Paris Opéra Ballet corps members Marion Gautier de Chernacé and Antonin Monié in Tess Voelker's Clouds Inside

Julien Benhamou, Courtesy POB

Tess Voelker Is Only 23, but She’s About to Premiere Her First Work for the Paris Opéra Ballet

Not many 23-year-olds get commissioned by the Paris Opéra Ballet. For Tess Voelker, who grew up between Chicago and New Jersey before moving to Europe to start her dance career, 2020 has turned into an unexpectedly charmed year: In addition to getting a contract as a dancer with Nederlands Dans Theater, she created a pas de deux, Clouds Inside, for POB corps members Marion Gautier de Charnacé and Antonin Monié, as part of a contemporary-choreographers' evening.

While a second national lockdown in France means the November performances have been canceled, Clouds Inside will still get an audience. On November 13, the Paris Opéra Ballet will stream a closed performance of Voelker's work, along with creations by Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui and Mehdi Kerkouche, on Facebook Live at 8 pm Paris time for €4,49. (Tickets are not available in the U.S.)

Pointe recently spoke with Voelker to learn more about how she landed this remarkable opportunity.

How did this collaboration with POB come about?

It all started with the social media world during quarantine. I rented a yoga studio down the street and I kept publishing lots of improv videos on Instagram. And one day, a dancer said he'd found my account thanks to Aurélie Dupont [Paris Opera Ballet's artistic director]. I sent her a message to say it was an honor. She asked me if I ever choreographed, and I said no.

Then a few months later, I get a call from her. Due to coronavirus reasons, they were having a smaller show and she thought to use this time to reach out to more risky artists. I certainly am a risk, and I'm a cheap risk, too [laughs].

Is it really your first choreographic work?

Yes and no. I made a piece my senior year of high school for students, and NDT offers a choreographic workshop every year, so I took part in 2018. But, of course, that's an interesting question because I improv a lot—that's my true passion. Originally improv and choreography were opposite in my eyes, but the more I study it, the more I understand the relationship between composition and improvisation. It wasn't until this past year that I started to know, at some point, I really want to be a choreographer.

Did you grow up wanting to join a ballet company?

My heart was always for NDT. I did competition dance before training at The Rock School, and when I went there, I was always the contemporary one, the one that didn't really fit in. And at the competition school, I was the ballet one. But when one of my good friends in high school showed me Jiří Kylián's Petite Mort, I felt like it was my two worlds colliding.

You spent a season with Ballet Dortmund and three years with NDT 2 before being offered a contract with the main company this year. How has that felt?

There isn't that competitiveness that is inevitable in NDT 2, because everyone wants to prove themselves. They work you all the time; you don't have time for a social life. It's great—it's just very intense. It's almost like they're trying to prepare you for NDT 1, because there is so much trust there. Everyone is their own artist and person.

A male dancer sits on the floor and faces the back of the stage and grasps a female dancer's right leg in a low arabesque with his left arm. He wears a gray shirt and pants while she wears a light pink button-down dress and face mask.

Gautier de Charnacé and Monié in Voelker's Clouds Inside

Julien Benhamou, Courtesy POB

Why did rehearsals for Clouds Inside take place in The Hague?

Since it's my first year with NDT 1, the company didn't want me to miss out. However, they did see the opportunity for what it was, so we came to an agreement that Aurélie would send two of her dancers over here for two weeks. I worked for NDT during the day, and then I went to a separate studio space to choreograph in the evenings.

How did you feel with the Paris Opéra's dancers in the studio?

It's been so fun. The psychological process of choreographing is fascinating to me. I started by improv-ing with them, just seeing how they like to move, and I was blown away: They're beautiful dancers. Then once I tried to put my movement on them, it was hard for me to find that common ground. As the process went on, we got to know each other on a more personal level. That opens conversations, which then opens a certain way of interpreting movement. It left me curious to see what more can come if even more time is dedicated to the process.

You're working with two versions of the same song: Nick Drake's original "Cello Song," from 1969, and a 2009 rendition by The Books and José González.

I thought that was poetically in tune with what any choreographer is doing: We're making our own work of art within an existing work of art, the music. The whole meaning of the piece is inspired by Nick Drake's lyrics. He speaks to himself almost as a naive boy, who is initially playful but gets caught up in his own thoughts. We can be our worst enemy, put that stress and that sadness on ourselves.

I found Marion [Gautier de Charnacé] was the character going through that process. She starts with this childlike naivety, and towards the middle, she gets fuzzy in her mind, lost. All the while, Antonin [Monié] keeps that tempo that is always there. So he can represent, in my eyes, the idea of trust or a parent figure or friend figure—that thing that if you let go, you can always latch on to, and you'll be okay.

Has the process made you look differently on the creations that you've been a part of as a performer?

As a dancer, you inevitably have this realization that although you are your own artist, you still are a tool for the choreographer, and, of course, you want to be their favorite tool. There's this need to be liked. And as a choreographer, it's not about whether you like something or not—it's about the piece. With the man's character, I felt bad at one point because I felt like the material I was giving him wasn't enough for him to really love. But I realized that was what the piece needed, and it has nothing to do with the dancers' ability.

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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."

Michael Cairns, Courtesy Orlando Ballet

Returning to Live Audiences: How 4 Companies Have Gotten Back Onstage

Performing in front of live audiences again has been every ballet organization's goal since the COVID-19 pandemic began more than a year ago. With vaccinations on the rise and light appearing at the end of the tunnel, companies are slowly starting to come back to in-person shows.

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#TBT: Antoinette Sibley in "Cinderella" (1969)

With its fairytale magic and ludicrous stepsisters, Sir Frederick Ashton's Cinderella is full of whimsy and charm. The choreography is also playfully challenging with quirky, intricate phrasing that illuminates Prokofiev's score. Antoinette Sibley, a former principal of The Royal Ballet, revels in the challenges as the titular Cinderella. A master of speed and staccato, Sibley is a frothy delight in her Act II variation in this clip from 1969.

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