The Man In Charge

It’s morning in a booming, revitalized Berlin and the principal’s class at Staatsballett Berlin is just starting center. Even in a studio packed with the company’s most accomplished dancers, artistic director and dancer Vladimir Malakhov stands out. At 39, he moves with lightness and authority, extending his elegant line while working just as hard as the other company members to perfect turns and jump with ever more precision. To look at him, one would think that this fine-boned, blond Adonis is too fragile to run a company, but looks can be deceiving. In its second year, Staatsballett Berlin is doing very well, partly because he is an artist at the top of his form, but also because he is determined to create a world-class company. 

Malakhov readily tells you he is not the only ballet star directing and dancing with a major ballet company (Julio Bocca and his Ballet Argentino come to mind, and Marcia Haydée directed and danced with Stuttgart Ballet). While leading a company both on the stage and behind the scenes is not unique, Staatsballett Berlin is.

Ballet has a long tradition in Berlin, but making it work in the 21st century has been an uphill battle. Until 2004, the city had three opera houses, each with its own ballet company. To streamline the state-sponsored cultural institutions, the city of Berlin combined the three ballet companies into one, selecting Malakhov to lead the new company. Now the 88 members of Staatsballett Berlin are an international mix from 26 countries, some invited to stay on from the previous companies and the others hired from annual auditions.

As the debate about how to finance three opera houses and one big ballet company continues, the company gives more than 100 performances a year in two opera houses and in the 2007-08 season it will begin performing in the third.  “[Berlin] is big,” says Malakhov, “but I don’t know any city in the world that has three opera houses and three ballet companies. To keep three companies was impossible. [Now] interest is increasing because there is only one.”   

A graduate of the Bolshoi Ballet School, Malakhov was the youngest principal at the Moscow Classical Ballet and won gold medals at the big competitions before leaving Russia for a glittering career as a guest artist in the West. None of which especially qualified him to be an artistic director, but the Ukrainian-born ballet star is not a novice. From 2002 to 2004, he directed the Staatsoper Ballet, one of Berlin’s three former companies, and, drawing on Russian traditions absorbed at the Bolshoi School and his own keen artistic sense, he has staged several classics to great acclaim. In addition, his ideas about programming, audience development and fundraising indicate that his years of guesting with major Western companies have paid off with savvy practicalities about running a company. Now as “intendant,” as he is called in German, he has the opportunity to make an even larger mark on the world stage. 
Yet even with a company to direct, Malakhov still jets off regularly to guest around the world. He manages to get it all done by planning far ahead, juggling schedules and budgets—and relying on Executive Director Christiane Theobald, General Manager Georg Vierthaler, six ballet masters and a handpicked staff. 

“It’s a matter of organization,” says Malakhov. “I try to make a different repertoire in the two opera houses, so that the sets don’t need to go from one opera house to another, but you also have to plan ahead not to have a big première when you have a Swan Lake or a Sleeping Beauty, and to organize the rights and schedule the choreographers. You also have to think of things like how to go from the classic to the modern, or from classic to neoclassic.”

Malakhov has a more “dancerly” approach to planning a rep and begins by telling you that he is a dancer first. His concern for the well-being of the company centers as much on the dancers as the product of their mutual efforts: “I am very close to my company,” he says. “There are many beautiful dancers, all of them with a very big interest in becoming better. I have to lead them and control everything that is going on, but I am the same as they are. I try to make them happy and also to make the quality of the performances better.”

To keep the dancers content and properly challenged—and to feed his audience new delights—Malakhov is amassing a broad repertoire that is stocked with classics, as well as such novelties as last year’s Ring Um Den Ring, Maurice Bejart’s five-hour ballet based on the series of operas by Richard Wagner called the Ring Cycle, and the “Robbins Evening” that premiered three works by Jerome Robbins in the fall.

A special marketing push to 20-somethings drew as many jeans-clad first-timers as elegant ballet aficionados to the “Robbins Evening,” creating a huge hit. The Staatsoper audience rolled with laughter during The Concert, was held captive by a luminous Afternoon of a Faun (which Malakhov danced with the young and exquisite Polina Semionova) and was charmed by a fresh Fancy Free.    

“It’s nice for the company [to dance a range of ballets],” says Malakhov. “That’s why I am keeping a balance between classical and modern.” In December, along with the Robbins, the company danced a mixed bill (David Parsons’s The Envelope, Leo Mujic’s Out of 99 and William Forsythe’s The Second Detail), Nutcracker and Sleeping Beauty.

“I like this mix,” says Nadja Saidakova, one of five principal women; she has known Malakhov since they danced together at Moscow Classic Ballet. “You need both [classical and contemporary],” she continues. “In the classics, your control must be so sensitive, down to the last muscle. But in the modern style, you can be so free. You get an absolutely different feeling in the body.”

The mix may to be right for Berlin as well, although the public seems attracted as much by Malakhov’s status as an international star as by his efforts as director and choreographer. “There is not doubt that his name is a draw,” says dance critic Volkmar Draeger. “Audiences admire him, and his evenings are completely sold out, especially when he is dancing the main parts. He is opening doors for the ballet in Berlin, [but] he is also modest and very popular in the city.”

Still, the dual role is punishing. “He’s a world star and he’s a director, ballet master, choreographer—so many different jobs,” says Saidakova. “He is very concentrated in class and rehearsal and onstage, then, half an hour later he’s in [business clothes] on his way to a meeting.”

Making the most of his time and what he’s been given—both in terms of talent and opportunity—seems to come naturally.
“I enjoy it,” says Malakhov. “Of course, I am almost dying, but it is okay. I’m busy, and it makes me happy. I am lucky to be here in this company, to see the people with so much feeling and enthusiasm, working for everything.”

Enthusiasm aside, directing a company of young, ambitious dancers is not easy. “It is a big company, and everybody is very sensitive,” says Croatian-born principal Ronald Savkovic, who was a principal at the Staatsoper Ballet as well. “I think it’s not that easy for him. As the next principal after him, I try to be helpful.” Which means he is a sort of unofficial sounding board for the dancers to complain about roles or other issues like rehearsal time.

“For example, we had some problems with some soloists,” says Savkovic, “but I told them [that] we have a responsibility. We have to be good because they are going to say, ‘[That’s] one of Vladimir Malakhov’s dancers.’ We have to show respect toward his work and for the company.” That sense of respect and shared responsibility binds them together as a company, but ultimately success or failure rests on Malakhov’s shoulders. Planning the January gala to celebrate his 20 years of performing, he mulls over what the program might be. “We will invite some new guests and some of my old friends. Julie Kent and Jose Manuel Carreño will come, and also Lucia Lacarra and Cyril Pierre, from Munich, and another couple from Tokyo Ballet, because I spend lots of time dancing there. They will present classical and contemporary pieces. Of course, I will be doing Romeo and Juliet, because they haven’t seen me in that here,” he says. “I always want to surprise the public.”

For now, retirement goes unmentioned. To watch Malakhov in class or onstage with his company, Staatsballet Berlin seems more like a way to dance forever. 

“Everybody is watching, suffering, taking care of each other,” he says. “That’s why I come two and a half hours before the performance to put on my makeup [and] do a warm up. Then, I go [to the wings], and I watch. A dancer said to me, ‘I see you all the time watching the performance. I think you don’t need to watch every day.’ I told him, ‘But this is my energy. I want to be with you—I am nervous, and I am laughing at the same time.’”

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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."

Louisville Ballet in Andrea Schermoly's Rite of Spring. Sam English, Courtesy Louisville Ballet.

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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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