full-length classics, famous ballets the company had never done and brand-new creations.

Orr gives instructions to the Willis backstage in a production of PBT's "Giselle." Photo by Aimee DiAndrea, Courtesy PBT.

In recent years, he has pushed to expand all three facets of that approach. “My dancers are a very talented and strong group from the corps up to principals," he says. That confidence in his artists has led to PBT's first full-length productions of La Bayadère and Le Corsaire; Pittsburgh premieres of influential works by Jirí Kylián, William Forsythe, John Neumeier and Jean-Christophe Maillot; and world premieres by Dwight Rhoden and Viktor Plotnikov. With that, the company's budget has also grown from $7.3 million in 2010 to $9.8 million in 2016. This October, PBT will open its season with another ambitious production: Orr's newly restaged Giselle.

Principal Christopher Budzynski is just one of the dancers attracted to PBT's diverse repertoire. He describes Orr as a “very demanding but friendly and nurturing director. He encourages us not to be afraid of trying different things and doesn't hold it against us if we fail." Budzynski also likes the diversity at PBT. “The company is not cookie-cutter. There are different body types and personalities."

Dancers tend to stick with the company for many years. Principal Julia Erickson, now in her 15th season, says, “we are everyone else's cheerleaders. There is a respect for hierarchy, but a support system exists within the ranks."

Dancers also benefit from the expert knowledge of Orr's wife, company ballet mistress and former ABT star Marianna Tcherkassky. “It's an education for them to have a ballerina of her stature around," says Orr. Though he expects his dancers to work diligently and develop as artists, his specific expectations can differ for each person. “I am pretty patient," he says. “If somebody gets into the company, I know that I have brought them in for the right reasons."

Orr also encourages his dancers' own creative interests. Several have choreographed for the school and company, most recently principal Yoshiaki Nakano. Erickson runs Barre, a line of energy bars and wellness products for dancers, with her husband, former PBT member Aaron Ingley.

A newer tradition that makes PBT stand out on a national level is its sensory-friendly performances geared toward children and adults on the autism spectrum. In 2013, PBT was the first American professional ballet company to produce an adapted Nutcracker, and they've since performed special evenings of Peter Pan and Beauty and the Beast, with quieter audio, less startling effects and more relaxed house etiquette.

In addition to continuing these performances, Orr says he'd like to add a few dancers to the roster and keep growing the school. He's also interested in having more live music and touring. All of this upward momentum can be summed up by the person who knows Orr best. His wife, Tcherkassky, says, “Terry points us in a direction and says, 'Hey, you want to go there? This is how we can do it.' "

Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre At a Glance

Number of dancers: 30

Length of contract: 38 weeks

Starting salary: $1,028 per week

Performances per year: 50

Website: pbt.org

Audition Advice: One of the best routes into the company is through the PBT School. The company also holds an open audition in March and accepts videos year-round. If Orr is interested, the next step may be joining the school's graduate program or being invited to take company class and meet with him for one-on-one interviews.

“The look of the dancer is very important," says Orr, “and that can be defined in all kinds of ways. I want dancers who are not only great technicians but also gifted actors. An equally important part of the audition process is having conversations with the dancer to get to know their heart and how they will fit in."

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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."

American Ballet Theatre corps member Rachel Richardson. NYC Dance Project, Courtesy Rachel Richardson

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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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